LEED buildings catch on in Minnesota

UnitedHealth headquarters
It can be hard to spot a LEED-certified building. They often look like standard buildings inside and out. But on paper, the energy-savings of a LEED building can be substantially more than a building without those features.
Photo Courtesy of UnitedHealth Group

The certification is called LEED. It stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The requirements are set up by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. A LEED building is designed to be healthier - healthier for the people who work in it and the natural environment that surrounds it.

Healthy inside and out
HGA architect Bill Blanski tells UnitedHealth Group's Bob Oberrender that it's better to build an office tower and surround it with green space than to build a lower building that covers up more of the landscape.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Knowing that helps explain why UnitedHealth Group's Bob Oberrender would eagerly point out features of his company's new building that are not necessarily tied to the bricks and mortar of the structure.

"This is kind of a soft campus feel. There'll be a walkway here, so people can walk over here."

A construction crane rises from a fenced-off site a short distance away. Little more than the foundation of the new building is visible. But in the foreground a sea of green grass, mature trees and a small man-made lake connect the site to UnitedHealth Group's existing headquarters.

Oberrender says all of this natural space is good for the environment since it allows rainwater to filter into the ground. And it entices people to get out of their offices. He hopes employees will criss-cross the campus regularly once their colleagues move in to their new office digs on other side of the lake.

"We're confident that most of the people will in fact want to walk. Clearly on a beautiful day like today, but even on a cold January day it would be a two or three minute walk."

Setting an example
Sheldon Strom with the Center for Energy and Environment in Minneapolis thinks more businesses will follow UnitedHealth Group's example. But he says it will take thousands of LEED buildings to really make a dent in the state's energy use.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

That's just one of the behaviors UnitedHealth Group hopes to encourage with its new building when two thousand employees relocate to this site. They currently work at 11 different locations scattered around the metro. Besides encouraging more foot traffic, the new space will be bike friendly, too. At least 80 stalls have been set aside for bicycles. Riders will have special entrances in the building that lead to locker rooms with showers.

For employees who drive to work, there's an incentive to use a hybrid car. They'll have first dibs on the best parking spaces on campus. Most of those spaces by the way will be in parking ramps, rather than parking lots - again, to minimize rainwater runoff.

If much of the campus design so far sounds simple, rather than revolutionary, that's because many of the concepts are rooted in common sense - especially when applied to the actual building structure.

"Businesses just need to say let's do this. Let's solve this problem. They're the big energy users so they need to be the ones to solve the problem."

"The thing to keep in mind is avoid the warm setting sun in the summer. It's going to cook in your building in the afternoon. So whenever you see a broad surface of a building facing the sunset, think bigger carbon footprint," says HGA's Bill Blanski, one of the architects on the project.

Blanski's group designed the widest part of UnitedHealth Group's building to face north and south which will save the company on energy costs. They also filled it with windows to let in as much natural light as possible. Light sensors will be located on the perimeter of the office tower to dim the lights and reduce energy use during the day.

There's even natural light in the stairways - typically an overlooked space in most buildings.

"We don't want to encourage people to hop in an elevator. You want to encourage them to take the stairs. So we have windows in every stairway. And that means they're not buried in the middle of the building. But they've been pulled out to the edge and become a bright, wonderful place to run stairs," he said.

These details even extend to the building's skin. It will be clad in limestone cut from a quarry in Mankato. Blanski says as you might expect, it's more energy-efficient to use local materials. The stone will be two inches thick instead of the standard four inches. It takes less energy to transport the thinner stone.

Not more expensive
UnitedHealth Group says it won't cost any more money to build its energy-effient "green" office tower than it would using more standard construction methods. The $100 million dollar building will be the second largest LEED-certified building in the state.
Photo Courtesy of UnitedHealth Group

There was a time not long ago, when all of these special arrangements would have added significant costs to a building. But UnitedHealth Group's Bob Oberrender says many so-called green building suppliers are becoming mainstream.

"What surprised me the most was in fact that you could have a building that is LEED certified and not incur costs that are more expensive than a non-certified building."

UnitedHealth Group estimates it will spend about $100 million on its 10-story office tower. When completed, it will become the second largest LEED certified building in the state. The largest is St. Mary's Duluth Clinic.

UnitedHealth Group is applying for basic LEED certification. But there are three other levels - silver, gold and platinum. Those levels require higher energy-efficiency standards and can add more cost to a building. Those estimates range from three to 10-percent.

The growing interest in LEED-certified buildings is welcome news to Sheldon Strom with the Center for Energy and Environment in Minneapolis. He says commercial and industrial buildings account for two-thirds of the energy use in the U.S. So efficiency improvements in these sectors could have a huge impact.

"Businesses just need to say let's do this. Let's solve this problem. They're the big energy users so they need to be the ones to solve the problem. The technology's there, the numbers are there, the economics are there, people need to just do it. But, they've got to do it by the thousands."

Minnesota's recently passed energy legislation begins to move the state in that direction. Lawmakers set a goal of having 100 LEED certified buildings by 2010. Strom acknowledges that won't be enough to make much of a dent in overall energy use in Minnesota. But he says after 25 years of promoting energy-efficiency, he's more hopeful than ever that people are finally ready to begin addressing the problem.

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