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AN INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE HOUSTON Director, Sukyo Mahikari Center for Spiritual Development, New York City
"Going Green New York"
The Eco-Friendly Sukyo Mahikari Center for Spiritual Development in NYC
Background: Building construction was started in 2004 and was completed in 2010. Initially, this nonprofit organization wanted to fund the project itself, but as construction progressed and new green technologies came into existence, its management realized that if they wanted to create a truly green building and eventually receive LEED certification, they would need to obtain additional funding to cover the scope of the project they envisioned and they applied for private and public loans.
Question: You decided to construct a green building, but did you have an idea of how to plan for the costs?
George Houston: Green technology for construction is still a relatively new phenomenon and very few contractors have experience with it. Thus, traditional methods for projecting costs and analyses are not always applicable to green technology. It's often difficult for a contractor to ascertain precisely the costs.
In addition, because we had purchased an existing building, it was during the course of planning that we decided to eliminate the structure entirely rather than try to renovate it into a green structure. The need became apparent to the engineers because of the poor condition of the old building, which was 120 years old. The costs of demolition, which is traditionally done by using heavy machinery and then haulage and disposal, could not be applied to a building that ultimately would be green, because the way in which previous materials are disposed of is a major consideration for granting LEED certification.
So, therefore, we had to demolish the building literally by hand! Every brick and joist had to be checked to see if it was reusable. We had to see if any of the existing interior materials were reusable. Ultimately, either we were able to reuse them ourselves or we sold them for reuse.
Question: How much were you able to reuse?
George Houston: We were able to reuse 25 percent of the existing materials in the construction of the new building. Most of that included heavy joists and beams, which were used to build construction fences, benches for the foyer, and the back wall in the garden. Certain existing furniture, such as a desk and tables, are in use in the present new building. Very little of the other materials were able to be used, but we were able to sell the wood to farmers upstate for the construction of barns. We also sold bricks to brickyards, which then recycled them. We auctioned off some antique mirrors and marble fireplaces. We did a fairly good job of reclaiming and recycling the materials-at least well enough to satisfy the NYSERDA (New York State Energy Resource Development Authority) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) criteria.
Question: What makes the new building even more unique for NYSERDA and LEED?
George Houston: There are only nine buildings in New York City that are LEED- certified. The Center for Spiritual Development of Sukyo Mahikari will be the tenth. And what that suggests is that it's a difficult process to meet the technology criteria and it involves initial cost outlays. At the same time, the energy-efficient measures we were able to incorporate into the new center will help us cut our energy costs by $8,400 a year, reducing our need to draw on New York City's energy supply and reducing our carbon footprint.
New York City has passed a law that after 2009, all new construction over $2 million has to use green technology. In our case, we are using a very advanced Japanese HVAC technology called the Daikin Variable Refrigeration Volume (VRV) System®, which was developed by the well-known Japanese company Daikin Industries. Their technology is cutting-edge. The system has a very high efficiency of converting cool air into warm air and vice versa.
The air conditioning system is designed with a sustainable refrigerant and capable of regulating the amount of refrigerant used for cooling. This allows for energy savings, because condensing units don't have to run at full power to be operable. We've coupled it with an American technology from AAON® which utilizes a re-heat system that involves using air from the building to heat the fresh air coming in, thus allowing for less energy to be used to heat the fresh air from the outside. Our front and back windows have special coatings that reduce both heating and cooling loads.
In terms of water, we're using two 300-gallon storage tanks that collect rainwater from the roof to be used for irrigation in the garden and non-potable (graywater) purposes in the building, such as cleaning. This prevents excess rainwater from entering the sewage system and reduces the use of potable water for needs where graywater will do.
The oak floors, baseboards, and all cabinetry are fabricated from materials certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and are harvested in a way that mitigates the environmental impact of the production of lumber and wood products.
The terrazzo floors in the restrooms are made from recycled glass from pre-owned mirrors and porcelain tubs and toilets. The pieces are held together with a natural resin.
Question: How much are you saving on energy costs?
George Houston: We've been told by our computer modeling that we're saving 60% of conventional costs, and we expect to recoup our costs in 12 years. Quite astonishing! We've had various consultants independently verify that conclusion. The system costs were well beyond the $90,000 that we had initially allocated for that particular aspect. But, we have been told by the State of New York and the LEED organization that it's well worth it. Twelve years to recoup costs is phenomenal. That is a very short period of a building's life.
Question: What are some of the other LEED requirements?
George Houston: An interesting requirement is that as much of the materials used in the building as possible should be obtained within a 500-mile radius of the building site. The idea is to reduce transportation costs and to utilize materials that are readily available. So we did strive as much as possible to use materials that were manufactured in the State of New York and the surrounding tri-state metropolitan area of New York City. We made exceptions in some cases, such as using the Japanese HVAC system and a component which is manufactured in Texas. But we tried our best to comply with the rules, and by and large we were able to do it.
Question: When you realized you needed to take a loan, what did you do?
George Houston: When we realized that we needed additional funding to fulfill the scope of our vision for a green building, we sat down with representatives from the State of New York. We were pleased that they encouraged our project. They informed us that there were certain cooperating banks with green programs. We selected Bank of America, although there are others such as Chase, CitiBank, and Signature Bank. As of 2010, all of the major banks will be offering green lending programs.
The program with the State of New York provided that, when obtaining the green building loan through NYSERDA, once the loan was approved, the interest rate is fully paid for 12 years by the NYSERDA organization. This is one of the incentives they offer to do green buildings. We are very happy with the arrangement. Anyone who's considering green building technology should know that there are commitments like this by local and state municipalities to support this type of endeavor.
Question: What are some of the things that were challenges with this project? What should other organizations want to know that would help them?
George Houston: The first thing I would say is: Use professionals. Although these technologies are increasingly prevalent, they are relatively new, and the information that exists about green construction is not yet commonly understood either even by people in the industry. So I would recommend that you do your homework to research and find contracting companies who have already done this type of work. Then, get several bids.
Question: What was your experience with your contractor?
George Houston: We worked with a small contractor by the name of Cross General Contract Services. Although there were some limitations we ran up against because they are small, they showed excellent foresight, ingenuity, and flexibility, which was indispensable for our project.
Question: How many months did the actual construction take?
George Houston: It took two years. We initially projected thirteen months.
Question: Who was the architect?
George Houston: We used two architects. The first was a member of our organization, the person who initially recommended that we invest in a green building. Later, she recommended that we transfer the project to Cross. We followed Cross's recommendation that we raze the existing building and use even stronger elements of green technology.
Question: What is your relationship with the LEED personnel?
George Houston: They have been very, very supportive of the project, because they want to encourage this type of construction. They do not ever diminish their standards of expectation of performance, yet they help you as much as they can to reach those standards. Their technical people, their engineers, are very personable, and they even worked on their off hours. They made suggestions about how to improve what we were doing. They ran computer models to make sure that we were on track.
Question: What was difficult for you personally in doing this project?
George Houston: Well, it's the first time I've ever done construction! I usually call people for help when something goes wrong at home. This project has been wonderful for me. I'm moving forward with much greater knowledge of the construction trade, and, in addition to that, knowledge of some of the administrative requirements that it entails, including interactions with banks and attorneys, and in this case LEED and the State of New York. You become aware of codes and trends and materials. It's amazing! I feel that I know this building totally, because I have watched it being constructed from the very beginning.
Secondly, we have tried to give a great deal attention to the décor. We wanted the décor to reflect New York. I learned about colors, textures, fabrics, and themes. That's been remarkable for me. At first, some of the colors that were suggested were a bit intimidating to me. But, as the concepts of the design team unfolded, I saw their vision and it was "wow!" The design followed both form and function so beautifully. The artists actually sat down with the engineers and discussed what they wanted and how to approach the project. And all of the materials had to be green.
We offer the third floor of this building, which is an assembly-like hall, for other organizations with similar vision to use for lectures and meetings. We are making contact with organizations that want to promote green technology and that have particular philosophies of cooperation and harmony. We hope this will be our contribution to the public.
October 18, 2009
Interview by Paxton Quigley


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