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Green Building Plays Catch-Up in the US Midwest
Patrick Rollens, 24 Oct 07
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For all the Hollywood-style pop and sizzle that green building brings to cities like Seattle, Chicago and New York, there's still a broad swath of the United States where sustainable construction is still in its infancy. I experienced this firsthand during a trip last week to Cincinnati.

That's where I learned about Keystone Parke, an unassuming 68,000 square foot office project in the Evanston neighborhood. It is the metro area's first green office development, currently under construction "with the latest eco-friendly amenities which benefit the building occupants and the surrounding community," according to a press release from developer Neyer Properties.

But still -- the first green building in all of Cincinnati? How can that be? Here in the States, we're already laboring in Europe's shadow; they pioneered green building 20 years ago and aren't looking back. And, when considering the sheer volume of forward-thinking projects on the books in places like Oregon and California, it's easy to assume that it's just as easy for everyone else to jump right in.

As my trip to Cincinnati showed me, it's just not that simple. Green building requires the union of many disparate businesses: construction, interior flooring and furnishing, windows and more. There's a part for each of these sub-industries to play, and that's a good thing. But it's also a bit of a curse when you're dealing with the Midwestern states, which by and large can't boast the sheer level of activity and diversification needed in these sectors to push sustainable building forward.

Part of the issue, of course, is demographics. The Midwestern states are home to the smallest collective percentage of the nation's population; in fact, many former Rust Belt cities are actually shrinking as their college grads and retirees seek more vibrant locales. And these major cities are fairly far-flung, making it difficult to build a critical mass to grow the green building industry. The glut of available land in many Midwestern cities is also troublesome. Sustainable building comes on stronger in dense urban locales where it makes obvious sense to build up, not out. This often isn't a concern in the Midwest, with its wide open spaces and polluted brownfields ripe for redevelopment. Transportation distances are also a factor: LEED certification often involves using locally sourced construction materials, which are often outside the scope of a small commercial contractor in the Midwest.

But resources exist upon which to build a stronger network. Minnesota and Wisconsin have embraced sustainable building with a number of local projects. Chicago, Central Illinois, Cincinnati, Detroit, Greater Kansas City, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, St. Louis and West Michigan all host local chapters of the U.S. Green Building Council. Other areas are home to standout nonprofit groups, like the renowned Cleveland Green Building Coalition, which launched the career of Sadhu Johnston, now Chicago's Chief Environmental Officer.

The Midwest's superlative transportation infrastructure (read: mostly uncongested roads) has given rise to a whole host of conferences and trade shows on green building. These events draw from a multi-state region and enjoy growing support from their constituents. I spent time at Greening the Heartland in September, and it was a truly amazing event packed with resources and practices that could be applied immediately to the industry.

Perhaps most importantly, Greening the Heartland drew its' 700 attendees in spite of the fact that Chicago is poised to host Greenbuild in November. For such a volume of green building professionals -- all of whom have their own jobs and professions -- to attend Greening the Heartland in the shadow of Greenbuild...well, it's very telling about the state of the industry and everyone's collective hunger for information.

The coastal markets and select inland cities like Chicago will continue to drive the green building market for the forseeable future, but in our rush to make headlines, let's not forget the growing interest, talent -- and potential -- in the Midwest.

Image credit: flickr/Joe Dunckley

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I just returned from the Midwest Conference on Labor in the New Energy Economy ( in Cleveland. It was exciting to see a lot of labor people talking about training for Green Collar jobs, how green building practices need to be implemented in the trades, and such. The Midwest is definitely starting to take notice in places outside of the major cities. Ohio also has a couple of different energy bills on the table right now, and has a new rule requiring certified building operators. Gov. Strickland seems to be really passionate about clean energy, so look for good things from Ohio in the near term. Of course, they also have the most room to move, with the 4th lowest spending on energy efficiency of any of the states.

Posted by: Greg Ehrendreich on 25 Oct 07

Greg, good to hear from you. I agree, the Midwest is making strides. Specifically, I see the impetus coming from large firms opening up offices in mid-America Google's announcement that it's building a call center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for example. That's a great opportunity to build green and make a standout project for Iowa.

Posted by: Patrick on 26 Oct 07

I recently read that Ohio is considering using a large portion of tobacco settlement funds to LEED certify all public schools in the state. I have no idea if this will happen, since the settlement dictated other uses for the funds, but I'll hope that something green will happen to help the schools.

Posted by: Bill on 26 Oct 07

Just because a building isn't LEED doesn't mean it isn't green.

As for pioneering green building, I'm not even sure what that means. Tipis and yurts are green structures and have been around for centuries. In the Midwest, there was a lot of earth berm construction back during the Oil Crisis days of the 70s (and associated green building techniques like heavy insulation, passive solar, shielding from predominant winds, no windows on the north face, etc).

Colder climates have built "green" out of necessity for a long time (eg, sod homes) - things the temperate coastal locales don't really need to struggle with.

Posted by: WG on 28 Oct 07

Always one for promoting the Midwest, in both things we succeed and fail at, helps to bring change. However, since you made the trip to Cincinnati, maybe a more detailed description of the actual project and the community's reaction would have been a better angle. Mostly, you just state that there's an issue with out any solution. I live in Cincinnati, but I'm from Minneapolis and Madison, WI, and I realize what a Midwestern city like Cincinnati can accomplish. If this is it's first Green Building, then what is your take on how this was able to occur and the community's response to such an achievement?

Posted by: Andy on 28 Oct 07

I've written recently about the short falls in Pittsburgh's reputation for green building. Despite those shortfalls, and even though as a Pittsburgher I have a hard time thinking of the city as midwestern, I'm not sure how it can it be left out of the discussion of this article. Pittsburgh hosted Greenbuild a few years ago; its convention center, whatever its flaws, was the first LEED-certified convention center (gold-rated); and local banks such as PNC have pushed forward opening both large LEED office buildings and LEED-certified retail branches.Pittsburgh's grocery store, Giant Eagle, has gone LEED, and Carnegie Mellon University serves as a laboratory of green building strategies of all kinds. What's more, the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments have been an important funder of green building both here and elsewhere.

In fact, instead of playing catch up, there are buildings throughout western Pennsylvania that have been LEED-certified for years and were often among the first of their kind.

I'd be careful about extrapolating how an entire region of the country lives up to a certain trend merely by looking at what one city in that region is doing.

Posted by: Tim Schooley on 29 Oct 07



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