Saving the Earth Inside the Office
Discovery Turns Its Spotlight Inward

By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

Larry Laque, an executive with Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications, felt something amiss last year as his company began gearing up to announce a 24-hour television channel devoted to an all-green lifestyle.

Discovery would be preaching environmental awareness around the clock on its Planet Green network, but Laque thought the company was not doing all it could do to recycle, conserve energy and pollute less.

So when the company's chief executive, David Zaslav, requested ideas to help market the new channel, Laque proposed an initiative to "green" the two-building headquarters.

Walking through those two buildings last week, Laque pointed to several changes the company had made. Green-handled, low-flush toilets had been installed in every restroom. Three 400-gallon tanks in the garage stored rainwater to irrigate the company's lawn. And numerous unnecessary light bulbs had been removed, such as vending machine lights.

"I do believe it is a lot of little things that add up," Laque said last week, standing in one of several sun-bathed conference rooms. "We are a big part of the problem, but we are also a big part of the solution."

Discovery ultimately decided to seek the highest level of certification possible through the District-based U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program -- platinum status. Only 62 buildings in the United States have won the designation. Two are in the Washington area: the Sidwell Friends School, on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest D.C. and the Green Building Council's headquarters, on Massachusetts Avenue NW, just south of Dupont Circle.

The council's rating system has become the commercial real estate industry's benchmark for the design, construction and operation of environmentally friendly buildings. Businesses have rushed to embrace the system as fears of global climate change have become more prevalent and green credentials more marketable. Buildings are considered to be major energy consumers and big contributors of carbon emissions.

But even those who praise the LEED system say it is far from perfect. Developers get the same credit for taking steps that require relatively little effort as for those that require significant expenditures of time and money.

Nevertheless, the rapid acceptance of the Green Building Council's system has led to a transformation of the commercial real estate industry. New buildings are being erected to meet the new standards while real estate brokers seek accreditation from the council to better market existing office space to prospective clients. Green investment funds have been created by major real estate companies to pay for upgrades to existing buildings.

"I don't think any initiative that we have seen has been so quickly adopted and embraced in this business," said Mitchell N. Schear, president of Vornado/Charles E. Smith, a commercial real estate firm with a large presence in the Washington region.

The District and Montgomery County are among several local governments that have passed ordinances requiring that new construction adhere to the green standards.

The LEED system rates buildings by the number of points achieved in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, indoor environmental quality and innovation.

The certification process is typically conducted via the Internet. To certify a project, a developer or owner must first register the building with the council.

Once the building is ready, the owner works through a checklist and submits documentation to back up the claims. A decision is typically rendered in one to three months. The average cost of certification is about $2,500.

Certain minimum requirements must be met to achieve certification. For example, pollution from construction sites must be controlled, certain minimum energy requirements must be met, recyclables must be properly collected and stored, and smoking must be prohibited.

To achieve LEED certification, a builder or developer must earn at least 26 points out of 69. Achieving higher designations such as silver, gold or platinum requires more points. While a builder or owner is free to choose which points are pursued, reductions in both energy and water usage are often necessary to advance. Discovery, for example, reduced its water usage by 25 percent and electricity consumption by 26 percent as it strove toward platinum certification, according to Laque.

Company representatives declined to disclose how much the green initiative cost because Discovery is in a quiet period before an initial public offering, expected this summer.

For new construction, the push to achieve top certifications can lead a developer to embrace a collaborative design process in which architects, engineers and contractors discuss from the onset what is desired, what is possible and what is economically feasible.

The early discussion is important, analysts and builders said, because one design change can often affect another. A building's orientation, for example, may affect what kind of windows are installed, which may then influence the type of lighting employed or what heating or air conditioning system may be required.

Such collaboration is intended to consider these trade-offs to create a more efficient building, developers and analysts said.

"Really that line between architecture and construction has become blurred," said Marnie Abramson, a principal with the Tower Cos. "You have to have a more comprehensive approach."

But some see flaws in the way points are doled out. Bill Oatey, owner of the Oatey Co., a Cleveland plumbing supplier and manufacturer, had one of his company's distribution centers certified under LEED. What perplexed him was that he earned one point for building the plant on a cleaned-up industrial brownfield site and one point for installing a bike rack on the premises.

But if the system is not perfect, for Discovery's Laque it at least allowed his company to set energy-saving goals, foster a team spirit and engage in ruthless self-evaluation. And as the year drew to a close, Laque's ambitions grew.

"We are going for platinum, we are going to do it," Laque recalled telling his staff. "We are going to do this, or we are going to die trying."

The Green Building Council awarded Laque and his team the platinum certification this year.

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