Scott Walton doesn't consider himself a treehugger, nor is he comfortable being called an environmentalist. "It can be a dirty word in a capitalist world," says the 39-year-old financial advisor.
But people might get the wrong idea when they visit his office in Homewood, Ala., which occupies the first floor of a two-story building on the border with Birmingham. He bought the building four years ago and is rehabbing it as a certified "green" building with features that include insulation of recycled denim; a vegetative roof with grass, flowers and trees; and a large cistern on the first floor that collects rain water from the roof and sends it back up via a solar power-driven pump to a drip-irrigation system that waters the vegetation.
Walton insists he's not out to prove his environmental bona fides. "I'm more of a solutionist," he says. "And sensible." Sensible, perhaps, but Walton is an admitted idealist who tends to wax philosophical over anything ranging from barbecue to client service, and he sees his office building as a way to educate people about how to pollute less. He's transforming his building's second floor into the headquarters for the Green Resource Center of Alabama, a nonprofit organization he co-founded that aims to be a go-to place for people seeking information on sustainable living.
"The resource center hopes to get sensible solutions together with policymakers to advance the conversation locally and throughout Alabama," Walton says. He notes that the Green Resource Center evolved after he bought the 2,400-square-foot building and worked with architects to customize it to his liking.
The brick, rectangular block building was built in 1948, and its location was ideal for Walton-it's within walking distance to various businesses he frequents such as the post office, lunch places, a camera shop and a bookstore. And it's within walking distance for a handful of his clients. In addition, the site is close enough for Walton to ride his bike to work, so he put in a bike rack and asked the architect to build a shower. And given the building's ample sun exposure, he inquired about installing solar panels. The architect told Walton what he was trying to do was in the spirit of the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed and administers the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system that measures buildings' sustainability and promotes eco-friendly construction.
That piqued Walton's interest and sent him on a quest to learn more. At the time there was only one other LEED-certified building in Alabama, and there weren't many resources available in the area of green construction. He contacted anyone he knew who was involved with sustainability-related projects. "The more I learned," he says, "the more I saw it as a sensible part of the green movement."
Going Green Requires Green
Walton crunched the numbers-and is still crunching the numbers-regarding materials and overall project costs. He ordered a water-efficient dual-flush toilet because it'll save money over the long haul, and he paid $1,800 for a 1,500-gallon cistern that will help irrigate the rooftop vegetation and trim his water bill. The hardwood floorboards on the first floor came from an old cotton mill in South Carolina that Walton says costs him two-thirds less than new boards from Home Depot.
A study posted on the U.S. Green Building Council's Web site acknowledges that advanced or innovate sustainability features can be costly, but it takes issue with critics who claim that incorporating green elements into building design can add as much as a 30% cost premium. The study says that there isn't any one-size-fits-all answer to the cost question, and notes that sustainable design can be incorporated into most building types at little or no additional expense depending on the project's scope.
Mark Rubino, one of the board members of the nascent Green Resource Council of Alabama, estimates that most of the building's costs are 5% to 10% more than standard materials. He expects total building renovation costs-which include such things as meeting LEED certification specs, building out the resource center space, and a 13-foot climbing wall designed by Walton's brother-will total about $500,000, or roughly double Walton's purchase price. Rubino says the hope is to recoup some costs through long-term energy and water savings from more efficient materials and gadgets. For example, he says the insulation value from the vegetative rooftop-which cost about $28,000 to install-will probably pay for itself in about a year. Elsewhere, they want to install a stepping machine or stationary bike at the Green Resource Center that can be hooked up to a small generator to store electricity and provide power for light bulbs. And it helps that some of the materials are being donated. 3M, for example, is providing window coatings that are 97% UV-efficient to block out harmful rays and to keep air conditioning bills down in summer by insulating the building from excess heat.
But potential long-term cost savings aside, Walton says the green endeavor ties into the notions of education and good financial stewardship that are a part of his job as an advisor. "It makes sense that if I'm going to practice investment planning here for 30 more years," he says, "then I should have a place that creates a meaningful client experience."