PORTLAND, Ore. -- As the building industry searches for the next big thing, the likelihood increases that builders, developers, architects and engineers will continue pushing the boundaries of what constitutes sustainable design -- and they may look to Europeans for leadership.

That is the view of Jerry Yudelson, a sustainability expert and engineer with Yudelson Associates. Yudelson, who worked on several high-profile sustainable building projects in Oregon and Washington for Interface Engineering, said increased demand for sustainable buildings will "drive design and construction toward European approaches and toward integrated design."

In recent years, sustainable projects approved by the U.S. Green Building Council have fetched higher rents, demonstrated greater occupancy and had higher values than competitors. That economic reality should drive the rapid adoption of such buildings throughout the American and Canadian commercial sectors, said Yudelson, whose firm is based in Tucson, Ariz.

Having studied both American and European approaches to building, Yudelson said that there are "an increasing number of projects that are demonstrating high levels of energy savings on conventional budgets, and this will increase demand for engineers and contractors to achieve the same results."

Brian Pearce, the general manager of Unico Properties' Portland portfolio, said the introduction of new sustainable designs offers developers and builders a competitive advantage.

"It would be foolish (now) to build a building that is not LEED certified," he said.

Milos Jovanovic, co-owner of Root Design Build of Portland, said many of the sustainable construction techniques and mechanical systems are easily exportable from countries such as Germany.

"Because of the energy prices (in Europe), they are building tighter envelopes," said Jovanovic. "Better insulation has always been on the forefront of European thinking."

As high energy prices and increased awareness of global warming create a sense of urgency needed for sustainable design, Jovanovic said commercial and residential construction could take their cues from European models. Already, Germans and Scandinavians are adopting methods of insulating commercial and residential buildings that exceed LEED platinum energy savings. The newest techniques, he said, emphasize energy recovery over energy production.

One system, invented in Germany, called "passive house," focuses on super-insulating interior spaces, using high-performance windows, passive solar and circulating air with an energy recovery ventilator. The system calls for creating an airtight interior that acts like a thermos bottle, Jovanovic said. The additional costs for the system are from 5 to 10 percent of the total construction cost. Pearce said that developers would be interested in adopting such a system if they can get it to pencil out.

"The more (insulating) mass you have, the better it performs," Jovanovic said. In addition to the extra insulation, unsealed gaps must be covered.

The passive house standard requires that a building consume no more than 15 kilowatt hours per square meter in heating energy per year. Jovanovic, who grew up in Serbia and whose father was in the construction industry for several decades before coming to the United States in 1992, said the airtight concept had been tossed around in Europe since the 1970s but that the energy recovery ventilator is what makes the new system work.

The ventilator exchanges heat from exhaust air and passes it to fresh air from the outside. The system transfers heat to fresh air without mixing the air streams.

Jovanovic recently completed building Portland's first LEED platinum house, with local engineer Zac Blodget acting as the developer and designer. If a heat recovery ventilator replaced the furnace in that home, Jovanovic said no auxiliary heat would be required during winter -- only the heat given off from its occupants and electrical appliances such as a refrigerator.

Yudelson said an enthalpy wheel is another type of energy recovery ventilator. It's a rotating cylinder filled with a material that is air-permeable and which can absorb heat. The material transfers heat to a cooler ventilation stream.

The wheel can be effective for both heating and cooling, Yudelson said. Both systems solve the issue of ventilating indoor air pollution while keeping spaces warm in winter and cool in summer.

Yudelson said European countries tend to lead the U.S. in sustainable building practices because Europeans "don't like to waste resources. You go to a country like Sweden and find they're on the pathway to get off imported oil by 2020 and Germans want to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050," he said. "When you have those ambitious goals, you have to go to work seriously on these issues."

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