Building Green in a Red-Hot Market

VOL. 8 | NO. 26 | Saturday, June 20, 2015


Counting cranes has become a Nashville pastime, and the perks of all that development are clear – a robust economy, vibrant real estate market and more jobs.

Naturally, there is concern among some residents that all of the construction and increased population could harm the area’s environment, water and air quality and green space.

But does it have to go that way? How green is Nashville’s boom and how green can it remain? The best green development plans won’t trump unhealthy air or water or an overabundance of trash.

Other cities are solving similar problems and coping with the costs. Will Nashville follow the green development trends, be willing to pay for it and be able to give hordes of newcomers and new businesses the environment they demand?

“Development causes issues, but it is not rocket science to figure out how to not do that,” says Tiffany Wilmot, president of Wilmot Inc., a sustainability and green building consulting firm.

“Mayor Dean has done a good job at setting the stage for the next mayor to come in and do something. And we can look to other cities that are doing it, too.”

And it’s not just the usual suspects like Seattle and San Francisco that have embraced green development. Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Austin and Charlotte are at the forefront.

“Everybody is doing this now,” Wilmot says. “We don’t have to make it up ourselves.

“What we can do is look at what they have done and pull what will work for us. We can look at the places that do have the same geology as we do and what they have been doing.

“They are using new techniques, and old ones, and technologies to improve the environment rather than degrade it. I have a very positive outlook about this because we are not going to be the first. I don’t want us to be the last, but we have the benefit of being able to copy what other people have done.”

When growth works

One need only to look at The Gulch as an example of the growth boom that has been a boon for sustainability.

In 2007, the United States Green Building Council began a pilot certification program for large-scale developments called LEED for Neighborhood. The program certifies neighborhoods that integrate the principles of smart growth, new urbanism and green building, identifying projects that are pioneering examples of sustainable design.

The Gulch was one of only four projects in Tennessee to be accepted into the initial program, and after an 18- month effort, The Gulch achieved LEED ND certification at the Silver level in January 2009. At the time it was the 10th project in the United States to be awarded the LEED ND distinction and the thirteenth LEED ND project in the world.

“Environmentalists have been talking for a long time, decades, about how suburban sprawl is not good for the environment because of the intensity of energy that is used, and now that we are having pretty significant growth in Nashville, we are seeing that with all the infill development that is going on in Nashville, it is probably the most environmentally friendly way to grow as a community,” says Jeffrey Barrie, director of Sustainable Tennessee at Tennessee Environmental Council.

Some aspects that make The Gulch green, according to the Tennessee Environmental Council website, include 58 percent of businesses and residents being within a quarter mile of bike and walking paths, 82 percent of the old Javanco/Farber buildings being reused to create mixed-use projects, more than 6,000 area jobs located within a half-mile walk, and the use of LED traffic signals, which save 90 percent in energy costs vs. the old signals.

“The Gulch has become a shining national model of sustainable development because it is using previously vacant land in our inner core of the community, and the ratio of infrastructure costs to sales tax revenue is one of the best ever in our country,” Barrie adds.

In 2007, Metro passed an ordinance that all Metro buildings exceeding a set size would need to be LEED certified Silver or better, a move Wilmot says makes sense since buildings use 70 percent of the electricity in the country.

There are projects that don’t have to be LEED certified but are still doing it, like the Ben West Library on Union. And while there is no requirement that private companies seek LEED certification, many are.

Pat Emery, one of the most famous developers in town, does it because it is good business and makes his buildings better,” Wilmot adds.

“Community Health Systems are doing Green Globes on their buildings, a competitor to LEED. And what we have been finding is that people who are in green buildings are more productive, and it is really measureable in the number of sick days and number of hospital stays. If you can get everyone to take one less sick day a year in a huge corporation, that is incredible cost saving.”

Keeping up with demand

As Nashville continues to draw business talent from other parts of the country, the expectation is that when they do move here, there will actually be green buildings for them to move into, both at home and at work.

“From the stats that I have seen, it is mainly younger people and people who are coming with businesses who are moving here,” says Jeff Gowdy of Gowdy Consulting, which provides profitable sustainability solutions.

“There is much data that proves the younger generations below Generation X, which I am in, sustainability is an attribute for their career and work,” he says. “It might not always be No. 1, but it is proactively looked for.

“And that can be many things. It doesn’t always have to be a LEED-certified building. It can be proximity to green space, which is one of the great things we have here in Nashville.”

More information

Want to learn more about green infrastructure?

Urban Green Lab is partnering with LightWave Solar Electric, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Tennessee Concrete Association to present Net Zero Building and Pervious Paving, Monday, June 22, 2015, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at 705 Fort Negley Court to talk about sustainable building design and materials.  

Get an insider’s view at Tennessee Concrete Association’s experimental NetZero building, which is constructed entirely of concrete – walls, floor and roof – resulting in a structure that is energy efficient, disaster resistant and disaster resilient. The building uses natural ventilation, simple geo-thermal, and thermal mass to maintain a comfortable interior temperature year round with no HVAC system, and features a small solar electric system and rain water harvesting.

Wilmot says LEED buildings and nearby green space for workers is something relocating businesses are not only looking for, but expect.

“We even had the Chamber of Commerce contact us a while ago because they had people coming in asking where the LEED certified spaces are,” Wilmot says.

“Especially when you have places like Google coming and they say ‘Hey, we had it there, why can’t we have it here?’”

Stagnant recycling

Nashville’s curbside recycling program is a little more than a decade old, initiated in 2002.

Once a month, people living in single-family homes in Davidson County have their paper, cardboard, cans and plastic picked up by the city.

Despite recent growth, Jenna Smith of Metro Public Works says the participation rate has remained relatively flat for the past few years, with about 11,000-12,000 tons a year in recycling from curbside.

“There are cities that have a once-a-month curbside pickup recycling program, but we know – and statistics show – if you can start narrowing your program for weekly collection, you are going to get more tons of recycling,” Smith explains.

“There is more opportunity. We also have 12 drop-off sites throughout the county, and people can take recycling there. They are unmanned and cheaper to operate than a recycling program where you are using gas and trucks.”

Smith says Metro is always looking for ways to improve recycling participation and increase education since it is paid about $80 for each ton recycled, but has to pay $32 for each ton sent to a landfill.

In 2010, Metro Council passed a series of updated solid waste codes to change the way Metro handles waste, with staggered implementation.

“In 2011, we started with the yard waste ban,” Smith explains. “In 2013, we banned cardboard from trash containers, and coming up in a month we are banning e-waste (electronics). So all of these things together are an effort to reduce the amount of tons sent to the landfill.”

Smith points out that even though e-waste is one of the smaller portions of the solid waste stream, banning it from landfills is a big deal.

Josh Elliott, left, Chris Tanchez and Jenna Smith accept old computers, TVs and other electronics at the East Convenience Center off Trinity Lane. Beginning July 1, such electronics will not be accepted with curbside trash pickup.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

“The fact the materials contain a variety of potentially toxic containments, and because it is one of the faster growing segments of the waste stream, and because they are such a highly recyclable item, this is great thing,” she says.

Public Works proposed in April to have recycling collected twice a month, but it would have to be recommended by the mayor and approved by Metro Council.

“I think there is great room for improvement,” Barrie says of the program, called Curby, which also does not yet accept glass. “I want to be able to put my glass bottles in my recycling bin, but I take them to a convenience center because it is important to me. And more frequent pickups would allow participation to grow.”

All of Nashville’s trash is sent out of the county, and in 2013 the old Bordeaux landfill was reborn as a natural habitat and the 300-acre property even received the Wildlife Habitat Council’s Wildlife at Work certification.

The Bordeaux Landfill opened in 1973 and accepted trash for more than 20 years before closing in 1996. Currently, 16 native plants and 35 animal species call the closed landfill their home, including rabbit, beaver, wild turkey, hawks, kestrel, bluebirds and turtles.

“That says a whole lot about where we have come,” Smith says.

Air quality a concern

Traffic is certainly a primary concern in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. It isn’t just bad attitudes, missed appointments and road rage that keep residents upset. It’s all those idling cars mucking up Nashville’s air.

“Air quality is a major issue that, as our population grows, is the biggest environmental issue in Nashville and Middle Tennessee,” Gowdy says. “As more people move here and are working here and commuting here, we need to address that issue. We have relatively poor air quality compared to the rest of the country, and that affects all of our health and affects all of us financially.”

According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air ranking for 2015, the quality of air in Davidson County is considered unhealthy, based on EPA standards of short-term levels of ozone and daily and annual particle pollution.

“Nothing is going to change if we do nothing, so we need to find a way to efficiently move people to and from work,” Gowdy adds.

“And tourists too. We have a lot of great things to offer them, but what we don’t have to offer them is a way to get them around town efficiently, both in time and fuel.”

What about the water?

Reginald Wade of Metro Public Works helps keep Metro’s East Convenience Center tidy. The facility accepts electronics and other hazardous materials.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

Nashville’s Flood was five years ago, but the debate remains about how best to prevent it from happening again.

Mayor Dean’s proposed $100 million downtown flood plan, which includes a 2,100-foot floodwall along West Riverfront Park which already has a small portion built and improvements to the underground storm water system, was killed by Metro Council earlier this month.

Part of the problem was the cost, as well as the extra water the floodwall would push downstream.

“In my eight years in office, our city has experienced two 500-year flood events,” Dean said in a written statement following the vote.

“Moving forward with the flood protection system would have been the responsible thing to do as we work to protect all of Nashville from future floods. Downtown is the cultural heart and economic engine of Nashville, so it is unfortunate that we will not be protecting the downtown jobs and residents that add to our entire city’s vitality.

“I am disappointed for the many Nashvillians – including downtown businesses and neighbors from every part of our city – who worked hard in support of flood protection for our city.”

People keep moving here, and more people and more construction puts pressure on a storm water system that is already pushed to the max.

“We are at 100 percent capacity in terms of storm water in Nashville,” Barrie says. “In other words, our storm water system, when it rains, gets pretty full. That is why flooding is more likely in this condition, and every time there is a significant rain event there is a lot of sewage and pollution that gets in the river.”

It also is why there is a sewage smell downtown when there is significant rain.

“We are putting raw sewage in the water when it rains because of all of the development,” Wilmot says. “We don’t have as many trees to absorb the water, so the rainwater goes into the combined sewer and rainwater system, and then it overflows.”

The Clean Water Nashville Overflow Abatement Program is a 10-year, $1 billion dollar program led by Metro Water Services to reduce sewer overflow and improve water quality in the Cumberland River and its network of streams, creeks and tributaries.

But with so much concrete, there are only so many places for the water to go.

Selling green infrastructure

There are certain building and development measures that can be taken on for new construction that help minimize the impact on the environment and storm water runoff, called green infrastructure. It includes adding more trees, creating pervious surfaces that will absorb water, planting rain gardens and installing green roofs.

“Nashville and the surrounding area was a deciduous rain forest before humans came, so it kind of wants to be that,” Wilmot says. “It wants to have lots of trees and ground to soak up the water – that is the way it was created.

“Now we are calling that green infrastructure, reforestation and rain gardens, but it is nothing new. It sounds new, but it is kind of the way it has been going for millions of years.”

There are no regulations in place to make anyone do those things, and while there are various pilot programs going on, like the demonstration of pervious pavement and rain gardens at the Howard School, it currently isn’t the standard practice. Barrie looks at it as an opportunity for the city to step up.

“Every time we tear down an old house and build two, we are doubling that impervious state,” he says. “This is an opportunity for us to basically change the way we build our city and our storm water infrastructure.

“Because if we are at 100 percent capacity – we are going to be spending money anyway.”

But green infrastructure isn’t an easy sell says Dodd Galbreath, professor at Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice.

“It seems like there is a constant skepticism about sustainability being something that will overcome historical experience overnight, and then people want to criticize it and say it has no chance of being realistic when everything in human history has required significant transition to occur at scale,” he says.

“We are missing an opportunity to have an honest, collaborative effort to come up with a solution that matches the challenge.”

Galbreath says it will probably be up to the private sector to make anything on a large scale happen.

“The problem is we are all behaving like Thomas Edison before someone mass produced the lightbulb,” he says.

“We are not solving any problems. We are showing that it is possible for a lightbulb to work – we are not producing it at scale. The business community is the only institution on the planet that has the best experience at taking things to scale in an economically feasible way. The private sector has always risen to the challenge, and I think that is where we are now.”

It is Gowdy’s job to make sure sustainability is economically feasible for business, and he says he always has to make his case despite the fact that if the money wasn’t right, he wouldn’t recommend it.

“In terms of company culture, it is almost always asked to prove the financial value of sustainability,” Gowdy says. “It isn’t something we ask of our marketing department or IT department. We don’t go to the advertising team and say ‘What is the return on investment of this ad or this commercial?’ because we inherently know we have to do it.

“And the same thing with sustainability … We are overlaying this impossible hurdle to prove the financial value of every single action that is not required for 99 percent of business. It is very polar – you either get it and believe in it, or you don’t.”

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