Certified Green

South Bay companies choose eco-conscious business practices

Dr. Pedram Malek of Malek Dental in Mountain View.

Photograph by Lane Johnson

In 2009, when Nam Nguyen opened a new dentist office in what was a barren 1,700-square-foot strip mall on East Fremont Avenue in Sunnyvale, he decided to create the most environmentally friendly space he could. The result is a sleek yet homey office, which is built with recycled materials, has consistently low water and energy usage, and utilizes eco-friendly dentistry tools. Nguyen says he was inspired after he heard about a dental office in Oregon that was the first to be certified as a green building by the standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). He didn’t reach his initial ambition for LEED certification, but his business, Noca Dental Care, was recently certified as a green business by the Bay Area Green Business Program. 

“Six months before we even started construction inside the space, we designed it to be green,” Nguyen says. “It was conceived on paper to be green; it wasn’t designed after the fact.” Nguyen is one of several Bay Area dentists who have recognized the benefits of being certified as a green business. Another is Dr. Pedram Malek, who opened his eco-friendly dental office in Mountain View in 2008. Some of the practices that made Malek Dental qualify for green business certification include the use of steam-based, non-toxic sterilization procedures; a special filtration system to allow environmentally sound disposal of old mercury fillings; and a computerized chart system to reduce the amount of paper used. Malek also uses new dental technology that reduces the amount of water required when cleaning teeth. He says it was easy for the serene, spa-like office to be certified green.

“The way I was operating, it was already set up for a green business,” says Malek, who is a member of the Eco-Dentistry Association. Noca Dental Care and Malek Dental are among some 2,000 businesses in the Bay Area and 470 in Santa Clara County that have been certified through the Bay Area Green Business Program, which is administered at the county level but coordinated regionally through the regional planning group, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).

Begun in most Bay Area counties in 1996, the program has seen a dramatic increase in participation in the last five years, as the general public becomes more environmentally conscious, says Lisa Rose, who oversees the program for Santa Clara County. While the green business program has been embraced primarily in the Bay Area, there are also programs in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and a fledgling program in Los Angeles, says regional green business coordinator Ceil Scandone.

It’s unclear what the environmental impact from the program has been, but efforts are being made to determine that information, Rose says. Several business owners who have become certified say that meeting the industry-specific standards to become green-certified isn’t necessarily difficult, although it can cost thousands of dollars and take considerable time to make the necessary changes. But once the changes are complete, the green-certified business has a new marketing tool, a more environmentally friendly business, and reduced costs. That was the case for Straits Café, a Zagat-rated Singaporean-fusion restaurant, which is the first green-certified restaurant in Palo Alto. Managing partner Louis Leong says the 11-year-old restaurant was certified green at the end of November, nine months after he began looking at ways to improve the business’s energy efficiency.

He says the whole process cost about $20,000, although a big chunk of that money was spent upgrading the restaurant’s heating and cooling systems, which was not required by the Green Business Program.

The restaurant also received new energy-efficient lighting and a low-flow toilet, and it now composts about 80 percent of its food waste. The sealers on the refrigerators were upgraded and air curtains were installed so cold air doesn’t escape. Some of the work in getting certified involved training the staff on composting and the treatment of wastewater, as well as on smaller tasks like turning off lights. However, it was worth it, Leong says, since among other things, the restaurant now saves money on its water and garbage bills. “To me it’s very natural to want the business to be energy-efficient and good for the environment,” says Leong, who has a background in marine biology. “You also know it saves money for the business. It’s a win-win situation for the business and the environment. It just takes a little effort to make it work. We encourage all businesses around us to do it, too.”

A wide variety of primarily small businesses are getting green-certified, including Koss Collision Center, a San Jose auto-body shop owned by brothers Bob and Don Koss, longtime industry veterans who started the business five years ago. While the brothers say they were always environmentally conscious, they were forced to take a harder look at their green practices to meet new local standards for the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that were allowed in their paints. Last February, the Koss brothers switched to water-based paints, which required a three-day training session on how to mix and apply it. While going through that process, they decided to look into becoming a green-certified business.

“We contacted the Green Business Program and they kind of walked us through it and told us what we needed to do if we wanted to comply,” says Bob Koss, adding that achieving the certification required some simple changes such as using recycled paper. He also had to replace as much as 60 percent of the shop’s fluorescent lights and switch to ultra-efficient electronic ballasts, which after $4,500 in rebates cost the business $8,000. The rebates were provided through the RightLights program, an energy-efficiency program targeting small- and medium-sized businesses, which is funded by PG&E ratepayers. Because he’s ultimately saving money on his energy costs, Koss says he expects to break even on the lighting expense in about 18 months.

Joan Escover, the owner of JP Graphics, an offset printing company with 10 printing presses and 40 employees, says she was happy that it didn’t cost her anything to be green certified. For Escover, the county green certification was easy because she’s in a relatively new building that did not require a lot of upgrades, and the county waived a requirement to install a low-flow toilet. Furthermore, her business, which has been around 11 years, was already environmentally conscious and few changes were needed.

“If you already are practicing a green approach to the world,” she says, “you’re going to pass very easily.” Escover contrasted that experience with the approach used by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an environmentally conscious organization that she refuses to join, in part because of the $2,500 cost she says it takes to become certified. Escover says she already uses FSC-certified products because her clients demand it. “I’m not [FSC-certified],” Escover says. “I refuse to pay to do what a client [already] told me to do.”

Nam Nguyen, who designed his dentist office to be a green business, also passed the green certification easily. He says he had the office rebuilt, installing cabinets made from recycled wood and reusing the office’s old ceiling tiles. His records are mostly recorded onto a computer, reducing the amount of paper his office uses. As for his dentistry, he uses an advanced X-ray system that requires no toxic chemicals to develop the images, as well as waterless vacuums, which he says conserve 22,000 gallons of water a year.

He says the process of greening his dentist office cost about 20 percent more than it would have otherwise, although he considers the greater expense “upfront costs,” and says he may come out ahead financially over the building’s lifetime. In addition, the remodeling work he did took less time than what he had planned to do when he considered having the building LEED-certified. After conferring with his architect, he decided it would take two to three times as long to make the building LEED-certified. He opted for a local environmental certification instead.

Nguyen says even after he went through designing his own building, he learned much from getting his green certification. “I learned a lot from the city and from the county,” he says. “I think every business should find out more. If you can’t get certified right away, you can do one or two things a year to make it happen.”

For more information about the Bay Area Green Business Program, call or go online at greenbiz.ca.gov.