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Arlington, Virginia Goes Green With New Environmentally-Friendly Building

Located just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C, is one of the greenest local governments in America. Earlier this year, Arlington County, Virginia won the Environment Protection Agency's National Award for Smart Growth. And on September 9, county officials will celebrate the opening of their first green building milestone.

It is built of red and beige bricks, but the Langsten-Brown School and Community Center is actually green. It starts on the roof, where two large tanks capture rain to use for watering the lawn and landscaping. Construction project manager Jeff Marlow says these two 400-liter water tanks represent just one of the building's environmentally-friendly features. "Sun shading devices would be another not-atypical feature structure in the building. All the windows are open to let the fresh air in when the climate outside allows that. Otherwise, it looks pretty much as a standard commercial building," he says.

Energy efficiency and water conservation are two important components in Green construction. Roger Mosier of Arlington Public Schools' Design and Construction Services says using sustainable materials is another requirement. "Some materials are just inherently harmful to the environment, that they can not be reused or recycled. For example, for flooring, a lot of people use vinyl tiles, which is all over the place," he says. "But it would be better if we do not use any tile at all and use just a nice attractive product like a concrete floor. Some other things we are using are recycled products such as weed board."

It's not only the building materials that were recycled on this site. The property itself is recycled, in a way. The building that once stood here was torn down to make way for the new school, and Mr. Mosier says much of that material ended up being used somewhere else. "By weight, we recycled 85% of the building and if you include dirt in that, as far as we are moving dirt from the site and using it in another location, by weight, we recycled about 95 percent, which frankly was very surprising to us. I do not think we were expecting to be so successful in recycling the materials in that existing building," he says.

All that extra effort means there's a higher cost for green buildings, perhaps 10 percent more than a conventional job. But construction project manager Jeff Marlow expects that to change. "The cost of the used materials comes down as some of these materials have become more in the main stream," he says. "Bamboo flooring in one of the rapidly renewable resources that we're using. In the past it was more of a designer feature. So obviously the demand lowers the cost."

And there is growing demand, encouraged by the U.S. Green Building Council. The construction industry group has developed voluntary standards for environmentally friendly design, called the LEED Green Building Rating System. Arlington County planner Dave Alberts says he is excited about the momentum the movement has already gained in the Washington Metropolitan area. "Five years ago when I wanted to hire architects for county projects, people did not know very much about green. They pretended they did. Now I've interviewed and looked at proposals from about 50 architects in the last three months working on the county projects," he says. "Every one of them got LEED trained people on their staff. That's almost entirely unheard of, even a year or two ago."

While some U.S. communities are mandating the Green construction code, Mr. Alberts says he thinks it should remain voluntary for at least another few years. "I think we got to prove ourselves in the market place so the developers, the owners the home builders and others are attracted to it because of its obvious inherent quality not because they are forced into it. Some people are impatient and want to mandate a code requirement in this regard. I think we got over a thousand people in the country that are now certified to participate in the design process of developing a green building," he says. "And now they are moving into some on going training and reinforcement to those people who are already in the movement." To encourage residential developers to voluntarily adopt LEED standards, Arlington's country board chairman and environmental advocate, Paul Ferguson, says the county provides some incentives. "There is a number of people that would like to do the right thing as far as energy efficiency and environment, but they do not necessarily have the information. So the incentive that we provided is we make sure that they get their building permits first before anyone else. And it has been gratifying to see the positive response from not only individual homebuilders, but also people that build a series of homes," he says.

Practicing what they preach, Arlington county officials plan to green the county government building by adding a rooftop garden. And here on the ground, officials hope that the opening of the Langston-Brown School and Community Center will encourage more green buildings to sprout in this neighborhood.