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Success Story - Felician Sisters Convent (2)

Laura Nettleton, Architect

Felician Sisters Convent, Coraopolis, Pennsylvania

The Felician Sisters' project made us of an existing building and achieved a high level of environmental performance.

You've worked with many clients. What was noteworthy about the Felician Sisters' project?

"Many things. But something I'd note for anyone in an institutional setting with different groups of stakeholders is communication -- to inform, to motivate and to manage expectations. The Sisters did an excellent job at this. In this case, presentations were made to those sisters uninvolved in the practicalities of the building process, and interactive workshops took place focusing on change and how to embrace it….so that 90-year-old sisters were saying, 'I'm so excited about this…I can't wait to move into my new room.'"

What are some of the things people should think about when selecting an architect or contractor for a green building project?

"This is a much more important question now than several years ago--because of the growth in green building. You need to make sure you ask potential architects and contractors very specific questions--like: What contributions did you make to such-and-such a project to make it greener? Or, how would you make that project greener today if you were doing it again? If they can't convincingly answer questions like that, then they aren't really being thoughtful about being green, they just know the market's asking for it and they're along for the ride."

In a green building project, how much is in the planning and how much in the doing?

"Without planning there can be no success because you won't know where you're going. But remember that execution is important, too, because you can only "spec" things (specify products and procedures in a detailed way) so much. Some things you can't really spec. So, for instance, you can spec that you want adhesives that comply with the South Coast regulations outlined in LEED. But maybe you have a sub-contractor who wipes some pretty toxic product on a wall to hide a blemish. Well, that kind of thing might throw your VOC targets right out the window. What you need is your general contractor truly to care and be alert to what's going on at your site. You also want to see your architect visiting the site fairly often and checking into things as well."

The Felician Sisters used solar panels on the roof of their existing building, and on several ground-mounted arrays.

You've worked on green and conventional building projects. How would you compare their costs, and how would you suggest organizations think about those costs when establishing their budgets?

"To those who'd question the cost of green building, I'd say three things. First, remember the spiritual component of green building, just as you remember, for example, the spiritual component of your education programs. Not all decisions are about what is cheapest. Sometimes it is about what is right and furthers our values. Second, many aspects of green building have significant unknowns connected with them, like energy…who knows what oil will cost next year or the year after? It's just very, very difficult to put all of that into a spread sheet to compute a breakeven date. So, you want to make the decisions that will isolate you from such unknowns as much as you can. Third, green building doesn't always cost more. Sometimes, green technologies are exactly comparable or less than conventional ones.

"Also, don't forget that your project will involve many decisions. Some green possibilities just won't make sense for you. A good example at the Felician Sisters' project had to do with the possibility of using the building's flat roof as a rain collector and repairing an existing, but non-functional, in-ground cistern to provide "gray water" for flushing toilets. Well, we looked at it, and it just didn't make sense…it was going to require running another water line parallel to the potable waterline throughout the building up from the cistern. Too expensive. Then one day the mechanical systems sub-contractor said: 'You know, you could run that water to the evaporative cooling unit for the AC--it'd be a single line from the cistern to the unit, it'd cut down on the municipal water you've got to buy, and you'd be producing less sewage you've got to pay for.' So, we did it, and it saved money."

As green building projects rapidly expand, what aspect of green building do you see changing most dramatically?

"The market for sustainable and healthy materials is just exploding. Your architect and builder ought to be on top of this. But you can be too. I'd recommend the Environmental Building News as an information resource and especially its GreenSpec Product Directory--it costs a little money but its well worth it--it's like a Cook's Magazine comparative value approach to green materials--it tells you what to get and where to get it. For both, visit BuildingGreen.com.

"Also for materials, see if one of the new green materials retail stores is near you--like Artemis here in Pittsburgh--it would make for a great field trip to demonstrate to members of your community the range of sustainable and healthy materials that are affordable for your building project."

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