At last: the USA, the world’s biggest polluter, has woken up to sustainable construction – which means that UK firms’ green expertise gives them a real competitive edge. But they’d better make use of it fast …
When the seven design teams unveiled their plans for the World Trade Centre last month, three of the proposals stood out from the crowd. This was not a tribute to their ambitious design – rather, the proposals by Foster and Partners, United Architects (led by London-based Foreign Office Architects) and THINK (an international team including Arup and Buro Happold) all emphasised their green credentials. Competing against top US architects in one of the biggest competitions ever, the Europeans are hoping their environmental expertise will give them the edge.

It is a sign that the USA, the world’s biggest polluter, is finally waking up to the green agenda. “There’s a strong wave of enthusiasm for sustainability,” says Tony McLaughlin, a Buro Happold partner who worked on the THINK team. “American architects look to Europe and they see great things – they go to European engineers to give them that knowledge.”

Buro Happold is already working on a number of big eco-friendly schemes, including the Boston headquarters of research giant Genzyme and a block of green dormitories for Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Arup is also making the most of its green credentials to win work on projects such as the solar-powered, naturally ventilated Los Angeles headquarters of green pressure group TreePeople.

Battle McCarthy, a London-based consulting engineer specialising in environment-friendly design, is opening an office in New York this spring. Ben Shepherd, the sustainability consultant who will set up the office, says the firm plans to open more US offices in the future, and green expertise will be its main selling point. He reckons that other consulting engineers would be wise to follow suit. “If the UK office market is down, then why not go to the US, where you can be seen as cutting edge just by being from overseas?” he says. “In the US, it is only the green projects that are still moving forward.”

Green building is all the rage in the USA, with backing from architects, engineers … and Hollywood heartthrobs. Leonardo DiCaprio, who fancies himself an environmental activist as well as a film star, is asking his fans to write to the University of California, the Golden State’s biggest construction client, and encourage it to adopt tough sustainability standards.

Green building was already on a roll before the doe-eyed hero of Titanic added some glamour to the cause last October. “Everything’s going mad on green buildings,” says Nigel Howard, who used to run the BREEAM environmental rating scheme in Britain and now heads up LEED, the American equivalent, at the US Green Building Council. He says: “In November, we held a conference in Texas, and expected 2000 people – 4000 came. There’s more enthusiasm for sustainability than the impression you get from the political scene.”

Howard says the enthusiasm initially came from regional governments and environmental groups, and most requests for green buildings still come from the public sector. But he adds there is growing interest from the commercial sector.

It’s a trend that British construction firms can’t afford to ignore. First, the USA is a lucrative construction market, but a tough one to crack because clients prefer to award contracts to local firms. Since Europe has a reputation for being eco-conscientious, green expertise is a powerful selling point for firms trying to establish themselves in America. The rewards can be great. Over the last few years Skanska grew to be the second biggest contractor in the US, which helped make it Europe’s largest construction firm.

The American market is quite parochial and they prefer local firms

Andrew Armstrong, associate, WSP

Second, Americans are catching up with Europeans in terms of environmental performance – and they’re poised to overtake. At the LEED conference, the World Green Business Council, a network of nine national councils based on the US Green Business Council, was launched. And because the USA is taking the lead in promoting green building worldwide, America is setting the standard. “There’s been some talk about making LEED a global standard,” says Howard. Today, British developers aim for a high BREEAM rating – in a few years, it might be a high LEED rating.

LEED is more complex than BREEAM, according to Sam Kimmins, a principal consultant in the sustainability team of multidisciplinary group WSP. For example, it requires building materials to be recyclable. “There seems to be a far stronger green building community in the USA,” says Kimmins. “I’m in a lot of discussion groups, and all the information seems to be coming from the US at the moment.” WSP is about to start work for the Department of the State Architect in California, helping to compile a database of sustainable building materials. The idea is that other states will follow California’s lead and use the database for procurement.

State and city governments are the main driving force behind the greening of America’s buildings. Cities including New York, San Francisco and Seattle have adopted green building programmes, and New York recently became the first state to grant a tax break to sustainable buildings. Universities and environmental organisations make up the rest of the green building vanguard, and their names dominate the list of LEED-certified buildings.

But the might of corporate America is also coming round to the idea, and a green HQ is becoming the new corporate status symbol. “It’s all about signalling to the market,” says Howard. “People want to signal themselves as an ethical company.” Corporate social responsibility became an American buzzword in the late 1990s, and in the wake of the scandals at Enron and WorldCom, it became very big news.

Carmaker Ford is one of the corporate titans embracing the green agenda in its building programme, under the leadership of William Clay Ford Jr, the family heir and green convert who became chief executive in 2001. Its River Rouge complex in Detroit, which has been churning out cars since 1918, is going through a 20-year, £1.25bn redevelopment centred on a 102,000 m2 assembly plant employing 7000 workers.

The Rouge complex is literally being turned green. Twenty-two acres of trees, shrubs and wetlands are to be planted along the entrance road; 1500 more trees will surround the plant itself, and the walls will be covered with ivy to produce oxygen and cool the building. But the best trick is saved for the roof, which is being planted with 10 acres of sedum. The vegetation is supposed to cut down on air-conditioning costs by cooling the building in the summer and trapping warmth in winter. Ford says his aim is to “transform a 20th-century industrial icon into a model of 21st-century sustainable manufacturing”.