It Isn't Easy Being Green

Register now

Alternatives Federal Credit Union has long manifested its name in many of the products and services it offers. But the decision to apply the same philosophy to its new headquarters by erecting a "green" building, set it and its design/ build firm off on a path of learning and discovery about environmentally-friendly construction.

The results will be seen this August when the facility will be completed and will feature everything from recyclable carpets to a grass parking lot, along with less visible investments AFCU reports cost more on the front-end but will save the credit union money in the long run.

"We wanted to be able to say we had actually improved the land," explained Bill Myers, CEO of the community development CU. "We actually have a history of being environmentally concious. It's one of our core philosophies. We have long offered special financing for building environmentally sound homes, and discounts on auto loans if the vehicle exceeds the EPA standards. When we were getting ready to build a new facility we asked our members what they wanted to see, and this was one of the things we were consistently hearing."

When Alternatives selected design/build firm PWCampbell to do the job-providing it could meet the credit union's green objectives-it was a new challenge for the firm, according to Bob Saunders.

"Alternatives came to us and said, 'Sure, this building looks good, but are we being good stewards for the environment?' " Saunders related. "No one had really asked us that before."

That sparked a quest to find construction methods and materials that were not just environmentally friendly but affordable, as well.

"We're not doing any of the really beyond-the-pale kind of stuff like radiant heat embedded in the floors, solar energy or geothermal heat-we simply couldn't afford to do that," Myers commented. "But there is a lot of stuff out there that pays for itself."

And that's what AFCU strove for right from the very beginning-including the tear down of its existing building. "We hunted around for dumpsters that have partitions in them so the construction workers can see that cardboard goes here, for example," he observed. "They don't have to be really interested in recycling; if we can make it easy for them, they'll do it."

Building 'Deconstructed'

AFCU also didn't simply demolish the old building, it went through a process called "deconstructing," which calls for stripping the building of usable items or materials, first. "We went through and looked for things like light fixtures or even all the copper tubing that could be used by someone else," Myers recalled. "We didn't charge (people) for it, but we said you had to show up by a certain time to come take it out."

The credit union also did some environmental remediation when it discovered that there was gas in the ground that required clean up.

Prior to beginning construction of the new facility, Alternatives explored ways to eke out energy savings and environmentally correct materials that wouldn't bankrupt the CU. One such item: using more steel in place of wood and concrete.

"First of all, the steel is recyclable, and it means we're not killing a bunch of trees," noted Saunders. "But when we use steel instead of wood beams, it means we can make those beams wider without the additional cost that would be involved to upgrade from a 2-by-6 to a 2-by-10 if we used wood. So, now we've got wider beams at less cost, and we can put more insulation in the wall because we've used those wider beams. When you do use concrete, you can use a higher fly-ash concrete, too."

Inside the building, one of the most important energy-saving investments is getting a truly efficient HVAC system and using a higher insulation standard, such as windows with triple panes, according to Myers. "In most states, there's an environmental incentive program. We have one in New York," he explained. "If we exceed the environmental standards set by the state, we get a rebate for 20% of the cost to build to that higher standard."

But the environmental considerations on the interior of a building go far beyond just HVAC, efficient lighting and improved insulation: the walls and floors themselves are a big-ticket item, too.

"Carpet is one of the worst materials out there," Saunders observed. "The glues used are part of the problem, plus disposing of it when it has to be replaced. There's a company now that sells carpet that will take it back seven years later to ensure that it gets shredded properly. One of the things we've looked at is bamboo flooring, and linoleum, of all things, is very environmentally correct. There's also recycled tile, and you can use walk-off mats made of recycled tires. It's one small step, but that's how it's done."

Using paint that doesn't require toxic thinners is another way to respect the environment, Myers added. "We had to do a lot of fact finding, even working with furniture companies to learn how fabrics can be more environmentally conscious," Saunders continued. "Had Alternatives not asked the question, we wouldn't have thought to do this, but the guantlet was thrown down."

How Lot Was Constructed

Perhaps one of the most unique and immediately observable differences at Alternatives' new building will be the parking lot. "The problem with paving the world is that water has nowhere to go," Myers noted. "We will have a green parking lot-literally."

Alternatives is having a plastic polymer layer made up of two-inch think hexagons that link together. The holes in the hexagons will allow grass to grow up through the polymer, but the polymer will take all the weight of the cars so when cars park they will literally park on the grass, but the grass will not be crushed.

Not only does this allow the site itself to truly be green in every sense of the word, but it also ensures better drainage and reduces sunlight reflection, which in turn will help keep down cooling bills.

"It's kind of fun, and ours is the first in our region," Myers said. "It ought to stand out, because instead of a building surrounded by pavement, ours will be surrounded by grass."

Indeed, there are things that can be done with landscaping to make a site more environmentally correct. Using natural ground cover instead of grass eliminates the need for watering and mowing, Saunders offered.

"Yes, some of these things cost more up front, but over time-and not necessarily a whole lot of time-they pay for themselves," Myers said. "A financial institution is ideally situated to take advantage of this."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.