Investing in a green work environment

Entrepreneurs are finding that creating eco-friendly offices costs a bit more up front but can deliver lasting benefits.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- When Chris Barlte moved his real estate firm into a larger office, he worked eco-friendliness into the culture of the San Francisco-based company.

"We're serving green clients, so we really try to walk our talk," says Bartle, 41, who has a home office that is certified green by the city.

Green Key Real Estate's 12 employees use efficient Energy Star kitchen appliances and computers. They sit at Ecowork desks made of rapidly renewable materials that emit no toxic compounds. Printers churn out pages of Grays Harbor recycled paper and use ink from recycled cartridges. The firm's marketing materials are printed by Ink Works, which uses inks made from vegetable oils rather than petroleum.

Bartle figures he paid a 5% premium to use top-of-the-line green building materials and supplies. But like more and more entrepreneurs, he expects to recoup the expenses with energy savings - and possibly better health (green products emit fewer toxins). It can cost 2% to 4% more to outfit a green office, but competition among eco-friendly suppliers is helping to cut prices. Business owners can now buy sustainable lumber from vendors such as Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500), and organic cleaning supplies from retailers including Costco (COST, Fortune 500).


Cook + Fox, a New York City architectural firm, estimates that it spent about 10% more, and a total of $800,000, to redesign its office to the level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum, the highest ranking given by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable construction. Cook + Fox designed the first skyscraper in the U.S. to seek LEED platinum certification (a 54-story tower owned by Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) and set to open in New York City this year).

Founders Rick Cook, 47, and Bob Fox, 66, think their office should embody their values - and deliver long-term savings. Mostly thanks to lower electric bills, the firm expects to recoup its green investment in five years.

With help from resources such as buildinggreen.com, Cook + Fox, which had 2007 sales of about $10 million, found manufacturers and distributors of eco-friendly materials, including cork and bamboo, which its contractors used to create flooring and furniture.

Some of the firm's desks and its conference table have surfaces of Paperstone, a material made with recycled paper and formaldehyde-free resin. Cook + Fox uses Benjamin Moore Eco-Spec paint, which emits fewer toxins than standard paint. The firm also installed Interface i2 carpeting, a modular floor covering that is pressed into place without the use of toxic glues. To insulate the 12,000-square-foot space, Cook + Fox uses recycled jean fibers from Bonded Logic. The firm strives to reduce its carbon imprint by buying locally made products if possible. (This strategy is often debated.)

"Our contractor was frustrated when we asked him to source supplies he had never used," says Cook. "But after working with the products and creating a supply chain for them, he now suggests green materials to his clients."

When interior-design studio Elements IV Interiors moved to new digs in Dayton, its president, Jack King, 52, was able to repurpose 80% of the materials taken from the firm's old office. The rug went to a recycler that sells fibers to carpet mills. The drywall was ground up and given to local farmers to use as fertilizer. Door frames found new lives in Habitat for Humanity projects.

Even if your firm stops short of a green overhaul, taking smaller steps can deliver substantial savings. Many business owners are replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents that use about 75% less electricity. They are also adding sensors to ensure that lights are on only when natural light is too low and when a room is in use. Simply powering down computers nightly can save as much as $750 a year in a ten-PC office. To top of page

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