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IT'S EASY BEING GREEN: An Interview With Stuart Silk Architects and George Constantine

Ed Note: Visit Stuart Silk Architects and Constantine Builders, Inc. at the 2013 PNDC in the Source Booth at Meydenbauer Center. For years, conservation and going green meant sharing an objectionable esthetic with tree huggers, Kalso Earth Shoes and the Cadillac Cimarron (anyone remember these? Parrish, you don’t count). And even some recent efforts seemed to have skipped the design phase entirely, with Kriston Capps noting in The American Prospect in 2009, “The field of architecture is experiencing a design crisis, with clients ranging from private owners to cities demanding that architects prioritize sustainability above all else — as if design itself were an obnoxious carbon-emitter.”

Jump ahead to the present — to work being done here in Washington by WSDA endorsed companies Stuart Silk Architects and Constantine Builders, Inc., and you’ll quickly understand that all is not lost when it comes to building and designing green. Not only can the structures save energy, provide a healthier environment for its inhabitants, and save money (that’s right, save money), but they can be beautiful, too. Silk principals John Adams and Stuart Silk were recently tasked with authoring a chapter on creating a green office for the ADA’s Practical Guide Series, in part because of their award-winning Orion Dental Building in West Seattle. The winner of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) award for Office Development of the Year in 2011, the Orion Building was honored for its quality construction, design and use of sustainable materials. 

The architects at Silk cut their teeth in sustainable design on upscale residential homes — with clients every bit as concerned with aesthetics as they were with embracing the green movement — through a program called Built Green devised by the Master Builders Association. John Adams of Stuart Silk explains, “It was very successful because people became adamant about wanting their houses built green – they wanted a healthier air environment, more sustainable product choices, and energy savings. Homeowners drove the conversation, and in relatively short order, we completed something like 30 houses over five years.” The firm was successful because they continued to design great homes without sacrificing the look, aesthetic and function to make the house green. Rather, they figured out green strategies that fit in with the way their clients live.

It helps, too, that new materials and options are rolling out every year that make being green easier and more aesthetically pleasing, even in dental practices. In fact, Silk and Constantine recently broke ground on a project for WSDA Member Dr. Michelle Wilson, where they’re incorporating some green ideas and technology into their new practice space.

Whether you’re looking for simple ways to reduce your energy consumption and create a healthier environment for your staff and patients, or ready to build your own Leeds Certified (more on this later) practice, these two endorsed companies can help make it happen. Much of this work requires an up-front investment, so you’ll need to think about all the potential returns on your investment – not just that you’re saving water or energy, but that going green can be a better business decision as well, with far-reaching potential for your practice, staff and patients. The WSDA News recently spoke with principals from both companies about the myriad options out there.

How important is being green to the consumer/patient?
John Adams, Stuart Silk Architects: Other than energy savings, people really see value in healthy buildings – there’s a lot of discussion about indoor air quality – the EPA believes the air quality in buildings is far worse than outside air, even if you’re in a metropolitan environment. And by doing relatively simple and increasingly cost neutral things — like carpeting and paints that are low or no VOC* — green solutions are trumping traditional options. These are easy to implement – soft goods like carpet in an office might be replaced in a lobby every five years, and putting in good walk-off mats are simple and effective ways that every office can be more green. LED lights are another great example — five years ago, compact fluorescent bulbs were all the rage, and now LEDs are becoming the standard and are more cost effective. We resisted using LEDs just a couple of years ago because they weren’t dimmable in an intelligent kind of way, and our customers wanted that. Now we’re able to install them with much more certainty, and it’s starting to work. Technology is changing and getting better all the time, and we’re starting to see more standardization — just as we did perhaps five years ago with organic foods – what was organic, who was certifying it, etc. It just takes time.

How does going green increase the value of a building?
JA: Some studies have shown that green properties have increased or held their value a little better than their counterparts that aren’t green. If somebody is leasing their office for ten years, they’re seeing that if they have a choice of two similar properties where one is green and one isn’t, all things being equal, they’ll often take the green building. Currently the properties that are green move faster on the market. They might not lease for more money, and they might not necessarily be generating higher revenues for building owners, but they are leasing out better. Additionally, some green products allow us to build in more square footage, and that creates additional value when leasing and selling a building.

How does the cost of building green compare to building using traditional materials and methods? How does it affect the timeline of a project?
George Constantine, Constantine Builders, Inc.: It depends on the project and technology being discussed. In general, if properly planned before the start of a project, the cost of going “green” can be extremely low. For example a more efficient HVAC system may cost more to install initially, but may have a economic pay back of three years. In that case, many of our owners have elected to install the more efficient HVAC system. CBI has a LEED Accredited Professional on staff who leads the effort for all our green projects. 

In the ADA’s Practical Guide Series, you talk about tax incentives for building green. What are they?
JA: That’s a constantly shifting market. Municipalities are always offering new and different incentives while others are expiring because of changes in legislation. They tend to be equipment-oriented and are similar to residential incentives — efficient hot water heaters, windows, insulation, and solar collectors all have significant credits available (for a list of current incentives, check here. We have to evaluate with each project, and you have to have a good accountant to weigh cost benefits of employing any of these in your building.

There are so many different certification programs, how do I know which, if any, is right for my practice?
JA: They all hit different points — there’s an emotional part of certification – being a good guy, and contributing to an overall environmental solution, the other part is the return on investment. Since the great recession most of our clients are evaluating things less on an emotional level and more about the potential ROI.
If you’re really interested in long term performance – you’re not just a dentist, but you’re a building owner and you’re really passionate about sustainability, then the Living Building Challenge ( might be something you might want to look at (The recently finished Bullitt building in Seattle is an example — That’s oriented towards long term, ongoing verification, and that could be very beneficial to you to be a part of that movement. 

If you’re just more interested in saving energy and water and cutting your utility bills, Energy Star is more oriented toward energy usage. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — certification has been the gold standard for many years and continues to be, and if you’re interested in having a very well known, credible and highly marketable credential, it is probably most appropriate. 

Each dentist or client has to determine which certification program is best, and then must decide if they even want to pursue certification — it is costly and time-consuming, and often just completing the bricks and mortar work towards certification is satisfying enough. The choice of builder can be critical, especially if you’re certifying. There are many hoops to jump through, and even when the builder has done their best, things can go wrong. Even something as simple as using the wrong caulk can hinder certification. Everything from materials to waste disposal must be tracked, and you often have to do a commissioning and verification afterwards. Certification alone can cost one percent of the total cost of the building, although it varies greatly. Some people don’t have the stomach for the bureaucracy of certification — it’s not a government run program, but it might as well be. With issues like that, it’s easy to understand why the certification process can be so costly. 

In Centralia, the Wilson’s weren’t interested in certification, so we ended up focusing on passive green strategies that made the building more healthy and habitable, like low VOC paints and carpet, a reflective roof, and plenty of natural light to curtail the use of electricity — simple ways to be greener and save money. They feel good that they’re doing the right thing for the environment and energy resources, and they can tell their patients who are interested in conservation about the choices they made without having to certify the space. 

How do you advise clients when they are interested in certification?
GC: It is extremely important that the team is committed and that both the architect and contractor are knowledgeable in the certification process and what is required. We advise our clients on the cost/benefit of various strategies being discussed by the team. We educate the owner so that he can make an informed decision on what is best for their project. Our job is to implement the team’s project vision as efficiently as possible and make the process as turn key as possible for our clients.

You talk about additional savings by building green, what are they?
JA: People submitting green permits in Seattle can shave at least two weeks off the permitting process, and Seattle offers them a single point of contact – a permitting liaison, if you will — which is typically not the case. Every permitting authority has different programs, of course. Expedited permits can save money a number of ways, through lower carrying costs, lower professional costs (if the permit is expedited, it’s easier for your professional design team, which in turn should lower your costs). 

What about energy collection and other options? Are they a part of the conversation here in Washington?
CG: We have looked at solar panels for several clients, but Washington has some of the lowest electrical costs in the nation, which diminishes their ROI. As the cost of solar panels come down, and if the price of electricity increases, we may see more individuals choosing to put solar panels on their projects. We have installed several living roofs which help reduce the heat island effect of the building and the level of storm run off from a building, and we have also installed several large cisterns for clients that collect rain water to be used for watering their landscaping

What are the most common retrofits clients can do to make their buildings more green?
GC: The most common is increasing energy efficiency by reducing consumption. This can range from replacing light fixtures with more efficient models and bulbs to installing sun shades to shield their space from the sun, minimizing the use of their HVAC system.

How has the Bullitt Building in Seattle altered the conversation about green building?
JA: Prior to this, certification programs were largely about an upfront approach to sustainability – by making initial decisions about the environment and the building, you choose materials and methods to achieve a goal. That got the ball rolling, but these new projects are much more focused on the ongoing benefit i.e., once the architects and contractors are gone, how does the building perform? The Living Building Challenge is the next frontier in sustainability, requiring energy-saving systems that can be monitored and verified — in fact, they must be monitored for a year before the building can even be certified. 

GC: The Bullitt building is a fantastic showcase of green technologies. It should be interesting to see both the performance of the technologies and the participant’s enjoyment of the space as companies move into the building.

Finally, is there any argument against building green?
JA: If you’re a dentist who owns a building and you’re not paying attention to how much you spend on energy, maintenance and content costs to run it, you could be throwing money away. As the technologies become more cost effective and ubiquitous, it makes good business sense to use them. And while it may not be something a dentist wants to concern him or herself with, it would be smart to hire someone to handle those details. Just because a building is green doesn’t mean it has to look or smell a certain way — a practice doesn’t have to look like an Aveda store to be green, and you don’t have to change your fundamental philosophy to start to make these choices and benefit from them. 

If you would like to talk with either firm about ways to reduce energy consumption in your practice or home, visit The Source today.

*(Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects.)


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