April 9, 2006
By JOEL GORDES, Courant Staff Writer
With the Hartford skyline already swarming with construction cranes, word comes that Prudential Retirement may build a new building in the city. That's good news for those trying to re-establish the city's pre-eminence in insurance and financial services. It could also be good news on the environmental front.
If Prudential chooses to build in Hartford, the company should be strongly encouraged to build a sustainable "green" structure.
When we speak of "green" construction, we're talking more than anything else about buildings designed to save energy. Energy use is the cause of most environmental problems. Buildings use 41 percent of the country's energy and contribute 43 percent of the country's carbon dioxide output. Most traditionally designed buildings are horribly inefficient; up to two-thirds of the energy goes unused.
Unfortunately, most of Hartford's new buildings, notably the Connecticut Convention Center, look like '60s-era big-box stores on steroids and blow enormous amounts of energy out the walls.
This doesn't have to be. With the designs and technology available today, energy use in buildings can be reduced by half and sometimes more. A good green design might use local material to cut transportation costs, waterless urinals and low-flow plumbing fixtures, energy-efficient windows (some with built-in solar panels), a gray-water collection system that reuses rainwater and wastewater; rooftop vegetation, on-site recycling and other measures.
A well-designed green building is attuned to the local environment. It should mimic natural processes. Fighting nature is what we saw in New Orleans - nature wins. The building also should have access to mass transit.
The goal is sustainability, which was best defined in the 1987 report of the U.N. Commission on Environment and Development, the Brundtland Commission Report, as meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Why should an insurance company build green? Long-term savings on energy costs of as much as 60 percent is good enough reason, but insurers such as Prudential should consider sustainable buildings for other reasons as well.
As the industry most prone to financial losses driven by potential climate change, insurers should be in the forefront of reducing the energy use that is driving climate change. A company that sells "piece of the rock" security should itself be connected with long-term sustainability.
Another practical reason for Prudential to go green is to mitigate its risk from power outages. Many green buildings incorporate what is termed "distributed generation," where small, clean, fuel-diverse generators are placed at or close to the building. Then, if the electric grid fails, power will still be available for critical needs. The Travelers Insurance Co. learned this lesson the hard way on Feb. 19, 1983, the day a crow landed on a bare power line and took out power to central Hartford.
Travelers was forced to go into an emergency data-recovery exercise that had not been attempted in recent memory, Senior Vice President Peter Libassi told The Courant. It took the company four hours after the crow landed to get the computers under control.
"Sometimes you have to wonder just how advanced technology is when something like this can cause these problems with this kind of equipment," he said.
That incident, and Libassi's prophetic statement, was a precursor to what could happen on a much larger scale in today's totally digitally dependent society. Whether it is an ice storm or a terrorist attack against our electrical grid, green buildings with built-in resilience will continue to function and provide safety, security and value.
It's too late to redesign the convention center, but from this point forward we should be building green buildings, toward the goal of green cities. Hartford does have one excellent sustainable building, the new visitors center on the grounds of the Mark Twain house. Though it is small, it provides an example of what can be done in larger structures.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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