Green and Platinum
The Weekly’s intrepid pursuit of top LEED certification.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
We knew something was up right around the time Weekly Founder and CEO Bradley Zeve had the building painted periwinkle, red and yellow. (Weekly staff described that yellow as “duck-egg yolk,” “spicy mustard” and “subcutaneous fat.” The official name: “Serengeti song gold.”)
It wouldn’t have been surprising, frankly, if he’d just had the whole building coated in zero-VOC, metallic white. The Weekly would soon register for LEED certification, and Zeve had visions of platinum, the highest U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) certification for existing buildings. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it’s the leading international standard in green construction and retrofitting.
In the two years since the building turned mustardy, it’s gotten new toilets that use half as much water. A worm bin for the office kitchen scraps. Nontoxic carpet tiles, an improved drip irrigation system, automated thermostats and other retrofits. Most of the changes are subtle, but they add up to significant efficiency gains and cost savings.
Leading Zeve on the path to platinum is BuildingWise, an architectural consulting firm specializing in LEED certification and, conveniently, a tenant in the Weekly building. The consultants somehow managed to keep Zeve relatively mellow throughout the process, even if Levi Jimenez, the point man for the certification, couldn’t get him to sit still for weekly meetings.
Because as much as Zeve likes to drill into the details – don’t get him started on architect Charles Moore (see sidebar, p. 20), the specs on our new low-flow toilets or Zeve’s own biodiesel car – BuildingWise focuses on the big picture: what LEED really is, how it works and why it’s smart business.
A word on the building’s history. It was conceived, one might say, when Saul and Mimi Weingarten moved from Los Angeles to Pebble Beach. The couple moved into a house designed by Mimi’s architect brother, Charles Moore – after Weingarten challenged the Pebble Beach Company rule prohibiting Jewish landowners, and won.
In the late 1950s, Weingarten hired Moore to design the professional digs for his law practice in the ramshackle town of Seaside, where he was city attorney.
Phase one, designed in 1959, had a targeted build-out cost of $6 per square foot, including the monstrous 3-by-13-inch redwood beams and steel I-beams that support the modern structure. Phase two was built directly next door a few years later. Weingarten moved into that new office and didn’t leave for more than 40 years, closing his firm just a few weeks before his passing in 2004.
Zeve bought the back end of the property in 1991 – two years before Moore’s death in 1993. He bought the front property six years later and joined the two into one building.
The commercial property on Fremont Boulevard and Williams Avenue is still evolving. Today the back end houses the Weekly, and the front leases out to BuildingWise, Chez Christian Real Estate and Monterey iPhone Repair.
Moore’s design incorporated certain eco-friendly elements before their time, like passive solar lighting through the many atriums that let light and fresh air into the building’s work spaces. (That breeziness also makes it terribly heat-inefficient. We’ll get to that later.)
Zeve had already made a number of efficiency upgrades well before registering for LEED. He installed a rubber floor, replaced all the single-pane windows with double-pane, insulated part of the roof and switched to double-sided printers. In 2007 Zeve had a quarter-million-dollar, 33-kilowatt solar array – 163 panels – installed on the roof.
It was hard to fathom why he would spend more than $20,000 to green the building further.
He needed me to blog the LEED process, Zeve said, so we could earn an education credit – one precious point among 80 for platinum props. So I got to watch, in sometimes painstaking detail, what became a 15-month exercise in tedious data-gathering punctuated by the occasional building improvement.
One day Jimenez would pull on a hazmat suit and pick through the office garbage. Another, contractors would take down half a wall in the sales department to open up the air flow.
Here are some of the learning moments along the way.
The best part of the LEED process from where I sit: The newsroom no longer feels like a walk-in freezer. That’s thanks to programmed thermostats that kick on the building’s gas heaters before work hours on chilly days and turns them off automatically.
I would have expected an eco-makeover to include a memo to employees: “Dress in layers.” But it turns out the USGBC cares if I’m frigid. LEED applicants get one point for administering an occupant comfort survey – ours revealed we’re frickin’ cold – and another point for doing something about it.
Zeve installed three new gas furnaces and one electric one along with those thermostats. As it happens, having the gas heaters kick in actually helps cut carbon emissions. Better ambient heating makes workers like me less likely to crank the electric space heaters we’ve squirreled under our desks, which are inefficient energy hogs compared with natural gas.
The tweaks haven’t fixed everything. The conference room over the carport is still cold enough to keep sandwiches fresh, probably because of the lack of sub-floor insulation. BuildingWise staff have abandoned the adjacent room, Jimenez says: “You could literally feel the cold in your shoes.”
I’ve tried writing at my home office and in coffee shops; a change in scenery is supposed to be good for the brain. But somehow I can’t get things done like I can at the Weekly, where my computer faces a square of sunshine and the breeze sidles through the sliding doors.
Jimenez doesn’t have to work hard to convince me windows and doors are good for an office building – and not just because they reduce lighting costs. He produces a study concluding people in windowed office spaces spend 15 percent more time on work-related tasks than people in windowless batcaves.
If indoor air is high in carbon dioxide, he says, “Your body starts to think it’s nighttime and go into that sleepy hibernative state. If you take away oxygen, you start to become a zombie.”
Immersed in the LEED calculus of “daylighting,” Jimenez and his colleagues measure the windowed spaces around each of the Weekly’s work stations. As it turns out, every person in the building works 25 feet or less from from an operable window.
It’s the bomber drone of commodes. The Stealth, as it’s called, only uses 0.8 gallons per flush. That’s awesome even in the realm of high-efficiency toilets, which typically reduce flush volume from 1.6 to 1.3 gallons.
The first Stealth to be installed on the BuildingWise side, in January 2012, made Jimenez a little nervous. But a year later he offered a status update: “It works. We’ve put it to the test.” His colleague, Max Perelman, nodded in mirthful agreement.
That first Stealth proved so adept at whisking away even the most impressive loads, Zeve ordered five more. Rebates bring the cost of the $260 toilets to less than $50 each, making labor their biggest expense; even that will eventually be offset by water savings.
Other point-worthy building improvements: sink aerators reducing faucet flow from 2 to 0.375 gallons per minute and salvaged walnut flooring in the BuildingWise bathroom. A new ceiling fan helps regulate indoor temperatures – and keep stinks stealthy.
Sometimes we find homeless people in the Weekly’s carport, sifting through the garbage. And sometimes we find Jimenez.
The LEED trash audit had the project administrator dumping a 96-gallon trash bin onto the pavement and sorting it into piles. More than half, he discovered, could have been recycled or composted. He did similar tallies to nine other bins, concluding the building could cut its garbage fees by ditching a trash container and recycling and composting more. Then he added a few hundred red wrigglers to the Weekly’s worm bin.
The other waste-related point had Jimenez rummaging through the garbage every week for three months, tallying the Weekly’s recycling rates. His biggest shock: Discovering more than 1,000 extra newspapers per week were accidentally going to the landfill instead of being recycled.
The Weekly fills about three bins weekly with “returns,” the old newspapers brought back to the office when the new issue hits the stands. Two of those bins had been mistakenly marked as trash. So Jimenez called Waste Management and had the green bins swapped out for blue ones, rerouting almost 200 gallons of newsprint per week for their proper reincarnation.
One muggy workday in summer 2011, Weekly editor Mary Duan felt so icked out in her upstairs office that she packed up and moved downstairs.
The culprit: what she calls flying ants. “They’ll be crawling on the computer screen, on the keyboard, on my hands, on the wall,” she says. “It’s just creepy.”
Jimenez suspects they’re actually termites. Regardless, the question is how to get rid of them.
That’s all wrapped up in the LEED requirement for integrated pest management: dealing with weeds, bugs and rodents in less toxic ways.
Weekly managers told the landscapers to handle weeds without chemicals (going organic sans the certification) and BuildingWise staff have discouraged ants in their office kitchen through old-fashioned cleaning.
When gentler methods don’t work, LEED does allow building owners use some toxic insecticides in a pinch – like Fipronil in termite holes and malathion on aphid-covered plants – as long as a notice is posted. But the termites in Duan’s office were eliminated without chemicals, thanks to the eco-friendly electro-gun from Casner Exterminating.
Lately, I keep a bottle of Orange Guard at my desk (active ingredient: D-limonene from orange peel extract) for the stinky little ants that come with springtime.
Good thing our LEED transportation survey was done on a sunny week in fall 2011 when I, and apparently lots of my colleagues, chose to leave the car at home. Almost 40 percent of the building’s commutes involved alternative transportation: biking, walking, carpooling, bussing or telecommuting. That rate snagged a flush nine LEED points.
More points were amassed through green cleaning products, recycled furniture (including pre-owned office chairs and an enormous, baseball-diamond-shaped desk in the conference room) and Energy Star appliances. Also new in the mix are eco-light switches, green cleaning products and drought-tolerant landscaping. Even though the Weekly’s exterior contains barely enough square footage of earth for a possum to roam, each plant was chosen with an eye toward using the least amount of water possible while still keeping things lush and green.
Those fantastic aforementioned gas furnaces? They threw what would prove to be the biggest wrench into the Weekly’s LEED certification – and brought Zeve close to scrapping the whole damn thing.
Last May, the U.S. Green Building Council flagged an issue with the building’s exhaust flues. Some of them were too close to the windows, potentially sucking carbon monoxide back into work spaces.
The logic gap: If the gas wall heaters are on, the windows should be closed, right? Not under the most current state building code, which requires a certain amount of fresh air per unit of gas combustion.
But that standard’s made for newer, airtight buildings, and this office is leaky as an air mattress at Burning Man. Turn on the heat and crack the windows, in the name of greening? It made no sense.
This wasn’t about a LEED point; it was a LEED prerequisite. Jimenez told Zeve the application couldn’t move forward until the heater problem was fixed. “Are you kidding me?” Zeve remembers asking. (We’ve edited out the likely expletive in case his mother reads this.) “You must be kidding me. Who in their right mind opens a window when the heater is on?”
Capping the four furnaces would make the building even colder than it had been. Dropping thousands of dollars on new electric heating would result in worse energy efficiency. Just before Zeve had an aneurysm over it, an HVAC technician discovered two of the flues are placed safely above the windows, leaving only two problem heaters. Zeve had one pulled out and the other sealed.
With the heater snag solved, Jimenez formally submitted the Weekly’s LEED application last November, applying for 81 points. We needed 80.
Three were denied.
One rejected credit had to do with landscape irrigation. Ninety percent of the building’s plants are native, and all are low to moderate in their water needs, but the USGBC wouldn’t consider dirt and mulch to be low-water landscaping. Jimenez concedes that’s fair. Another lost point traced back to a miscommunication with the landscaper and was easily fixed on appeal.
That only left the dangling “innovative education” point. The USGBC had snubbed the staff’s worm-bin workshop, arguing it was part of the waste-reduction credit. The Weekly appealed with a longer list of learning opportunities, like the blog and historic print coverage of green building, and the new LEED informational posters hung around the building.
On Feb. 28, whoops emanated from the Weekly’s conference room. Then Zeve let out a guttural exhale. “Uuuuugh,” he said to Jimenez and Perelman, who were grinning like kids on Halloween. “Thank God.”
Fourteen Monterey County projects have made USGBC’s list of LEED-certified commercial buildings (see list, p. 22). The certificates are awarded across a variety of categories, including new construction, core and shell, commercial interior and existing buildings. A couple dozen more have registered but aren’t all the way there yet. And six Monterey County properties have earned LEED for Homes certification.
Three of those LEED houses are in Carmel Valley and Carmel-by-the-Sea, including the home of Melissa and Jason Burnett. The Burnetts replaced their shag carpet with a water-based epoxy floor, installed a system that turns out all of the house’s LED lights at the push of a button, and calculated a net-zero electricity footprint, thanks to a photovoltaic system on the roof.
Jason, the Carmel mayor, said he and Melissa decided to go platinum on the remodel of their mid-century modern home to show that it can be done – and because the things that earn LEED points also tend to make buildings look better and last longer.
Three other LEED for Homes certifications fall on the opposite end of both the county and the socioeconomic spectrum. Interim, Inc.’s Sunflower Gardens complex in Salinas scored platinum in June 2010. The 18 units, built with funding from the state Mental Health Services Act Housing Program, provide affordable shelter for mentally ill adults who are homeless or at risk.
It’s not just do-goodery; LEED saves money. BuildingWise Founder and CEO Barry Giles counts it back. Certification to LEED standards reduces operational costs like energy, cleaning, trash and wear, he says. That pushes the building value up. Because LEED includes built-in measures for occupant comfort, certification tends to keep tenants happy and reduce turnover, which saves more money. Catastrophic-events insurers even give LEED buildings lower rates, Giles says, because fewer hazardous materials make them cheaper to clean.
Thus we’re seeing non-treehuggy LEED loyalists like defense contractors, banks and real-estate investment trusts. BuildingWise pitches to that sensibility. “We don’t wave the environmental flag,” Giles says. “We wave the finance flag.”
Government agencies do, too, from D.C. to Monterey. The Air Force, Army, Navy and a dozen other federal agencies – the U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA and NASA among them – require, or at least strongly encourage, some level of LEED certification for new buildings and major renovations, according to the USGBC.
A 2004 executive order requires California’s new and renovated state facilities to achieve LEED Silver status. The city of Monterey holds the same standard for its municipal buildings, and a 2008 ordinance directs new private commercial buildings to follow LEED guidelines too. A 2009 Carmel-by-the-Sea law mandates a minimum of 26 LEED points for new commercial projects – not enough for certification, but symbolic nonetheless.
San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and 100 other California municipalities have similar laws.
Part of the lure of a green building is its payoff: reduced utility bills, better looks, a healthier work environment. But the sweetest might be bragging rights for the building that claims a LEED first. Zeve doesn’t like that phrase, “bragging rights,” but admits he’s competitive enough to want the superlative.
The Weekly isn’t the first LEED Platinum project in the county. It’s not the first LEED-certified existing building, either. But as far as we can tell, it is the first LEED Platinum existing building in Monterey County. That goes for Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, too.
Still, Giles stresses, this effort doesn’t end with the certification. He wants Zeve to keep tracking energy and water use, waste and recycling rates, indoor air quality, lighting efficiency. “We’ve got to get him over the gloss of, ‘I’ve got the damn thing now,’” he says. “It’s no use getting the plaque on the building and bathing in the reflected glory. It’s maintaining it over time so that we continually investigate our own selves.”
The USGBC requires LEED recertification every five years. And the building still leaks rain. Some rooms are still cold. An effort to switch from paper to reusable cloth hand-towels flopped; some people still print one-sided. We staffers could do better in our own habits of driving alone to work, ordering takeout in single-use containers and leaving the lights on overnight.
Zeve knows there’s always more to be done. “The way I see it, the LEED certification is part of the continuum that goes back before the USGBC even existed,” he says. “In many ways you could say Moore was one of the first U.S. green designers, merging outdoor light and nature into the indoors. We’re just part of that evolution.”
From summer 2011, when Zeve began gearing up for the Weekly’s LEED registration, to the award of a platinum certificate on Feb. 27 of this year, Zeve figures he spent more than $20,000 on the process including fees, consulting, labor and materials. His rate of LEED investment in the 15,000-square-foot property, then, comes nowhere near the $0.16-per-square-foot rate Jimenez says is attainable by huge corporate buildings like the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco, which BuildingWise helped go platinum in 2011.
From a purely financial standpoint, Giles would have advised the Weekly to stop at gold. Zeve was the one who insisted on platinum, even if it meant a slower return on investment. Asked why, even he is stumped.
“There are no good answers,” Zeve finally concludes. “Why do you try to achieve anything in your life?” He tries out some explanations about doing the right thing, supporting the team, demonstrating leadership, honoring the building’s creative legacy.
Finally he comes back to his anchor, the postmodern architect who embraced loud colors and bold statements. “I love Charles Moore. I bet he’d be psyched,” Zeve says. “It’s fabulous.”
LEED-Certified Commercial Buildings in Monterey County
06/24/2004 | Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Moss Landing | (Gold, Existing Buildings)
11/27/2007 | Chartwell School, Seaside (Platinum, New Construction)
08/04/2008 | Trader Joe’s shopping complex, Monterey (Silver, Core & Shell)
01/18/2010 | Salinas Municipal Pool, Salinas (Gold, New Construction)
01/27/2010 | CSUMB Library, Seaside (Silver, New Construction)
09/21/2010 | Monterey College of Law’s Community Justice Center, Seaside | (Platinum, New Construction)
11/11/2010 | International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 234, Castroville | (Gold, Existing Buildings)
12/22/2010 | Portola Hotel & Spa, Monterey (Silver, Existing Buildings)
10/21/2011 | CSUMB Dining Commons, Seaside (Silver, New Construction)
05/16/2012 | Verizon Store, Salinas (Gold, Commercial Interiors)
07/13/2012 | Presidio of Monterey’s general instruction building, Monterey | (Silver, New Construction)
08/13/2012 | P197 Educational Facility – Naval Facilities Engineering Command | Southwest educational facility, Monterey (Gold, New Construction)
02/27/2013 | Monterey County Weekly, Seaside (Platinum, Existing Buildings)
03/07/2013 | Cesar Chavez Library, Salinas (Gold, New Construction)
Source: U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED project directory. This list does not include LEED for Homes, confidential certifications or active LEED applications that have not yet been certified.