Upstate Forever LEED Building

It's been nearly four years since Upstate Forever moved to their uber-green, LEED Platinum certified digs on Pettigru Street in Greenville, and since then what once was a new concept, even fringe for some, has went thoroughly mainstream. Green buildings, whether new or renovated, are popping up all over the Upstate.

"We helped get it started in the Upstate, but it has really taken off on its own, and it's a market-driven trend," says Upstate Forever Education Director Nancy Fitzer. With close to 100 buildings so far in the Upstate attaining some level of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, it's easy to see that the trend is growing.

But what is LEED certification anyway?

Originally developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in the late 90s, and subsequently improved in 2005 and 2009, the LEED certification process exists to provide a framework for green building design, construction, renovation, and operation. Points are awarded to both commercial and residential buildings based on everything from erosion control, to recycled materials used during construction, to energy efficient HVAC systems and renewable energy installations like solar hot water. LEED certification is then granted or denied based on points awarded based on this dizzyingly comprehensive checklist. For commercial buildings, 40-49 points meets basic LEED certification, 50-59 gets you a Silver rating, 60-79 gets a Gold, and 80+ points earns a building the "none more green" Platinum level.

If that process sounds daunting, that's because, for the uninitiated, it is. "The main thing is to work with an architect, builder or other professional that is familiar with the program, and has the appropriate certifications, relays Fitzer, and while once it might've been difficult to find building professionals with those certifications, there are now over 30 LEED certified architects, builders, and other construction professionals in the Upstate according to the U.S. Green Building Council's website.

While constructing a LEED certified building might be a bit more of a hassle, the savings often more than make up for the inconvenience. A 2003 report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force said that a minimal investment of around two percent of total construction would typically yield savings of over ten times that amount over the life of the building.

For Upstate Forever, those savings have been far greater. Rather than building something new, the organization decided that renovate an existing home built in 1916. The building generates 20 percent of its own electricity through solar, and uses Icynene insulation, a spray foam and air system that reduces energy costs by 30 to 50 percent. Couple that with a very efficient HVAC system that heats and cools rooms in the building individually, and the result has been above anything the group had originally hoped for. "The energy savings have been so dramatic, I wasn't even sure it could be true," Fitzer offered. In 2010, Upstate Forever's headquarters used a staggering 80 percent less energy than a conventional building of the same size would have used.

In addition to saving all that energy, the group also took pains to reuse as much existing material as possible, both from the home itself and from salvaged materials gathered elsewhere. Bricks from an unused chimney became a new walkway; flooring that had rotted away was replaced with heart pine flooring from three former Upstate textile mills; pieces of wood trim from windows and doorways were taken down and numbered so they could be replaced after being refinished. The renovation was challenging at times according to Fitzer. "It was a highly educational process for everyone involved."

Ultimately though, after over four years in their new space, Upstate Forever has proven what they set out to prove, that green building and renovation is a viable concept, one that can work for businesses and organizations, large and small. The sometimes tedious process of thinking about the impact a building will have, from construction through the life of the structure, pays dividends in both the bottom line and in the well-being of our community.

Christopher George is a freelance writer and multimedia professional from Spartanburg. He is a former editor and publisher of the Spartanburg Spark, and his writing and video work has appeared in numerous online and print publications including Mountain Xpress in Asheville, NC and in titles by the Hub City Writers Project.