UML study stresses green future for city

12/26/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By MICHAEL LAFLEUR, Sun Staff

LOWELL -- A new study by the UMass Lowell Center for Family, Work and Community argues that the city officials could lead the way in encouraging more "green" building practices in Lowell by setting the right example and offering economic incentives and educational programs.

City Manager Bernie Lynch is taking the study's recommendations about how best to encourage energy efficient and environmentally responsible construction in Lowell to heart.

"We're looking to green up the city," he said. "It's something that we think is cutting edge in terms of where everyone is heading, so we want to be a leader in that regard. But also, it's important because it's good for the environment."

Unveiled last week, the study is dubbed "The Benefits of Building Green" and was authored by UMass Lowell researchers David Turcotte, Julie Villareal and Christina Bermingham.

It argues that the city should come up with a three-year plan to reduce municipal energy consumption and incorporate energy efficiency into its capital planning for new buildings and major renovations as well as work to improve indoor air quality in all existing city buildings.

The authors, who came up with their recommendations with the help of a 15-member advisory committee, also write that Lowell could encourage more private-sector green building by offering economic incentives such as low-interest construction loans, and design and planning grants.

Turcotte, program manager at the Center for Family, Work and Community, said the authors hope Lowell joins a small but growing list of cities that have enacted and established green-building programs. He added that green building would have benefits for both the health of city workers and students, as well as the local economy.

Without using the term "green building," Tom Piekarski, owner of Dracut-based Concordia Homes and president of the North East Builders Association of Massachusetts, said his home-building firm has been incorporating energy-efficient insulation and other construction materials into its relatively small subdivisions since 2000, as prescribed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.

Piekarski, a member of the study advisory committee, said he has seen "a small demand starting to build up" for Energy Star homes.

But Dennis Page, a fellow advisory committee member and president-elect of the Northeast Association of Realtors, said while many buyers are willing to invest in a moderately more expensive Energy Star home because of the immediate savings they provide on heat and electricity bills, that demand does not extend to alternative power sources like solar and wind.

Page, who also is a Tyngsboro-based developer, said the return on an investment in something like solar panels can take up to 30 years to realize.

"People are struggling to get into homes to begin with, and struggling with prices and anything they can't realize an immediate pay back on is somewhat of a difficult sell," he said.

The price of home-heating oil and natural gas will be the key to determining demand for energy-efficient homes and alternative power sources, such as solar panels, Page said. If those prices keeping increasing, so will demand for green homes.

Meanwhile, Page said, commercial builders and municipal governments like the city of Lowell can and should be using alternative-energy sources in their green-building projects "because the operating costs over the long term are going to be much less."

Lynch said he will form a task force that will consider the issue and foresees future policy statements by his administration and possibly a City Council vote on the subject.

He said he is unsure as of yet whether his administration would be willing to offer incentives to encourage green building in Lowell, or which projects he might consider for green construction.

"It is going to require an expenditure of some resources, but i look at it as an investment opportunity." Lynch said. "We do have a number of buildings in the city that need to be renovated or replaced, and we need to make this a priority in doing that so it does save us money."