Making our buildings more efficient can have a greater impact on our environment than almost anything else we can do, says architect Paul Lalli, an expert in sustainable design. Commercial buildings account for three quarters of the electricity used yearly in the United States, and 48 percent of total energy use. And when you consider the lifespan of a building is several decades, improving the energy efficiency of a building has a far greater effect on the environment than improving the efficiency of a car, which may only be on the road 10 years . or less.

Lalli will speak about “LEED EB and Smart Practices in Sustainable Design” at the Industrial/Commercial Real Estate Women of New Jersey meeting on Thursday, June 12, at 11:30 a.m., at the Woodbridge Hilton in Iselin. Cost: $65. For more information call 609-585-6871.

“Environmental concerns are just one of many reasons why building owners should consider sustainable design,” Lalli says. “Not just in new construction, but also in remodeling and redesigning existing buildings. Building owners are starting to recognize the benefits of sustainable practices from the standpoint of health and productivity, while at the same time there is also a growing preference on the part of tenants to lease buildings that incorporate good sustainable practices.”

Lalli’s interest in architecture began at an early age. “I’ve always been interested in how people react to the built environment,” says Lalli, who is a senior associate in the sustainable consulting group at the New York City offices of Gensler, an international architectural firm. His interest in sustainable design “comes from having Depression-era parents. I was raised to always think about saving and conserving,” he adds.

Lalli received his bachelor’s in environmental design and planning from SUNY-Buffalo in 1978 and went on to work in a number of architectural firms before joining Gensler 19 years ago. He is a U.S. Green Building Council LEED-accredited professional and is a former chairman of the New Jersey chapter.

LEED (leadership in energy efficiency and design), a rating system for sustainable building, is an excellent guide for building owners or tenants who would like to make commercial buildings more energy efficient. “Some owners want to try to achieve LEED certification, while others may just want to incorporate some of the practices while not investing fully in certification,” says Lalli. But incorporating just a few of the principles can lead to a number of benefits, he says.

Environmental benefits. If you are considering relocating your business to a new building, think old, not new. Remodeling existing buildings, rather than building something brand new, is one of the most important “green” principles, for several reasons. Often existing buildings are located in urban areas where existing transportation, utilities, and other infrastructure are already in place. The benefit are several: existing green spaces are not destroyed, it costs less money and has less environment impact to bring infrastructure to a building in an urban area than to an undeveloped area, and new business can also help to rejuvenate an older urban area.

Urban areas are also often a closer commute for many employees, an important consideration in today’s world of $4-a-gallon gasoline. And because these areas also have existing personal services nearby, such as dry cleaners, daycare centers, grocery stores, and drug stores, employees have less need to leave early or arrive late while taking care of personal business.

Increased productivity. “Studies on productivity show a 16-percent increase in productivity for people working in sustainable buildings,” says Lalli. “Increased daylight and better air quality are some of the reasons that sustainable design reduces absenteeism.” Better temperature and lighting control through strategies such as raised floors and under-floor heating, as well as better task lighting all mean that employees feel more comfortable and make fewer calls to building maintenance for minor adjustments and changes in lighting and temperature.

Health benefits. Following sustainable design principles not only leads to lower energy bills, it also improves indoor air quality, which in turn, improves the health of the people working in the building. Fewer particulates, toxins, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) make the air healthier, explains Lalli, and leads to fewer employee taking time off for illnesses such as colds and the flu.

Economic benefits. Most people think of the economic benefit of sustainable design in terms of energy payback, and that can be substantial. “The payback can be quick, and with rising energy costs it is getting shorter all time,” says Lalli. “In overall energy costs the payback is two to three years. If you have a 10-year lease on a building that means that seven to eight of those years you are actually saving money.”

When looking for ways to improve energy efficiency in a building, “don’t forget the envelope,” says Lalli. “One of the easiest ways to improve efficiency is by adding insulation to the walls and roof and replacing old windows. By improving the envelope you can often reduce the amount of heating and cooling needed, and it often costs less than a new, high performance HVAC system.”

It takes longer to recoup on water, however, because water is significantly cheaper than gas or electricity, but savings can still be made. The payback on high efficiency water fixtures is four to five years right now, he says.

Along with these obvious and tangible savings there are other economic benefits to sustainable design. “Over a 30-year period, 92 percent of the average company’s expenses are for employees, while only six percent is for building costs and two percent for operations costs,” Lalli says. “That means that any money spent on improving the quality of life for employees by improving the building is well worth it. Companies spend a lot of money on recruiting and training an employee. Improving the quality of life in the building can help retain those employees and actually reduce employee costs.”

In today’s economic climate, Lalli says, sustainable design is no longer just about saving the environment. It is also a wise economic decision for a business as well. “The benefits of sustainable design are threefold,” he says, “It’s about the planet, people, and profit.”

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