Following up on Bob Usdin’s excellent piece on the greening of the entertainment industry in the “Green Issue” (“How Green Is Green?” August 2008), I want to explore the broader picture, including the facility itself and the surrounding community.

So that we are all starting at the same place, I will use the generally accepted definition of sustainability. The most popular definition of sustainability can be traced to a 1987 UN conference that defined sustainable developments as those that “meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 p.24, §27). While this provides a general framework of the ideal, more specifics may be garnered from the following corollary: “Sustainability integrates natural systems with human patterns and celebrates continuity, uniqueness, and placemaking,” (Early, 1993).

In general, many speak of sustainability as having three overlapping components: economic, social, and environmental. Theatres, by definition, score high on the social sustainability scale as places where cultures can mix, and they exist to communicate ideas, broaden our points of view, educate, and entertain. When looked at with a wider lens, theatres also play a role in the economic sustainability of the urban environment. The impact that performance facilities have on communities by fueling jobs in the hospitality, food service, and retail industries, as well as their supply chains, is well documented. Theatre Communications Group, among others, has published studies on theatres’ economic impact on the larger community. Environmental sustainability can further economic sustainability in the operation of a theatre. If we use resources more efficiently, we save money. Environmental sustainability is usually what we are speaking of when we talk about “being green.”

Working as a theatre consultant and chairing my city’s historic districts commission, I think about how buildings—new and existing—can support the goal of being sustainable. Although our measure of greenness for new construction or renovation is the US Green Building Council’s LEED New Construction certification, it doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the value of reuse of a building. Preservationists and sustainability cheerleaders like to remind us that “the greenest building is the one you already have.” What they are so eloquently pointing out is that, to properly consider the sustainability of a project, one must look at the impact of materials used from raw material to the dump. By thinking of things in this fashion, one can assign a carbon footprint to materials and components. If you can avoid using materials by adapting something that exists, you have avoided a significant carbon impact, waste stream, and release of pollutants.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative has pointed out that, when one disturbs soil, one releases carbon. So in terms of minimizing carbon impact, the greenest choice is to renovate an existing facility. Demolishing an existing structure and building new also can be a triple impact in that one sends an existing building and cleared vegetation to our overburdened landfills. Shockingly, 25% of our waste stream is construction waste (Carl Elefante, director of Sustainable Design, Quinn Evans | Architects).

Another lesson from the preservation crowd is that renovation has a much larger economic impact on the local and regional community than new construction because costs from new construction generally divide to 50% materials and 50% labor. In rehabilitation projects, that figure is closer to 70% labor and 30% materials, and the skill level of that labor is higher. In renovation projects, the figures are somewhere in the middle (Don Rypkema, Place Economics).

These lessons hit on all three components of sustainability because reuse of an existing building can be a huge contributor to the local economy, and a green initiative makes this kind of project attractive to local governments and donors.

Existing facilities are not without challenges. Many, especially those built in the arts building boom of the 1970s, feature inefficient, poor quality systems that make them energy hogs. The challenge with these facilities is how to make them function better without racking up an unrecoverable payback period. Many also lack daylighting in support areas, create huge storm water runoff issues, and are monumental heat islands. Nationally, 50% of our building stock was constructed in the period from 1950 to 1979, when the cost of energy was not a significant consideration. Another 30% was built after 1979 (Elefante).

Performance facilities have the economic challenge of being expensive to build. In my 19 years experience as a theatre consultant, I can tell you that, whether your budget is $800 million or $500,000, there isn’t enough money to achieve the desired goals. Reuse of a facility, and/or a sustainability goal provides access to additional financing through tax credits and an additional field of potential donors.

Historically, operating and construction costs have been separate pools of money that were never discussed in the same meeting. As a consequence, we have deleted storage areas, picked less efficient equipment, and designed less efficient systems to save construction costs, when, in reality, we have actually just shifted costs to operations. We need to break that wall between operating costs and construction costs during design. Further, even the construction costs tend to get divided with performance equipment and viewed as an independent budget from the disciplines that install it, support it, and cool it.

The design criteria of the facility needs to incorporate sustainability as a goal from the outset of the project, and the project team needs to be given the requirement that its choices be reviewed in light of operating costs. In many cases, looking at a one-to-three year operating budget in conjunction with construction costs will be enough to allow the team to make environmentally responsible choices that can have fiscal benefits that last decades. Furthermore, part of the requirement for the design needs to be that it supports operational sustainability, not just sustainable construction.

Going green is a major theme at LDI2009, with a Green Day conference and Green Technology Today Pavilion (www.ldishow.com).

Curtis Kasefang is trained as a lighting designer and embarking on his 20th year as a theatre consultant. He is a principal with Theatre Consultants Collaborative, LLC. Prior to his consulting work, he was a production manager for a four-theatre complex. He also chairs his local Historic Districts Commission.