Richmond Magazine

Gathering Energy

Hunter Reardon, Jack Cooksey

At 122-plus years old, the hulking, redbrick Cary Street Gym on VCU’s Monroe Park campus might not seem to be a glaring example of the green economy.

With its skylight and imposing facade, the building opened in 1891 as a public marketplace; that failed 15 years later, and it then meandered through many purposes. It served as the City Auditorium (operatic tenor Enrico Caruso sang there) and then as a venue for boxing and wrestling. From the 1940s to the mid-’70s, it lived in limbo as a warehouse space. Finally, in 1979, Virginia Commonwealth University bought the building for $155,000 and turned it into a gym.

Today, despite the fact that it’s still one of the oldest brick behemoths in VCU’s real estate portfolio, it is actually among the region’s most environmentally focused buildings, according to the rating system known as LEED and run by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Created by the USGBC in 1998, LEED — short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — rewards public and private construction projects for building with attention to human health and environmental factors. “LEED measures the total health of the building,” explains Jacob Kriss, a spokesman for the USGBC.

The program is points-based, and points are earned in categories including water efficiency, energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality. A building can earn, in ascending order, a LEED-certified, bronze, silver, gold or platinum rating.

Virginia is among the states leading the way on green building. The prevalence of LEED is often measured in square footage per capita, a figure released last month by the USGBC. The commonwealth ranked third in the nation, with 2.11 LEED-certified square feet per resident in 2013. Part of that success is due to the state’s federal-government footprint from nearby Washington, far and away the leader of the pack when included in the survey.

The Richmond region officially crossed over into this now-widespread movement 10 years ago, when the University of Richmond received the lowest-level LEED rating, the “certified” label, for its expansion of Weinstein Hall.

As of 2006, it was still the only local LEED-certified project, causing Sandra Leibowitz Early, a sustainable design consultant in Richmond, to note then: “If you were to do a green building tour of Richmond today, there wouldn’t be a whole lot on that tour yet.”

Within a year, used-car retailer CarMax garnered the USGBC’s silver rating — the first company in the state to do so — for its glistening new Goochland County headquarters, clad in glass and metal, and surrounded by trees.

The pace of green building has picked up since then, and now nearly 40 projects locally have met a USBGC standard; dozens more, whether completed or in the process, are aiming for LEED ratings. A recent green-building database for the Richmond region lists more than 100 projects that either have received a rating or plan to do so.

In 2009, the state government incorporated LEED into its energy-reduction goals, requiring that its renovation and construction projects of more than 5,000 square feet meet the program’s silver level. The impact of such a policy is most visible in VCU’s massive portfolio, where 20 percent of the university’s square footage bears a green-building rating. The university itself committed to a requirement of LEED silver projects in 2007, before the state mandate went into effect.

“We have equaled and exceeded the projected energy savings each year,” says Brian Ohlinger, VCU’s associate vice president of facilities and management. When VCU first took on green building, the construction cost of a LEED silver project was typically 3 to 5 percent more than that of a conventionally built structure — a price that has since fallen.

“We tend to own our buildings forever,” explains Jacek Ghosh, VCU’s director of sustainability. “If you care about the long-term cost of a building, then the investment makes sense.”

In the region’s private sector, other companies have followed CarMax’s lead by embracing green construction. Three of the city’s top employers — Wells Fargo, Verizon and Bank of America — operate in a LEED-certified office space. According to the USGBC, there are 17 Richmond-area buildings certified by LEED and owned by private companies.

Meanwhile, Richmond-based Moseley Architects has become an industry driver of LEED services in this region and beyond, completing about 100 LEED projects largely for public clients, according to Bryna Dunn, a vice president there.

And the Moseley firm lives where it works. Its Scott’s Addition office is one of only three platinum-rated LEED buildings in the region. Six Richmond-area projects have been certified at the gold level, the best known of these being the Cary Street Gym and Glen Allen High School.

The economic feasibility of the program, on the other hand, has generated controversy nationwide. In 2003, as LEED was still building steam, the New York Times printed an article headlined “Not Building Green Is Called a Matter of Economics,” a story that was less than kind to the burgeoning program. “It can be very costly, and at the end of the day, you get a plaque,” said one source.

More criticism came in 2011, when Henry Gifford, an expert in mechanical system design for a New York City architecture firm, filed a $100 million suit against the USGBC. Gifford claimed that LEED buildings didn’t save consumers any money, in effect accusing the USGBC of false advertising. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.

LEED has answered critics by blossoming into a national phenomenon, with more than 45,000 certified projects to its name. More 30 states have adopted some form of green building legislation.

As awareness of green building was growing in Richmond eight years ago, Dunn noted in this magazine that contractors confronted LEED with a “fear factor.” Today, she says, more players in the market are seeing value and business sense in the trend, especially now that there is more widespread support and infrastructure to make it happen. “People are more aware,” she says. “After the first few get certified, a lot of others follow.”

Published March 14, 2014 at