Sunshine, Composting Toilets and Rainwater: Recipe for a ‘Top 10′ Green Building

BY Elizabeth Shell  April 23, 2012 at 1:48 PM EDT

University of California, Merced 2009 Long Range Development Plan; Merced, California The campus of University of California, Merced, was one of the top 10 green buildings in 2012, according to the American Institute of Architects. Photo by Tim Griffith.

A classroom in the back woods of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s campus is using storm water and the state’s first composting toilet to achieve near-zero waste production. A government building in Iowa is not only capturing rain for use within the building, but also rerouting storm water from six nearby acres to be treated on-site, all while sitting on top of a former landfill. And a University of California campus is reducing energy use by going au naturel with sunlight in three-quarters of its indoor space.

These and seven others made this year’s annual “Top 10 Green Projects” list. Announced last week by the American Institute of Architects, the decapod of winners feature sustainable, efficient buildings.

“Green buildings are fundamentally better buildings because they use less energy, less water and less resources. The indoor air quality is better for the people inside,” Clark S. Brockman of SERA Architects told us. As one of the six jurors on the AIA’s Committee on the Environment that decided the top 10, he noted that many of the winners were either striving for or have already attained net-zero energy performance.

Brockman explained:

“Net-zero energy performance is measured on an annual basis, and means the building will produce as much or more energy as it uses over the course of a year. And energy use and water use obviously have bottom-line implications. Buildings that use less energy and less water cost less to operate.”

However, critics point to the sometime steeper initial costs so-called green systems can incur.

“There are clearly some elements of sustainable design that do add cost, such as a green roof or solar panels,” juror Scott Shell of EHDD Architecture (and no relation to the author) said. But he added, “There are ways to save money and reduce costs in buildings that are highly sustainable. For many of our projects we’re given a specific budget, and we have to meet that. There are plenty of examples of buildings that have done highly sustainable buildings using simple, basic principles that are not adding any first-construction costs. Natural ventilation and day lighting are free.”

“Cost is totally a factor,” Brockman acknowledges, “but some of the measures being done in these buildings pay for themselves in a matter of months, and others have longer term paybacks.”

One winner, the University of California, Merced, installed a photovoltaic array (a collection of linked solar panels). They’re now saving a million and a half dollars a year in utility costs.

Following our “do good” business reporting in B Corps and how to turn a building sustainable in “Bein’ Green,” we’re highlighting the AIA’s 10 best green projects. Browse through our slideshow to see 2012′s winners.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.