Wilder Center paves University Avenue green

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Here’s a challenge for you to try at your office tomorrow. Fit all of your waste into a five-inch trashcan. Go ahead, walk your recyclables over to the super organized recycling area. Take a look at your lighting situation. Flip the switch on only when it’s not streaming in from the windows. Did you stop for that paper cup of coffee from your morning commute? Don’t do that. And while you’re at it, try biking to work, carpooling, or taking public transportation.

Seem tough? Maybe it’s because your office just isn’t set up to help you out in these green endeavors. That’s where the Amherst Wilder Foundation’s new Wilder Center on Lexington and University Ave in St. Paul probably has a step up on your office.

Driving a “Fuel Efficient and Carpool Vehicle” lands you a VIP parking spot in the Wilder Center’s parking lot. Bike commuters can clean off their sweat in private showers, and employees have five-inch wastebaskets to remind them to recycle as much as they can.

Building green also meant providing Wilder Foundation employees with plenty of natural light. Traditional office buildings have private offices along the exterior windows that block off natural light from cubicles. At Wilder, however, cubicle walls are lined with glass at the top. This lets more natural light into the cubicle area, which faces exterior windows. Besides making a more comfortable working environment for employees, the use of natural light reduces the amount of energy needed to light the Wilder building.

Then there’s the noise—or the lack of it. One of the defining features of the building is the air quality system, which reads carbon dioxide levels and pumps in air from the outside accordingly. The system is so much quieter than traditional methods of air quality control that you could hear a pin drop—literally. The noise of colleagues clicking on keyboards got so distracting without the sound of traditional air vents that Wilder had to bring in a noise machine.

Brad Baso, the Wilder Foundation project manager for the $35.6 million building, said the Wilder Foundation would get its money back on the green investment in three ways. They increase their fundraising prospects from other foundations because building green sets them apart from other organizations with similar missions. The building also reduces operating costs in the long term by cutting its energy consumption by 50 percent, compared to what it would have been without green standards. Finally, Wilder says employee productivity has increased by roughly 1.5 percent due to improved air quality and natural lighting.

“It may not seem like a lot,” Baso said, “but multiply it by all the employees and start doing the numbers over a long period of time, and you have significant savings.”

Douglas Pierce, Senior Associate at the architecture firm Perkins + Will, connects his clients’ missions to issues of sustainability, water, land use, and climate change. Pierce says this isn’t always an easy connection to get his clients to see, but in this case Wilder Foundation staff were quick to get on board. They quickly started to make connections between climate change and sustainability to their work with refugees, the homeless, and other vulnerable populations.

Baso concurred with Pierce’s assessment, saying, “when you make these connections as explicitly as Doug does, it becomes a moral imperative to build green.”

How “green” is a green building?

The Wilder Center is certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED is the nationally recognized benchmark for high-performing green buildings.

Getting LEED-certified can feel like the sustainable architecture Olympics, with architects, engineers, and building owners flexing their green muscles for a gold medal. The LEED system gives out intricate scorecards that tally the overall environmental impact of a building based on sustainable use of land, water, energy, and materials/resources. LEED then gives the building certified, silver, platinum, and gold awards.

Shooting for a good LEED ranking gets cumbersome during the design process. For example, the Wilder building lost LEED points for not building a “green” roof, but gained points for building a multilevel parking lot. Many of the trade offs and decision- making has to do with staying within an allotted budget, which can make it difficult to achieve maximum sustainability standards. A building could potentially focus on water and land use without tackling its energy consumption and still get a positive LEED ranking. For its part, the Wilder center is still shooting for gold in the LEED ranking.

While the system sometimes feels like a kindergarten kid trying to impress his teacher for a gold star on the forehead, Pierce says it is necessary to promote more green building.

“As a society, we respond really well to checklists and tests,” Pierce said. “As soon as you stop looking at the checklists, people start to slack off. Maybe in the future we won’t need LEED because people will automatically build green. But right now it’s very useful.”

According to the Mississippi Headwaters chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), at least fourteen buildings are going through or have completed the LEED process in St. Paul. At least three other buildings that are going through the process are not listed by the council’s website. Laura Millberg, a member of the USGBC board of directors, says some buildings may be in the process of LEED certification, but don’t make it onto the USGBC’s radar until they are completely certified.

LEED certification is not the only way Minnesotans engage in sustainable design. Minnesota simultaneously developed the State of Minnesota Sustainable Building Guidelines as the LEED model developed nationally in the 1990s. These standards are similar to LEED, but focus on reducing energy consumption, materials and long term operating costs, increasing air quality. These standards are in some ways more aggressive than LEED and focus more on Minnesota climate.

The standards for building green in the government just increased in the last legislative session, where the state passed the Sustainable Buildings 2030 Proposal. The bill, sponsored by Senator Yvonne Prettner Solon (DFL-Duluth), requires all state government buildings to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions incrementally, with the goal of making buildings carbon neutral by the year 2030. The legislation only applies to state-bonded buildings and doesn’t yet affect the private sector.

Building Green in St. Paul

St. Paul is making strides in green architecture. Green buildings have begun to sprinkle the University Avenue corridor. Among these are the St. Paul Police Department building on Hamline and the Gordon Parks School, which received an award from the city of St. Paul last year for going green. The Wilder Foundation now joins the SPPD and Gordon Parks to make up a mix of privately and publicly owned green buildings along University.

Anne Hunt, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of St. Paul, says awareness about sustainable building practices in St. Paul has increased in the past two years. Hunt cited a recent conversation with Tonya Bell of Wellington Management, an investment management firm, about the their projects on University Avenue near Highway 280. “They’re having potential clients asking them to build green, and [Wellington] feels like they have to build green because the market has really transformed in the past two years,” Hunt said.

State and city offices that will inhabit their buildings for a long time push green architecture because they get an economic return on reduced energy costs. In contrast, developers who build and sell their property immediately have little or no economic incentive to build green. This is where client-driven demand for green building can have an impact on the private sector. “You’re starting to see the private sector go green more and more because the clients are starting to demand green buildings,” Hunt said.

Hunt says the Wilder Foundation exemplifies the new client driven interest in building green. “It’s true, they’re a human services organization,” Hunt said, “but they didn’t receive city money for the building and they put a lot of thought into a making a green building. And it’s beautiful.”

Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva (peterson.delacueva@gmail.com) does community outreach for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and contributes reporting.