Going green is no longer a dream, as more and more businesses embrace the savings in energy-efficient design. But it can take years to recoup initial investment costs – and that requires patience.
David Owan is a patient man. Owner of the Fourth and University Medical Building in Spokane Valley, he understands that choosing an environmentally healthy building – one that will drastically reduce his energy consumption and bills – means waiting.
“I wanted to have a building that provides a good service to the community and utilized resources as much as possible,” Owan said. “I know it was more money up front, but this decision made good business sense.”
The green backbone of this Baker Construction project is an energy exchange unit, providing both radiant heat and cooling.
“One of the most unique aspects of the building was the use of a ground-source heat pump,” said Baker project manager Lucas Holmquist. “With this technology they can heat and cool their building as well as their domestic hot water using this one system.”
The distinct advantages of this system, Holmquist said, include 70 percent more efficiency than resistance heating, longer interior and exterior life of the building and reduced greenhouse gases.
Randy Wilkinson of L&S Engineering, of Spokane, helped design the system for Owan’s building. “A geothermal heat pump system can provide all the heating and cooling needed by harvesting heat from, or rejecting heat to, the ground,” Wilkinson said.
Far less energy is required compared to traditional heating and cooling systems, he said.
In choosing to go geothermal, Owan said he no longer has to worry about the unstable costs of natural gas. “No one could tell me what my utility bills would be in 10 years” under conventional heating, said the co-owner of Youthful Horizons Therapy, which occupies part of the building.
Other Spokane-area businesses have gone green, but Owan’s building is unique in that L&S Engineering received permission from the Washington State Department of Ecology to drill 200 feet to the aquifer and tap the water as an energy source. Downtown Spokane’s Saranac building is the only other building in the past 15 years to be granted such drilling rights in Spokane.
“One challenge was to get all of the required approvals to construct and operate the water wells,” Wilkinson said. “Our company was involved with successfully making the case to the Washington Department of Ecology that use of groundwater for geothermal heat pump systems should be allowed even if other water right applications are not allowed.”
A 2007 state policy instructs Ecology Department field offices to give priority to proposals for geothermal heating and cooling systems.
“Geothermal heat pumps that use groundwater do not deplete the water resource, and enhance the environment by using less energy, and avoid use of fossil fuels,” Wilkinson said.
While going green comes at a cost, some savings are immediate. “The heat exchange unit alone cost around $690,000. This is more than twice what it would have cost for a conventional heating and cooling system,” for the 23,000-square-foot building, Owan said.
A traditional HVAC system would have cost him about $4,000 per month in energy bills. With his green system, he says his heating and cooling is about $1,200 per month – a 70 percent reduction.
“But it will take about five years before I fully realize the benefits of this,” Owan explained.
Wilkinson said he believes a payback period of 20 years or less is reasonable. In addition, a federal tax credit, local utility company tax incentives, an improved building depreciation schedule and other tax deductions help ease the burden of green investment.
Owan is playing another waiting game. His building was designed to accommodate solar panels, but he has not installed them. Owan was advised that solar technology changes rapidly and the costs will come down, so he will wait. He paid for the set-up, he said, so when the time comes the building will be ready.
In addition to the geothermal heat pump, Owan’s 8-month-old building boasts other energy-efficient and environmentally friendly features:
• An energy recovery unit which captures 75 percent of energy that is normally lost.
• An ozone-treated swimming pool, which cuts harmful chlorine exposure for humans and the environment, from about five parts per million to one part per million.
• All lighting and faucets are on sensors.
• The radiant heat extends to deice the sidewalks outside the building, reducing liability in the winter.
• The temperature system is monitored on a state-of-the art climate control system, so that when a room is empty for longer periods, the ambient temperature automatically goes down a few degrees.
While Owan waits for his investment to pay off, he’s confident he made the right choice for the environment as well as his staff and clientele.
“It’s worth the wait,” said Wilkinson. “The strategy where we simply build commercial buildings for the fastest return on the dollar is not sustainable in the long run. It consumes more resources, more energy, makes more waste and creates buildings that are ready to be torn down in 20 years.”
And going green affects everyone, he added: “People like to come to work in a healthy, efficient building that makes them feel good about the choices they’ve made, like David Owan did.”