Green architecture opportunity in financial woes

WASHINGTON Wed Oct 8, 2008 2:38pm EDT

HOK Architectural Design Firm Chairman William Valentine (R) listens to HOK Senior Vice President Mary Ann Lazarus at the Environmental Summit 2008 with Reuters in Washington, October 7, 2008. REUTERS/Mitch Dumke

HOK Architectural Design Firm Chairman William Valentine (R) listens to HOK Senior Vice President Mary Ann Lazarus at the Environmental Summit 2008 with Reuters in Washington, October 7, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Mitch Dumke

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The current financial downturn could spur demand for sustainably designed buildings and communities, the chairman of one of the world's largest green architecture firms said on Tuesday.

"It's the environmental opportunity of a lifetime," Bill Valentine of the HOK firm told the Reuters Global Environment Summit. "And if we don't use it now as an opportunity to make the sustainable movement not just make progress, but gallop ahead, we've lost our chance."

The turmoil in the world's financial markets makes environmental construction easier to sell, Valentine said.

"The heart of sustainability is conserving and not wasting, and this idea of getting clients to think about projects that are actually less expensive rather than more expensive and still sustainable these days gets a lot of good traction," he said.

With more than 2,600 employees and 26 regional offices in North America, Asia, Australia and Europe, HOK generated $151 million, or 23 percent of total revenue, from sustainable projects in 2007.

A decade ago, HOK's staff often had to push environmentally friendly architecture, said Mary Ann Lazarus, the firm's chief of sustainable design. These days, the economy and the price of fuel and transporting materials means there's no need to push.

"In the last couple years, there has been new client interest in it," Lazarus said. Developers want this kind of design for market reasons, and other clients are motivated by the need to attract valuable employees, she said.

In the health care sector, Lazarus said, clients want hospitals and clinics designed to uphold the Hippocratic oath -- "First do no harm" -- but also to keep staff turnover to a minimum, by offering congenial, healthy workplaces that also use less energy.

The oil-rich Middle East has become a driver of innovation in sustainable design, Valentine and Lazarus said.

The firm is involved in two large Middle Eastern projects -- the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and an airport -- where the demand for environmental construction is keen. HOK officials did not say where the airport was located.

"To my extreme surprise and great glee, they are extremely interested in sustainability," Valentine said. "They want the world to see them as not wasting and ... they realize that their oil has to run out some day."

(For summit blog: summitnotebook.reuters.com/)

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko, editing by Brad Dorfman)

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