Wrong time for the Oregon Sustainability Center?
Last week the Portland City Council voted unanimously to direct the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) and the Portland Development Commission (PDC) to initiate schematic design for the Oregon Sustainability Center, a $75.3 million mixed-use building aiming to meet the Living Building Challenge. Wasting almost no time, Portland Mercury jumped on the story asking if a Living Building is economically sustainable.
Any project in which a government is considering investing as much as $14 million is fair game for a question like this. In economic times such as these, it's even more pertinent to ask. I don't think Portland Mercury is looking at the issue deeply enough, or coming at it from the right angle.
First, Living Buildings, or something like them, have to be the future of new construction. There's no negotiating this point in my mind. We simply cannot afford to keep putting up new buildings that--no matter how efficient--add to the load on our rickety electric transmission and water delivery and treatment systems. It's not sustainable in the traditional sense of the word, let alone in the "green" sense. So while efforts to put up the first Living Buildings are going to be more expensive than buildings built to code or even to LEED Platinum standards, the long-term payoff for society that comes from learning how to do this right is going to be invaluable. Although about half of the buildings standing today will still be standing in 2035, according to a 2005 study by the Oak Ridge National Lab called "Towards a Climate-Friendly Built Environment," (pdf) "The built environment in the United States is expected to increase by an amount roughly equal to 70 percent of today’s existing building stock," that same study found (granted, this was before the real estate bubble burst, but the underlying point is still likely quite valid since population is projected to increase from 295 million in 2005 to 378 million by 2035 and 420 million by 2050).
Although meeting the Living Building Challenge was projected to cost more than meeting Gold certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, the recent study found the extra costs result in higher performance resulting in a payback period of fewer than 20 years.