The Beauty of Green

Has the quest for LEED certification created a new Nevada style?

On any given day, some 7,000 commuters—laptops, backpacks and tote bags in hand—pass through Downtown’s 18,000-square-foot, two-story Bonneville Transit Center. They buy tickets in the airy, sunlit atrium lobby, use the restrooms and wait for their buses under angled shade canopies. Some cycle to the center from home, lock up their bikes in the commuter cycling center, shower, change and head to work.

What they probably don’t ponder as they go about their business is that the striking $17 million facility, designed by Las Vegas’ SH Architecture, carries the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest sustainability rating—LEED Platinum. The rating comes from such details as daylighting in the lobby, low-water-use plumbing fixtures in the restrooms and photovoltaic panels on the shade structures.

Meanwhile, in an unassuming Target-anchored Henderson shopping center on South Eastern Avenue, the new 15,000-square-foot Nike Factory Store, designed by the Long Beach-based Innovation & Design in Architecture, became the first LEED Platinum retail store in the world in the retail-interiors category. (Check out the floor mats made from recycled sneakers.) And in North Las Vegas, the new City Hall, designed by Denver’s Fentress Architects, received a LEED Gold certification for such strategies as the use of energy-efficient window walls, shading, daylighting and a photovoltaic array on the roof. The political fallout from the building—which combines its modern green touch with an evocation of traditional civic-building style—may have helped drive Mayor Shari Buck out of office, but there’s no denying it’s a special structure.

These were three of the 31 public and private buildings in Nevada to receive LEED certification in 2012, totaling nearly 4 million square feet of sustainable building space, again placing Nevada in the top 10 states for LEED certification. (In 2010, Nevada ranked first.) In the wake of the recession, that’s already something for our battered building industry to celebrate. But our progress in green building has also had a healthy residual effect: a fresh, sunlight-flooded look that one might say is the new Silver State style.

The Art of Green

Several factors have pushed Nevada to be at the forefront of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification nationwide, says architect Jennifer Turchin, president of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Nevada chapter and partner in Coda Architecture, designers of Las Vegas’ Werner Institute for Balance and Dizziness, which received LEED Silver certification in 2012. With high ratings for both indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency, the Werner Center is a building that knows how to keep its cool—and it looks the part, with high ceilings, exposed ductwork and polished concrete floors creating a strikingly modern, airy aesthetic.

“Climate drives LEED design in Nevada,” says Turchin, whose full-time “day job” is with Sellen Sustainability, a green-building consulting firm in Las Vegas. “We need to save energy and water with our building design. But it’s also market driven. Our hospitality industry has grabbed on to green building because guests ask for it, and it saves operating costs.” Additionally, tax incentives persuade building owners to choose the LEED route, and many government, education and corporate entities now mandate LEED certification for new construction projects.

Nevada’s first LEED-certified project—the Henderson offices of Tate Snyder Kimsey Architects—came in 2006. Since then, some 95 projects have been certified statewide. The kind of green-building practices favored by LEED have changed the way buildings are designed today. But architects say that the movement began before the more recent push for certification turned “green” into a marketing benefit.

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Part of being a responsible architect in Nevada, says John Sawdon, principal of SH Architecture, has always been to consider a building’s energy costs and its impact on the environment. Sawdon’s signature design element for the Bonneville Transit Center—the undulating roofline—was inspired not by LEED points but, rather, by the sinuous movement of the buses through the site. Nonetheless, other design elements, such as the transit center’s window walls, were partially LEED-driven. They flood the interior with natural daylighting, eliminating much need for artificial lighting. They also give the building an almost glamorous sense of transparency and, for safety purposes, offer a clear view of who’s inside and out, day and night. “LEED is a catalyst, a tool to get to the next level of sustainable building,” Sawdon says. “It’s a scorecard and a tally for a project.”

For Curtis Fentress, the president and design principal at Fentress Architects, the firm behind the North Las Vegas City Hall and the Clark County Government Center, LEED factors into design almost intuitively. “The driving forces are the culture of the client, the environment and site, the views, the slope. It all enters together, along with LEED.” For instance, his iconic design for the Denver International Airport was inspired by the peaks of the snowcapped Rockies. The roof’s translucent material, though, floods the main terminal with natural daylighting—one of the main tenets of LEED certification.

For the City Hall, he deliberately chose a tall tower as the centerpiece, which stands out in a neighborhood of single-story homes and buildings, creating a sense of presence and optimism. The curving walkways that radiate out from the building’s ground level serve as welcoming arms to the public. The tower’s windows are high-efficiency, sealing out heat while letting in plenty of sunshine. The design’s flat rooflines left room for the photovoltaics, and those curved walkways are shaded, minimizing the site’s heat-island effect.

“Even before LEED, we were always careful with siting a building for the best use of light and to avoid high energy costs,” Fentress says. “We were always looking for the best materials. But LEED does add another layer to design, like a code that one applies to a building. It’s a checklist to make sure you are doing the right thing.”

The Cost of Green

For many designers, LEED is a primary factor, whether or not a client actually wants to pursue certification. “LEED is standard for me,” Turchin says. “It’s always a factor when meeting with a client, always a question. Pursuing LEED certification can be more expensive [than a standard project], so someone doing a spec office building might not be interested. But an owner who intends to occupy a building might be more willing to spend the money up-front and reap the energy savings later.” On her projects, Turchin keeps costs down by using simple materials, providing design punch with drywall forms and colorful walls. But she always uses LEED-appropriate materials if the price is right—and the price is right more often than not these days. “LEED-compliant, energy-efficient products are so prevalent on the market now, why not use them? You can buy CFL bulbs and low-VOC [volatile organic compounds] paints at Home Depot. Why not specify these in every project?”


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The costs of going green may also come down as eco-friendly elements become standard from project to project. The Nike Factory Store in Henderson served as a kind of Platinum-level prototype, and the project cost 10 to 15 percent more than a standard store build-out, estimates Matthew Walsh, a co-founder of Innovation & Design in Architecture. But the firm’s subsequent green stores cost only 3 percent more. “We got it down to a template,” he says, “and the energy savings in each store makes up for the 3 percent in three to six months.”

LEED has other financial incentives besides energy savings. LEED-certified projects carry media cachet, and a published or publicized project is a marketing and public relations coup. Savvy, eco-conscious consumers like to do business or buy products from companies that have earned their green stripes.

Additionally, a recent McGraw-Hill study noted that 61 percent of corporate leaders believe that sustainability leads to market differentiation and improved financial performance. Lease-up rates for green buildings are up to 20 percent more than the average for Class A office space, while owners of green buildings reported occupancy increases of 6.4 percent for new buildings and 2.5 percent for existing buildings.

The Future of Green

LEED has sped sustainability along, organized it, categorized it and helped to create a marketplace for sustainable building materials. And Nevada will continue to be part of this green-building revolution. Caesars Entertainment’s 200,000-square-foot Linq project on the Strip is being built to LEED specifications, Turchin says, and rumors are swirling that at least one other resort facility intends to be LEED certified. Even more projects are on the boards, she says, and consumer awareness is high, resulting in greater demand for all things green.

With the fallout of the Great Recession still impacting Nevada construction, the state may drop out of the Top 10 for LEED-certified square footage, Turchin says. But the drop-off would be more about quantity than about reduced commitment. Nevada still needs its future buildings to be water- and energy-efficient. And, for reasons both market-savvy and altruistic, developers increasingly see the value of LEED certification.

Meanwhile, the quiet, green-driven aesthetic transformation continues to unfold. The passengers who pass through the Bonneville Transit Center likely won’t care that they’re washing their hands courtesy of low-water-use plumbing fixtures, that the lobby’s terrazzo flooring contains recycled glass or that the landscape includes a bioswale to capture storm-water runoff. For those commuters plugged into their iPods and smartphones, the transit center is a clean, safe, comfortable and strikingly attractive place that helps them get where they need to go.

And maybe that’s all that matters.

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