JEFFREY KAYE: Think about what harms the environment and the culprits that most likely come to mind are factories, power plants and cars, all belching pollutants. What probably isn't thought of as an environmental menace are America's more than 80 million commercial and residential buildings.
But whether they're soaring skyscrapers or suburban tract homes, buildings have a huge effect on the environment, say scientists, from the consumption of energy and the wasteful use of raw materials to the production of greenhouse gases.
ROB WATSON: Well, I believe that buildings are the worst thing that people do to the environment.
JEFFREY KAYE: Rob Watson is a senior scientist with the environmental group NRDC, Te Natural Resources Defense Council.
ROB WATSON: Buildings use twice as much energy as cars and trucks. Seventy percent of the electricity in the United States is consumed by our homes and our office buildings.
JEFFREY KAYE: Because of their high energy consumption, buildings are indirectly responsible for air pollution, a third of the country's total carbon dioxide emissions and half of its sulfur dioxide emissions.
ROB WATSON: We don't associate the fact that when we turn on a light switch, coal is mined in a mine; it goes to a power plant that comes up the stack as acid rain producing sulfur dioxide, planet-cooking carbon dioxide. There's no direct connection between the environmental impact that the building causes and the damage is always somewhere else.
JEFFREY KAYE: In response to growing awareness of the building environment's effect on the natural environment, architects and builders, activists and government agencies are increasingly championing an alternative method of design and construction. It's an approach called green building.
The essence of green building is creating structures that are far more efficient in their consumption of energy and water, and less wasteful in their use of materials than conventional buildings. Once a movement on the architectural fringe, green design principles are starting to appear in everything from a new generation of government buildings and corporate offices to single family homes and apartment complexes.
This place, the NRDC.'s West Coast office in Santa Monica, California, is considered the greenest building in America, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization that rates buildings according to their energy efficiency and environmental quality.
Opened in the fall of 2003, the 15,000-square-foot structure consumes 70 percent less energy than a non-green building of equivalent size and function. Solar panels on the roof generate 20 percent of the building's electricity. Toilets use a gallon less water per flush than conventional ones. The floors are made of easily replenished woods like bamboo and poplar. Ample skylights direct sunshine deep into the building and reduce reliance on electrical lighting.
ROB WATSON: And all of these combine to make a more comfortable, more effective to operate, and yet highly cost-effective space.
JEFFREY KAYE: Watson is especially fond of showing off the building's state-of-the-art water recycling plant in the basement.
ROB WATSON: The biology is killed with ozone here.
JEFFREY KAYE: It cleans the building's gray water -- that's the water that comes from the sinks in the bathroom and kitchen, as well as from captured rainwater.
ROB WATSON: It's purified a number of times and disinfected a number of times, reverse osmosis. It's better than bottled water. It's better than tap water. I drink it all the time.
JEFFREY KAYE: Environmental groups are not the only ones embracing green design.
DAN HEINFELD: We think it's a fabulous design tool, that green architecture really leads itself to some very interesting architectural practices.
JEFFREY KAYE: Dan Heinfeld is president of LPA, an architectural firm in Irvine, California, which specializes in green building design.
DAN HEINFELD: So we'll get the light without the heat gain and that will be a good, sustainable practice.
I'm now dealing with my clients about energy use, the indoor environment that their employees and users are going to have, and just how they sort of work within this space. And I think those are much more tangible things to be talking about in creating great architecture on than sort of decorating the box.
JEFFREY KAYE: Heinfeld's firm designed a green building for a company better known for its fuel-efficient cars. Toyota's 624,000-square-foot sales office in Torrance, California, is a green giant. In fact, it's the largest green building complex in America. Its roof, carpeted in solar panels, generates enough electricity to power 500 homes.
The building uses reclaimed water for landscaping and for cooling. And the material used to make the office complex comes largely from recycled automobiles. That includes steel in the building itself and lobby furniture made from old seatbelts. Heinfeld says that the Toyota Building demonstrates that green building principles are no longer experimental or avante garde.
DAN HEINFELD: We think those are the really powerful examples because it shows that it really can be done mainstream and it can be done on any kind of project.
JEFFREY KAYE: A further encouragement for green building projects has come from cities, states and government agencies, which in recent years have enacted green building standards. The city of Santa Monica was one of the first communities in the country to put green construction codes on the books.
Dean Kubani, who oversees Santa Monica's environmental programs, says the city was motivated as much by dollars and cents concerns as by environmental ones.
DEAN KUBANI: If you just look at green building, if you make a building more energy efficient and water efficient, it's going to save you money over the long run. And we here in the city, we own a lot of buildings and private developers own a lot of buildings here, and if they can save money over the 50-year life span of those buildings, it makes sense to do it.
JEFFREY KAYE: Green building can often cost more than conventional construction. Solar panels and water purification systems, for instance, will increase builders' budgets. But proponents say higher up-front costs will pay for themselves in the long run.
A recent State of California study reported that 2 percent additional cost in a green building's design translates into savings of up to 20 percent in energy costs over the life span of the building.
In Santa Monica, green buildings range from the police headquarters, to a low-income housing project, which generates much of its power from solar energy. The city, in cooperation with the environmental group Global Green, has also opened up a green building resource center. In it, homeowners can get information about a smorgasbord of green building products.
SPOKESPERSON: These layers here, a glue binds them together, and if that glue contains a lot of formaldehyde then you get an off-gassing from the floor.
JEFFREY KAYE: Despite its growth, green building still meets resistance, often from designers and contractors who are uncomfortable with changing their ways and are unfamiliar with green building practices and materials such as those on display here.
SPOKESPERSON: This one right here is a sorghum-based product.
JEFFREY KAYE: That's been a frustration for Daniel McGee and Catherine Lerer, who have been coming to the center for nearly a year as they remodel their house.
DANIEL McGEE: I was probably struck by how in general the people we talk to, particularly architects and contractors, know so little about this and what's available and the things that we can do. So part of the process has been trying to educate our architect and contractors to open up their eyes a little bit, that a lot of the traditional materials they use, there are alternatives to them.
JEFFREY KAYE: Looking ahead, the highest profile green building project in America promises to be Freedom Tower, which is to be built on the former World Trade Center site in New York. When finished, the more than 1,700-foot-tall structure will include massive solar panels and its own wind farm on the upper floors.