How Scottsdale Seeded the Green Building Movement

The city's venerable program set the standard for the Southwest and beyond

At a glance, Scottsdale, Ariz., doesn’t seem like a crunchy-granola kind of town. Maserati V8s purr up Scottsdale Road, the main drag. Megaresorts loom on the horizon. Lush green golf courses are drenched in irrigation water, while faux Tuscan mansions sprout along the fairways.

But beneath Scottsdale’s glamorous exterior beats a visionary, eco-friendly heart, more Portland than Palm Beach. This is the city, after all, in which citizens voted to preserve thousands of acres of desert as the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a city that banned billboards years ago and passed laws that limit development on hillsides and environmentally sensitive lands.

The city also created the Scottsdale Green Building Program, first in the state and one of the oldest nationwide, a program that fosters environmentally friendly design and construction of homes, multifamily residences and commercial buildings.

The program was founded in 1998 under the direction of architect Anthony Floyd, who was drawn to Arizona in the 1970s to learn more about solar design and Arcosanti, architect Paolo Soleri’s experimental community. After becoming a city building official, Floyd was further intrigued with alternative building methods and took time off to study environmental issues before helping to launch the program. “We modeled Scottsdale’s program after a similar one in Austin, Texas,” says Floyd, who remains as the program’s senior green building consultant. “At the time, I think Scottsdale’s was only the fifth one of its kind in the nation.”

At first, the voluntary program was aimed at residential projects, but expanded in 2001 to include commercial buildings. In 2005, the city took green building one step further by being the first in the nation to mandate that newly constructed and renovated public facilities be designed to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s internationally recognized LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification. Last year, the city adopted the International Green Construction Code as the core of the commercial Green Building Program, making it easier for developers to go green.

The nuts and bolts of Scottsdale’s Green Building Program include guidelines in site use, energy, building materials, indoor air quality, solid waste and water usage. Participants are rewarded with expedited plan reviews (a big plus during the pre-recession building-boom years), green inspections and a green certificate of occupancy. The program also presents public seminars, offers a directory of participating designers and builders, and puts together a homeowner’s manual, explaining a completed project’s green features.

The first projects that went through Scottsdale’s Green Building Program were admittedly earnest, straw bale-y kinds of homes, long on energy efficiency and decidedly short on aesthetics. As green building gained steam, more design swans began passing through, winning local, regional and national awards.

This spring, two “stars” of the program won prestigious national American Institute of Architects Housing Awards for Architecture. David Hovey Jr.’s Relic Rock—a desert home that incorporates a prototype flexible building system—won in the single-family home category. Hovey’s father, David C. Hovey, also won for his urban, mixed-use condominium project, Optima Camelview Village, which features glass walls and green rooftops.

The local design/build community has embraced the program. Longtime Scottsdale architect John Douglas, whose high-profile projects have included expansions and renovations of the Desert Botanical Garden and Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, went through the program when he renovated his downtown studio.

“Since I own the building, I had a vested interest in saving energy and water expenses for the long run,” Douglas says. “I knew that the Green Building Program’s goals were aligned with mine. The program made it very easy, and they funded a thorough energy-analysis report at the end of construction, which verified that our building saves 44 percent of the energy costs we would have had if we only built to the legal minimums.”

Douglas plans to go green with all his future Scottsdale projects.

To date, more than 1,300 projects have gone through the program. At one point during the housing peak, Floyd says, nearly 50 percent of all single-family permits were going for the green permit, spurred on by the expedited permit process.

The recession, though, has had an effect on the program. Building permits, green or not, are way down from their peak in the mid 2000s. And Floyd has lost his staff because of budget cuts, so he relies on volunteers to help with outreach programs such as monthly solar-energy lectures. A green building expo has also been suspended.

The program continues serve as a model for other Arizona green building initiatives and an inspiration to cities elsewhere. But Floyd predicts the program’s days are numbered—not because of budget woes, but because it’s done its job.

“These programs are transitional pieces,” Floyd says. “There will be no need for green building programs in the future. Green-building practices will be absorbed into everyday, good building practices. This is going to be the way everyone builds. This is a seed that’s been planted.”



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