Expo on Eco-Building Focuses on Turning Portland, Ore., 'Green'

Portland has long enjoyed a reputation for being "green" -- environmentally conscious. But more than 5,000 of the greenest of the green will judge for themselves at the nation's leading eco-friendly building conference.

PORTLAND, Ore. − Portland has long enjoyed a reputation for being "green" -- environmentally conscious. But more than 5,000 of the greenest of the green will judge for themselves at the nation's leading eco-friendly building conference.

The annual conference, known as Greenbuild, is organized by the U.S. Green Building Council, best known for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system, the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for eco-sensitive design and construction. But the council's larger agenda is what its leaders call "market transformation" -- turning the entire $300 billion U.S. design and construction market toward more energy-efficient, recyclable and healthy building processes and products.

The participants will arrive from 22 countries and 70 educational institutions. With 400 exhibitors, the expo will be largest showcase of green building products ever held.

Conference leaders also are expecting a groundbreaking international announcement: On Wednesday, the Ministry of Construction of the People's Republic of China will unveil a new green-building program to reduce that booming economy's energy consumption significantly by 2020.

"It's sounding pretty big," says the Green Building Council's co-founder and CEO, Rick Fedrizzi. "The Chinese have sat back, watched other countries, and now are ready to say what they want to do."


Overall, like most environmental confabs, the conference will be a wonky affair, equal parts eco-religion and technical training. Little of it is public. But the impact on the city already has been large.

For Portland, the two-year run-up to hosting the conference "gave us the focus to really articulate a pretty aggressive green-building policy for the city," says Rob Bennett, director of G/Rated, the city's green-building program.

Indeed, Commissioner Dan Saltzman will have a big announcement of his own: the tripling of Portland's green investment fund for new projects -- the only such grant fund in the country -- to $2.5 million.

Greenbuild places stringent demands on host cities. Among other things, easy mass transportation options must be available to every event and hotels, the convention center can't provide water in bottles, and hotels must not replace amenities, such as shampoo, until the containers are empty.

Yet competition to host Greenbuild is reaching Olympian levels among cities trying to brand themselves "green" to capture new eco-friendly businesses and idealistic college-educated youth.

"We're absolutely thrilled to be in Portland," Fedrizzi says. "It's great to come to a city that just gets it on so many levels."

Green -- or environmentally sensitive building -- has been around since the ancient Egyptians. America's version first sprouted during the '60s counterculture movement, gaining its first burst of high (if more efficient) energy after the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Global warming has motivated the movement's current surge, dating roughly to the 1992 Earth Summit of 172 countries in Brazil.

Fedrizzi and a tight group of advocates, federal energy officials and U.S. Navy bureaucrats had the idea of creating a simple sustainability rating system through the American Society of Testing and Materials.

In 1998, the group released its LEED rating system, which assigned numbers to both buildings and building processes. Based on such issues as energy efficiency, water management, avoidance of toxic materials and recycling of excess materials, a building could earn from a simple "certified" label on up to silver, gold and platinum ratings.

In the first year, a handful of builders signed on for projects totaling 1 million square feet. Now, six years since the program's inception, more than 1,600 projects have registered or earned certification. More than 5,000 organizations and companies have joined the council, and more than 16,000 builders, architects and developers have taken training to become LEED accredited.

"Our original goal of transforming the marketplace is taking place," Fedrizzi says of the development of hundreds of products that meet LEED standards. "And they're almost all U.S.-based jobs."

The General Services Administration now requires all federal building projects to reach the LEED silver standard. The Navy, Air Force and Army all use versions of the system. Ford, Honda, Sprint, Steelcase, Toyota and other corporations are building new LEED-rated facilities. Even speculative real estate developers are beginning to register their projects -- from the 48-story Four Times Square in Manhattan to The Henry condominiums in Portland's Pearl District.

The attractiveness of Portland for the conference, Fedrizzi says, is the 30-year-old petri dish of experiments with an urban growth boundary, regional government, transportation and, most recently, a city department devoted entirely to sustainability issues.

Portland's Bennett notes the timing is also lucky. With 5,200 registered attendees and perhaps another 1,700 likely to show up at the door, all of whom must be able to stay within easy bus, MAX or walking distance from the convention center, Greenbuild is outgrowing Portland.

"We're using every hotel room," Bennett says. "Portland is maxed."

What conference-goers will see is an organization in flux, its staff having tripled to 57 in three years with 14 more arriving by the new year. The council has faced down critical decisions about purity versus further expansion, recently opting to deny trade associations membership for fear of pressures for what insiders call "greenwashing" -- fashioning a camouflage of eco-sensitivity without the performance.

Despite all the growth, LEED still is being applied primarily to new government, education and foundation buildings, and only 10 percent of those. LEED commercial projects account for only 2 percent of the commercial building market. Developers and builders often complain about the cost of meeting LEED requirements.

Nevertheless, the building council remains in an aggressive expansion mode. Between the conference's inspirational lectures by the likes of Glenn Murcutt, a renowned Australian architect, the Green Building Council will release new LEED rating programs for commercial interiors and existing buildings. According to Fedrizzi, the new programs will expand the markets LEED is attempting to reach by nearly a hundredfold, covering everything from store shelving and lighting to cleaning products.

"Our biggest hurdle," he says, "is simply our speed of growth."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News