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the green bottom line
Story by Susan O'Connor; Photo by Courtney Fitzwater

For Ritter Communications President R. Paul Waits, environmental stewardship is a way of life. He is one of those rare executives who plans deeper than the traditional bottom line, working to mesh financial success with a true commitment to long-term sustainability.

Later this year, construction will begin on a new Jonesboro home for Ritter Communications, consolidating the company’s Jonesboro offices. This is big news on its own in times of economic uncertainty, punctuated now by a building design that will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. Waits joined forces with Brackett-Krennerich Architects to create a facility that actually walks the walk.
“As we made the decision to build a new headquarters in Jonesboro, there were a number of objectives, and foremost among these were to create an office work space that is functional, flexible, promotes a healthy interior environment, provides enough space to consolidate our operations, plus room for growth, and at a cost that is reasonable for this purpose and location,” Waits said. “As a student of and advocate for sustainable concepts and designs, including evolving technologies and approaches in building design and construction that improve the overall performance of residential building structures, I wanted to investigate the economic feasibility of incorporating such approaches into this project.”

Initial conversations with architect Jerry Brackett revealed that a great deal of innovations have indeed become evident in commercial building, with growing interest and focus across the country in the LEED program of the United States Green Building Council. Such briefings led Ritter officials to consider this program, Waits said, and to determine to what extent we could comply with the LEED guidelines, while also insisting on a reasonable payback on any elements that had a greater initial cost to implement.

For Brackett and Jeff Herren, lead architect of the project, the task was tall. Waits wasn’t interested in “green” features just for the sake of being green; he wanted a verifiable economic payback for each environmentally-friendly measure taken. In addition, Waits wanted the building to be constructed at a price comparable to standard construction.

“Paul knew where he was going, but didn’t know how to get there,” Herren said. “None of us knew how to get there. We worked on this thing outside in and inside out. We almost exhausted all options to get where we are now. To me, it was time well spent.”

While being aesthetically pleasing, the design incorporates strategies to take advantage of what the surrounding environment naturally offers, while minimizing negative impact.

“Our architects have come up with a design that incorporates passive solar elements in the placement of windows and overhangs, as well as a ‘green wall’ to control solar gain on the south side,” Waits explained. “Also included is the use of structural insulated panels (SIPs) in the construction of walls and ceilings, which greatly enhance the thermal efficiency of the structure. They are less expensive than traditional construction methods because of the reduced amount of labor to erect the structure with SIPs. In fact, the overall construction and cost estimates are coming in very competitive with traditional construction materials and methods.”

The green wall, for example, is planted with deciduous plants that grow and leaf out during summer months providing natural shade, then shed their leaves in winter to allow the sun’s heat to radiate into the building.

Other energy-saving elements include the utilization of daylight provided by the building atrium design, reducing the cost of lighting during business hours.

Additionally, the installation of a ground-source heat pump system will allow the company to efficiently use the earth as a source of heat and heat-sink to significantly reduce the energy required to heat and cool the building.

Waits said that while such systems are a bit more expensive to install, they pay for themselves through reduced energy costs, with payback periods now reduced significantly by recent tax incentives implemented by the federal government to encourage energy efficiency.

Herren noted that many “green” design elements have been around for years. Before the advent of modern heating and air conditioning, they were used out of necessity.

“Green design is smart design,” Herren said. “It just makes sense. It is not anything new. I’m glad it is in the forefront again; that the ideas and their acceptance are becoming more mainstream again.”

The long-term mindset that sparked this project reflects Ritter’s overall business acumen, as well.

“As a network owner and services provider, we are accustomed to looking at long-term outcomes,” Waits said. “For example, the economic opportunities associated with an investment in fiber optic network infrastructures, such as what we are building now in Jonesboro and across Northeast Arkansas, are inherently long-term in nature, given that such investments are very capital intensive. Such long-term mindset, coupled with a company culture that seeks success within a framework of doing what is right for our customers and our communities, colors the lens through which we look at this building project, i.e. one that can and should consider the longer-term cost of operation and ownership, and how this will be affected by the unfolding reality of rising energy costs.”

All parties involved hope the construction of this unique facility will serve as a model for the region.

“If there is a statement that we are trying to make with this project, it would be that what is right, what is more balanced and sustainable, is also smart business,” Waits said. “We want to dispel the myth that being ‘green’ in this context is not practical or uneconomic and the sole purview of philanthropic entities or government. We want to share what we are learning, and what the rest of the world is learning.”