New Massachusetts courthouses feature green design, savings

Issue January 2008 By Jennifer Rosinski

The state’s six newest courthouses were all planned with green principles in mind, from energy-efficient lighting to variable frequency drives and motors that mean HVAC systems only expend as much energy as needed.

These features mean all six projects in various stages of completion — from open for business to design planning — are built with consideration of the environment as well as courthouse and staff needs. Most are also built in urban settings close to public transportation.

Buildings in Worcester and Plymouth opened to the public last fall and incorporate items like energy-efficient boilers, chillers and lighting, as well as large windows to maximize natural daylight.

The courthouse in Fall River is under construction and those in Lowell, Salem and Taunton are still in the design stage. Those four buildings aim to go even further than the previous two and qualify for Silver Certification under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design accreditation, a standard based on points regulated by the U.S. Green Building Council. Silver certification requires 33 of 69 points.

“We will be building all new facilities at a LEEDS-plus standard,” said David B. Perini, commissioner of the Division of Capital Asset Management, which oversees all state buildings. “That’s basically the direction we’re going to be going in.”

In Fall River, much thought has been put into the right type of air conditioning system and the use of high quality glass, said Chris Schaffner, a principal of The Green Engineer LLP in Concord and a member of the Fall River courthouse design team. The Fall River building could be as much as 30 percent more energy efficient than building code requires.

“We’ve gone through a lot of analysis,” Schaffner said. “By recognizing all of these concerns, we can make it a very efficient building as well as a cost savings to the state.”

Saving money isn’t the primary goal of green building, but it can be a nice side effect — even if the project costs more upfront, Schaffner said. Green design can cost up to two percent more nationally, he said, but in the end, saves money.

“The argument can be made if you do green design intelligently, it doesn’t have to cost more,” Schaffner said.

For every $3 to $5 spent per foot upfront in green construction, there is a $15-per-square-foot operational cost savings over 20 years, according to Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings, a 2003 study to California’s Sustainable Building Task Force.

In green building, fewer light fixtures also means less air conditioning, and Low-E grade windows that reduce heat transfer and insulation results in less of a need for heating and cooling, Schaffner said. That all adds up to lower operating costs.

The Worcester courthouse has netted the state $450,000 in rebates from National Grid, said Liz Minnis, director of Court Planning for DCAM. Rebates for the Plymouth courthouse are still being totaled.

In addition to the environment and the bottom line, green building concentrates on those who use the structure, Minnis said. The new courthouses feature oversized windows that let in a lot of natural light, both to make the atmosphere more pleasant for staff and visitors as well as reducing the need for light fixtures. Courthouses of the past have few windows and barely any natural light.

“One of the things about sustainable design is focusing on the well-being of the occupants,” Minnis said. “It’s a holistic design.”

Adds Schaffner, “That’s one of the challenges the design team faces: how do you mix that desire for natural light with the security needs of a courthouse?”

The construction of courthouses that focus on sustainability comes 10 years after DCAM first decided to emphasize green construction, said DCAM Energy Program Manager Jenna Ide.

In October 2006, the Massachusetts Sustainable Design Roundtable, a group of more than 45 professionals from the public and private sectors, issued a report calling for six recommended actions, among them the adoption of minimum green building guidelines for all construction and renovation done by state agencies.

Six months later, Gov. Deval Patrick endorsed the roundtables report when he passed Executive Order 484, Leading by Example — Clean Energy and Efficient Buildings. The order asks that all state agencies address resource use and work on reducing energy consumption and environmental impact, an initiative that is being overseen by the Executive Offices of Energy and Environmental Affairs and Administration and Finance.

Within the comprehensive order, Patrick makes a requirement of the roundtable’s suggestion that all new construction and renovation projects over 20,000 square feet meet the Massachusetts LEED Plus standard and those smaller than 20,000 square feet meet the minimum energy standards established by the roundtable.

The special Massachusetts certification requires building projects to obtain basic LEED certification with specific credits, which could include using a brownfields property and conserving 20 percent of building water used.

Patrick’s order asks DCAM and other state agencies to ensure all new construction and major renovation projects are “energy and water efficient, conserve the use of resources and provide healthy and productive spaces for employees, clients and visitors.”

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