After achieving unprecedented levels of sustainability with its headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri and recognizing a need in the market for a consultants on similar projects, Alberici Corp. launched Vertegy, a new green consulting subsidiary. To discuss the challenges of designing and maintaining one of the greenest buildings in the world and the role played by Vertegy in the expanding the green building market, VerdeXchange News was pleased to speak with Vertegy General Manager Tom Taylor.
A stream of visitors from around the country go through the Alberici headquarters in St. Louis because it’s one of the only LEED-platinum corporate facilities in Missouri, and one of less than a dozen worldwide. What’s so special about your headquarters in terms of its green building components?
To date, under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED-NC program, we still have the highest number of points recorded by a project: 60 points. It embodies all of the strategies that LEED protocols encourage, whether it’s water conservation, rainwater harvesting for sewage conveyance, to the native landscape, which provides us with zero storm water run-off because of our retention pumps, to the adaptive reuse of the existing structure, because we used an existing structure in the building, re-orienting the back side of it for proper solar orientation. The way we mechanically ventilate the building achieves a 60 percent reduction in operating costs. Then it goes into indoor air quality and the indoor environmental quality—providing all our employees a place to work where there are views of the outside and a naturally day-lit environment.
Alberici didn’t create a successful, 90-year-old construction business by being impractical. What motivated the company to want to certify its headquarters as LEED platinum?
When we were planning the project, the chairman of the board, John Alberici, encouraged us to investigate everything that we could in order to make this the best building possible. That doesn’t mean the most expensive—that means the best building. Fortunately, we were designing and building this building for ourselves, and because of that, we knew the client very well. John Alberici wanted us to explore opportunities to provide something more than just shade and shelter to the employees. What could we do to create a building that really shows that our employees are our most valuable asset? We had never done a green building before, and in exploring what a green building was all about—how it was designed, how is it validated, what the structure embodies—we found that to be in line with what we wanted to demonstrate to our employees. So there was a corporate commitment to look at creating this new building as more than just creating a building—look at this as an opportunity to do something that we probably will never have an opportunity to do again.
Alberici transformed a boxy, 50-year-old, metal-covered, industrial building into a 110,000-square-foot green-building showcase. Was there some trepidation along the way on how to do so on time and on budget?
Yes and no. The beauty of this was that nobody on the team had ever worked on one of these projects before. Nobody knew what could or couldn’t be done, so everything was possible. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to incorporate all the great ideas from the delivery team into the building in a fiscally responsible way. The financing structure for the project had been established once we had closed on the property, which was before we made the decision to build green. Neither our chief financial officer, nor John Alberici, nor anybody on the executive committee had the stomach to go back and try to renegotiate a financing package for what we had originally intended to build, which was to raze the buildings that were there, build what was suitable for us, and then parcel out the rest of the 14 acres.
The headquarters contains a variety of features that help achieve sustainability and LEED certification. Which of the features has turned out to be the most successful in achieving sustainability goals, and which is the most difficult on operation management?
One of the most difficult things to manage was the educational component of the facility’s management team—understanding that this is a high-performance building that requires specific operations. You can’t just flip a switch and then expect it to run at its designed performance levels. It takes a lot of care to operate the building.
We have some large assembly areas; we have a data center; and we also open the facility up for special events, civic events, community events, and private events. Because of that, there hasn’t been a consistent measurement period to say, for example, for these three months, it’s run at a typical pace. Every time you have to set the building, it has to be reset to the different operating parameters. The design enables that capacity, and therein lie some of the complexities of high-performance buildings.
However, that challenge is also the thing that is most gratifying—to know that you’re not just locked into running the building over capacity for the occasional larger events. In our case, we can scale it up to handle those events, and scale it back down for when we’re in normal operation.
What questions do potential clients of Vertegy ask as they walk through the Alberici headquarters?
There’s a perception that it must have cost quite a bit of money to do this, which is not true. We converted the building within a conventional Class-A office or headquarters-building budget. The other common question is: “You can do this, but you didn’t have to certify that. Why go through the effort of certification?” Owners feel that it’s important to go through the rigors of certification in order to keep the team focused and motivated, and then there’s a system of checks and balances, that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Other owners feel that the value is in the publicity because LEED is getting to be such a recognized name. There are other owners that say, “I want to do all these things for all the right reasons, but I have no need for the publicity, and I don’t need that validation.”
In the May issue of VerdeXchange News, we interviewed Andy Howard, COO of ARUP America’s design and engineering firm. Commenting on the value of LEED standards, he said, “As a template, it doesn’t fit every single circumstance, so we rarely get the very best in terms of sustainable development if you use it as an approach to design. It is really an evaluation tool as opposed to a design tool.” Do you have a similar view?
No, I don’t. Another thing that makes this building unique is the fact that we dual-certified this building under the U.S. Green Building LEED rating system and the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes system. We wanted to see the difference between those two rating systems on the same project. We’re the only platinum building that’s currently dual-certified under both of those rating systems in the marketplace right now.
When we work with the LEED or the Green Globes guidelines, either one, it’s just that: a set of guidelines for design. We use them as a communication and focusing tool in early stages of a project in order for an owner and everyone else on the delivery team to understand what it’s going to take to incorporate these strategies into a development. In our capacity at Vertegy, we use it to track accountability while delivering the building. Most of the owners and clients that we help choose to put it to the rigors of certification to validate that the team delivered what they said they were going to deliver.
Alberici’s headquarters uses a lot of recycled materials; it has a sophisticated, energy-saving mechanical system; it has outside features like a windmill for electricity, a park-like setting, and landscaping that encourages sustainability. What energy features do Vertegy clients most commonly wish to replicate?
The cost savings through the total building envelope design, adding up to the energy savings, is probably the biggest thing that our clients like to see. Nobody wants to encourage global warming or damage the environment. But our clients are still typically most interested in getting the biggest possible return on investment. This is the first time, unless you’re a speculative builder, that people can say, “My building can actually be calculated as a return on investment and not just an expense based on lease rates.”
It’s commonly said that the up-front cost of green building may be higher, but the ROI is in lower life-cycle operational costs. You mentioned this earlier, but have you been able to verify lower operational costs at Alberici’s headquarters?
Yes and no. You can verify it based on the energy models that are created to design the building. You can say, “Had this building been built at a code-minimum standard, this would be our energy consumption, and because we used these other means, validated through the Department of Energy e-quest model, we had this much reduction in energy. And this is how much energy costs, and so this is our reduction in operating expenses.”
When you do that, what do you find at the headquarters?
We found that it took us over a year to get it to the point where we were operating as it was designed.
Vertegy is an outgrowth of the Alberici family of companies. What was the opportunity that you all saw after the firm’s completion of its headquarters building in 2004?
At the time, there wasn’t anybody in the marketplace who was 100 percent focused on sustainability. At Vertegy we are not licensed to practice design and construction. We focus on issues of sustainability and the application of sustainable strategies. Doing that job correctly means that you’re doing it at an economical price point, which provides that, at a bare minimum, for every dollar of capital investment put into a project, the owner is returned a dollar value with the end product. In doing our research and interviewing multiple people who had been one-time users of architectural design, construction services, and multi-time users, what we found is that in very few instances were the owners satisfied and felt that they had received a dollar’s worth of value for every dollar of capital expense they put into the project. To us, from an owner’s point of view, after developing our own building, that is an injustice.
The word “Vertegy” is derived from the Latin root for “green” and “strategy.” What has evolved as Vertegy’s business model? Who are your clients, and what services are most in demand?
The services that are probably most in demand are projects looking to do LEED certification. We have grown to be kind of a specialist in LEED documentation, helping the whole team through that process, and acting as a resource. When we first started the business, I thought that we were going to help owners and contractors keep out of harm’s way while bidding on these types of projects. What I found is, while we’re still maintaining that particular client base, we’re having more and more inquiries by developers who want to start on a project and potentially use that as a model to green their portfolios, especially in 2007. We’re working with quite a few development teams, and that allows us to be involved with the projects even more upstream than just with the owner, because now it’s somebody who’s envisioning what a piece of property could be developed into. And we’re being brought in, in some cases, before the architect or the other design entities are being brought on.