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Going green: How incubation programs are implementing sustainable building practices

by Corinne Colbert

February 2008

Not so long ago, it seemed that environmental awareness was for college students, aging hippies and the occasional Hollywood celebrity. Now, though, green is chic – hybrid and biodiesel cars are the new status vehicles, and former Vice President Al Gore took home both an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his warnings about climate change.

Environmental awareness is not a fad, especially when it comes to sustainable building practices, says Bert Gregory, FAIA, president and CEO of Mithun, a Seattle-based architecture firm that specializes in green design. “We are truly in the next industrial revolution,” he says. “I’ve been doing [green design] for a long time, and I’ve seen more change in the last six months than I have seen in the last 16 years.”

When NBIA asked incubator managers what they’re doing to green up their facilities, we found that there is a wide continuum of options available, from cheap-and-simple to significant investments in green technologies. Not surprisingly, incubators in the first category tend to be operating programs that aren’t looking to make major renovations.

Programs still in development are more likely to be the ones embracing environmentalism wholeheartedly. In part, that’s because they’re either building from scratch or renovating an existing facility, and thus are at a stage when they can plan for green features, instead of attempting a retrofit. But that fact also reflects new funding realities: According to the U.S Green Building Council, 13 U.S. federal agencies, 27 states and 103 counties or municipalities now require construction projects they fund to adhere to some level of green building practices.

Most use USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, a voluntary program, as a benchmark. The program awards points to construction projects in five categories: Sustainable Sites, Energy and Atmosphere, Water Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Materials and Resources. The number of points earned depends on the project’s actions (e.g., the percentage of construction waste that is recycled) and its choices in products (e.g., use of low-odor paints and carpets). Depending on a project’s overall score, it can be LEED Certified (the basic designation) or receive LEED Silver, Gold or Platinum designations.

Incubators and green buildings go hand-in-hand, managers say, because efficiency is important to sustainability. “We’ve been designing efficiently so we can have the most leasable [client] space,” says Jeff Corcoran, director of the SUNY Fredonia High Technology Incubator now under development in Dunkirk, N.Y. “You don’t [want] to have large open expanses that are very wasteful of energy.”

There is little about an incubator facility that would make green building particularly difficult. Electrical capacity is an example; if your program wants to go solar, make sure you can generate enough power for clients who may have higher demands. But in general, “there are a lot of choices out there” for building green, says Carol Lauffer, principal with Business Cluster Development in Palo Alto, Calif., who recently developed a business plan for a LEED Platinum incubator project in Washington.

Here are some tips gleaned from those who are doing their part to make incubation greener.

Get professional help

No matter the size of your green goals, expert advice is a must. If you want to green up your existing facility, start with an energy audit from your local power company. Most utilities will perform such audits free of charge.

Mark Long, president and CEO of the Indiana University Emerging Technologies Center in Indianapolis, did just that a few years ago. Indianapolis Power & Light offered some advice Long expected – such as turning down thermostats – but also pointed out some things Long hadn’t thought of. For example, the audit noted that the incubator’s loading dock and mechanical room, both of which are attached to the building, were uninsulated and thus prime culprits in heating and cooling losses. For less than $300, Long had insulation rolled into both spaces.

Long also talked with the building’s architect about the high-intensity spotlights in hallways and other areas. Not only were replacement light bulbs expensive, but the transformers also blew frequently and had to be replaced at $100 apiece. The architect recommended retrofitting the fixtures as fluorescents that would offer illumination of equal wattage at a fraction of the replacement cost.

Although he can’t pinpoint an exact savings figure on his utility bill from these changes, Long says his costs have gone down.

If your project seeks a LEED designation, you will definitely want help from someone who has experience with LEED projects. “[LEED requirements] are not kid stuff – it’s not just putting in an energy-efficient HVAC unit,” Corcoran says. LEED requirements run the gamut from how many trees are bulldozed in site preparation and how your contractor handles construction waste to whether you get feedback from residents about comfort and quality after the building opens. To help projects navigate the daunting process, USGBC has trained more than 40,000 LEED Accredited Professionals since 2001. While many of those are independent consultants, increasing numbers work for architects, design firms, contractors or government agencies.

If LEED certification is too ambitious, but you still want to make major investment in green technologies, try to find an architect or consultant with experience in green building who knows about the range of choices available in green technologies. “It’s a growing field, so there are more and more products coming on the market,” Lauffer says.

Don’t be put off by cost

In a 2003 study, the Sustainable Building Task Force, a consortium of 40 California state agencies, found that green construction could add as little as 2 percent to a project’s budget – and save 20 percent in costs over the life of the building. In a study published in 2007, construction consulting firm Davis Langdon found that projects could meet LEED requirements without any increase in cost, even though overall construction costs have increased by as much as 30 percent since 2003.

Try telling that to the uninitiated, though. “Until design teams understand that green design is not additive, it will be difficult to overcome the notion that green costs more,” the Davis Langdon report notes.

A good consultant, whether LEED accredited or not, can help you maximize your budget. “The process we use is to clearly identify the choices the client can make through the project so there can be tradeoffs in decisions relative to how they spend their money,” Gregory says. For example, Mithun designers use computer modeling to show clients how they can eliminate air conditioning costs by installing windows that open – as well as a range of choices in those windows to meet their budget. (In the Pacific Northwest, where many of Mithun’s clients are located, cooler temperatures can translate into less reliance on air conditioning.)

Input from his architect and an LEED consultant helped Corcoran convince his project’s design committee that a green building really was feasible. When green construction was first proposed, the committee resisted because it believed that would drive costs up. “The architects and consultant showed it really could be done,” Corcoran says.

Still, cost can be a consideration. Among Mithun’s current projects is Kitsap SEED, a business park development in Bremerton, Wash., that seeks LEED Platinum certification, the highest level available. Because the park’s focus is on clean energy, its developer, the Port of Bremerton, has set a goal of zero environmental impact – all energy generated on site, all waste recycled and all water reclaimed. “It’s not cheap, so we’re really out there in terms of costs,” says project coordinator Tim Botkin. “But we want to make a full statement.”

Less ambitious goals can have an impact without significant cost increases, Corcoran says. His 20,000-square-foot incubator will cost $4.7 million and feature showers for those who bike to work, preferred parking for fuel-efficient vehicles, water runoff recycling systems, and a “green roof” garden to reduce the building’s heat loss, among other technologies. “Are there some additional costs? Sure,” Corcoran says. “But is it to the extent that the stereotypes would have you believe? Not so far.”

In fact, implementing some green technologies can actually make you money. Some utility companies offer incentives – in reduced rates or even cash subsidies – for lighting retrofits and other investments in energy reduction.

Make your green status part of your value proposition

If you haven’t made green efforts yet, don’t be surprised if your clients start asking about it. Many of Long’s initiatives at IUETC, from the recycling program to converting fixtures to fluorescents, came from client requests. “We didn’t know it was that big a deal to them, but they said, ‘Yes, it is,’” Long says. “People don’t want to look like they’re not doing their part.”

For his part, Long is less interested in green for green’s sake than in the bottom line. So while he won’t rip out perfectly good faucets to install low-flow models, he did choose water-saving toilets when the incubator replaced those fixtures several years ago. “It only cost $20 more per fixture, and I knew I would save that much or more over the next five to 10 years,” he says. “It makes [clients] feel that I am conscious of trying to keep costs down so their rent and service fees are as far down as possible.”

Some aspects of green building make a facility move inviting. The Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise in St. Louis was one of the first 12 buildings in the United States to be LEED certified, earning LEED Silver. Clients who gather in the naturally lit atrium with its indoor garden and fountain, or who work in the labs with huge windows, may not realize these features are part of the building’s energy-efficient and clean-air technologies. “They just know they like being here,” says Susan Pais, Nidus’ director of operations. “They feel like it’s a warm place that is good for them to do their business.”

The Nidus Center’s green status has been a source of great publicity for the program, Pais says. “I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people have been through this building” to view its sustainable features, she says – including attendees at NBIA’s 20th International Conference on Business Incubation in 2006. Add the many articles in newspapers and magazines and “it’s brought us a huge amount of awareness,” Pais says.

The greenness of your building may be a deciding factor for some clients: “I actually talked to one potential client who said he would only go into a green facility,” Corcoran says. In fact, an incubator can become a showcase for its clients’ technologies. Kitsap SEED is banking on using its green credibility to attract clean-energy clients. “For example, one of our buildings will have a lot of solar panels,” Botkin says. “Hopefully we will find a company that realizes it can set up shop here and install those panels.”

Simple ways to get green

  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs
  • Retrofit T12 magnetic-ballast fluorescent fixtures for T8 lights with electronic ballasts
  • Install motion sensor lights in conference rooms and other areas used sporadically
  • Turn off lights, computers and other equipment when leaving
  • Set up a recycling program
  • Buy locally
  • Use less-toxic cleaning supplies
  • Ask your electrical utility for an energy audit (usually free)
  • Insulate loading docks and warehouses that are attached to the main building
  • Keep up with routine maintenance of HVAC and plumbing equipment
  • Install water-flow restrictors and aerators on faucets
  • Plant native species in landscaping
  • Offer preferred parking for carpoolers
  • Post/distribute public transportation schedules
  • Install bike racks and showers to encourage bicycle commuting

Greenness ratings for electronics

Developed by the Zero Waste Alliance through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool rates overall environmental friendliness of electronic products. EPEAT evaluates items based on 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria in eight categories, such as use of toxic materials, percentage of recycled content, energy conservation and corporate responsibility. Depending on the number of criteria met, products are rated bronze, silver or gold – making EPEAT a product version of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED designations for buildings. For information, as well as a searchable product registry, visit

Resources for greener workplaces

Commuter Choice
General advice for alternative transportation methods, as well as specific information for 18 U.S. cities

Energy Star
Lists of products rated for energy efficiency, plus strategies and tools to improve facility energy efficiency

News, research, tools and how-tos for greener business

U.S. Department of Energy
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
Includes calculators to estimate savings from energy-efficient HVAC systems, appliances and water technologies

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Myriad resources for environmentally friendly workplaces and meetings, plus links to voluntary federal and state environmental initiatives

U.S. Green Building Council Information on LEED certification and green building


Tim Botkin, project coordinator, Kitsap SEED, Bremerton, Wash.

Jeff Corcoran, director, SUNY Fredonia High Technology Incubator, Dunkirk, N.Y.

Bert Gregory, FAIA, president & CEO, Mithun, Seattle, Wash.

Carol Lauffer, principal, Business Cluster Development, Palo Alto, Calif.

Mark Long, president & CEO, Indiana University Emerging Technologies Center, Indianapolis, Ind.

Susan Pais, director of operations, Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, St. Louis, Mo.

Keywords: practices, in-house loan and equity financing program

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