San Francisco Builds Green

A quiet revolution is taking place in the San Francisco area. You can hear it in the whisper of school children at a public library when the air conditioning is turned off. You can see evidence in the demolition of a convention center where more than 80 percent of the waste was diverted from the landfill and set aside for reuse.

San Jose"s West Valley Branch Library boasts a number of green design features.©City of San Jose

San Francisco Bay area municipal governments are working to grow sustainable communities, by passing green building ordinances, requiring energy-efficient designs, recycled content and a host of "green" strategies for public projects. In the city of San Francisco alone, new public projects of more than 5,000 square feet are now required to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver standard.

LEED, the national energy- and environmental-efficiency standard set up by the U.S. Green Building Council, offers a four-tier rating system, ranging from basic certification to silver, gold and platinum levels. In San Jose, California’s third-largest city, any new construction of more than 10,000 square feet must be LEED certified. Mike Foster, Green Coordinator for San Jose, reports that many of the nearly 58 public projects now underway in the city incorporate green features such as carpeting with recycled content or paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

"Green building makes good sense," says Carl Mosher, director of environmental services for San Jose. "We can reduce operating and maintenance costs by saving energy, water and other natural resources, in addition to reusing certain materials." Neighboring cities of Pleasanton, Berkeley and San Mateo all have instituted LEED standards for new municipal construction.

"We’ve learned a tremendous amount," says Mark Palmer, green building coordinator for the city of San Francisco, where 10 local pilot projects are evaluating green design and construction. The Academy of Sciences, the Laguna Honda Hospital, the Golden Gate Music Concourse and the Islais Creek Muni Facility have "given us a means to learn what works and what doesn’t work," he says. "The perception is that green building is expensive. That simply is not true. The key is to get all parties together at the very beginning of the design process."

The California Sustainable Building Task Force (CSBTF) found that constructing a green building costs an average of two percent more than traditional structures of the same size, but offers a tenfold savings over 20 years through lower energy and water bills, reduced waste, and improved worker productivity.