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Living the Green Life in Boise

Gary Christensen

Age: 54

Company: The Christensen Corp.

Title: President

Time in current role: Eight years

Biggest accomplishment: Banner Bank Building, which earned a LEED Platinum designation

Short-term goal: Completing a mixed-use sustainable community in downtown Boise, Idaho

When it comes to state-of-the-art green design, developer Gary Christensen put Boise, Idaho on the map with the Banner Bank Building, an 11-story, 180,000 sq. ft. speculative office structure. This was Christensen's first green building, and it has earned the U.S. Green Building Council's top rating for multi-tenant office buildings — LEED Core & Shell Platinum. Christensen is now one of only two developers in the nation to have achieved such a high certification.

Yet the impressive part of the undertaking is not its growing list of design awards; it's the economics behind this green office building.

Built for $120 per sq. ft., the Banner Bank Building offers space at the same full-service rates as 20-year old Class-A buildings in Boise's CBD, which range from $19 to $20.50 per sq. ft. What's more, the building's operating costs are 37.4% below those of competitors, boosting net operating income by $2.90 per sq. ft.

Sustainable building wasn't even remotely on Christensen's agenda when he attended a tradeshow in Baltimore in March 2004. He was looking for a cost-effective lighting control system. Sitting in a seminar on green buildings, his first thoughts were that this would be a good way to differentiate his project.

However, the deeper he looked into green design, the more opportunities he saw to add economic value. Christensen came back and told his design team, “I know we have already done the schematic design, but let's see what we can do to make this building more energy efficient and get a LEED certification.”

LEED is a point-based system; more points equal a higher rating. The typical approach is to cherry pick low-cost or easy-to-get points. Most developers settle for basic certification or a silver rating, saying the cost is too high for gold or platinum. Christensen and his team of local architects and engineers took another approach; they used LEED as a guide. In the process, they asked themselves three questions: Why are these elements important? How can we provide the benefit? Can we afford it?

Christensen pushed his design team to find green solutions that cost no more than conventional means. This led to innovative strategies that cut energy use 50%, water use 80%, and created a healthy, cost-effective work environment for tenants.

Confident in the green technologies he was using, and not wanting to be associated with “old technologies,” Christensen sold his Ninth and Idaho building, an eight-story, 84,650 sq. ft. Class-A office building a block away from the Banner Bank Building.

When the Banner Bank Building opened in July 2006, the vacancy rate for Class-A office space in Boise's CBD was 13.8%. Almost 38% of that available space was in the Banner project. Pre-leasing was not easy, as potential tenants had difficulty understanding the new technologies.

That changed once they walked through the building and saw the automated lighting controls and under-floor HVAC system in operation. The building will be 90% leased by the end of this March. In addition to Banner Bank, tenants include accountants, attorneys, and other regional firms.

Christensen's latest project is a $50 million green, mixed-use development. Phase one contains 100 residential units, 75,000 sq. ft. of office space, 15,000 sq. ft. of retail space and parking for 400 cars. Energy use will be 65% to 85% below current standards. Green features include solar panels, a vertical-axis wind turbine, a water-reclamation system, and Zipcar, a car-sharing service.

While many developers across the nation still think green buildings cost too much, Christensen has proven that's not the case. “If I can do it in Boise, Idaho,” says Christensen, “you can do it anywhere.”

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