As the holding company for five community banks and related financial institutions, Union Bankshares Corp. knows where to invest.

In the roof of its new headquarters.

Also, in the runoff control system for its new parking lot.

Even in its lighting system.

On 14 acres of rolling land near Bowling Green, the company recently completed what is touted as the first environmentally comprehensive construction project in central Virginia.

The major components: a 23,000-square-foot green roof, environmentally sensitive landscaping and outdoor lighting, and a long list of interior features that are eco-friendly and support employee health.

All of this is the vision of the company's president and CEO, G. William Beale, who has been doing business in Caroline County for several decades.

"During the early design stages of our new operations center, it became abundantly clear that every decision we made had an impact on the environment," he said. "It was then that we decided on a strategy to construct a 'green' building that would be beneficial to our employees, the environment and our stockholders."

Director of Marketing Olen Thomas concurred, saying, "This is an investment in our space and an investment in our employees."

Just what sort of investment does he mean? Obviously, one that goes beyond the concept of short-term, bottom-line costs tallied in dollars and cents. Green roof materials, for example, can run double the cost of those used in traditional roofs.

"In this case, they averaged about $14 per square foot," noted Don Guthrie of the architectural firm involved-McKinney & Company in Ashland, VA.

The decision to go green at Union Bankshares represented an investment in the less tangible-but equally vital-assets rooted in community goodwill and employee satisfaction and health.

"It's quite an interesting statement, coming from a financial institution," observed Chris French, director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay's Virginia Office, which has worked with the company to promote the value of its green investments with other businesses.

Indeed, every facet of the interior design complements the green statement made by the building's exterior footprint. Ninety percent of the interior offices, for example, have a direct line of sight to the world outdoors. Each floor of the 70,000-square-foot building houses ample "collaborative" space for employees to meet and work together in a setting that promotes brainstorming and creativity.

Low-impact lighting, water conservation devices, recycled and low-VOC materials; the list goes on. These decisions have earned the building LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Even the green roof includes a patio area with benches for employees to relax and take in the larger, wooded landscape.

The job of the green roof is to absorb rain, filter it through drainage and root layers underneath, and slow the pace of water leaving the building for lower ground. All of this helps to protect local creeks and streams that bear the brunt of runoff pollution.

Green roofs generally compare well with traditional roofs in terms of life span, although the technology is rather young in this country. In fact, protecting the roof membrane could lead to a longer life and, therefore, savings in replacement costs. Problems that occur-at the perimeter and at flashing points-are no more likely on a green roof than other roof types, according to Guthrie. But gaining access to fix the problem is often easier on a green roof, where gravel around the perimeter can simply be removed to locate the source of a problem.

Over time, lower maintenance and other benefits can outweigh the installation costs. Green roofs lower heating and cooling bills and provide additional insulation that reduces the "heat island" effect common in commercial enclaves. Often, heating and air conditioning equipment can be scaled down. Roof drains can be reduced or eliminated.

Green roofs also bring a creative dimension to urban gardening. On green roofs throughout Europe, for instance, one can find herbs and flowers grown for use in commercial kitchens, hotels and retail stores.

While plants on the roof are busy absorbing and filtering water, runoff from parking areas will be similarly slowed by several planted corridors, or rain gardens, that capture and filter it through wet-loving plants to a sandy under layer.

Eventually, what is not captured by vegetation will make its way to the multi-acre retention pond down from the site.

"That pond is actually a wetlands ecosystem in the making," noted Sharon Conner, director of the Hanover-Caroline Soil & Water Conservation District and a project partner. As such, the perimeter has been fortified with a variety of wetland grasses and shrubs-fox sedge, bushy bluestem, joe-pye weed, swamp rose mallow and others.

The conversion was not an easy task, Conner said. "We were dealing with sub-soils brought in during construction." Those soils are not always compatible with the needs of wetlands vegetation.

Tracking down suitable plants for the wetland presented another challenge-one that often vexes for consumers as they seek out native varieties. Biologist Lou Verner with the state's Department of Game ard Inland Fisheries exhaustively searched nurseries, eventually emerging with a collection of native plants, including lesser known varieties such as turtlehead and steeplebush.

Union Bankshares' retention pond was planted with the help of Master Gardeners and other naturalists, who volunteered time and expertise over a series of workdays.

Meanwhile, students from Randolph-Macon College have been closely involved in the design and implementation of the rain gardens, or "bio-retention areas," which were stressed by the summer drought. A remedial planting day was scheduled in early November to address current site conditions and provide students with real-world application of the theory they are learning in class.

Indeed, this project is an educational tool for students, government leaders and the larger business community. Tours and workshops have brought the more technical aspects to the table for all to wrap their hands around and understand.

In fact, a grant secured by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation for roof design and implementation helped to kick-start the green decision-making process. It also ensured that the surrounding business community would have a chance to visit and learn about green buildings and the theory behind "BayScaping" with conservation plantings.

Mac Saphir, an agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, enlisted engineers to speak about low-impact design and the timetable for "green" decisions that must be made very early on in the planning stage of any capital project.

These tech transfer opportunities are essential to changing mind-sets-persuading people to think and invest for the longer term-even when the initial costs are higher.

"Union Bankshares has become an obsession of sorts," Saphir said. "This project is all about water quality improvement, water protection and water conservation. I can't think of anything more important."

It also provides a demonstration site for county planners, who are grappling with the rapid transformation from rural to urban and suburban land uses. "Caroline County has been very forward thinking in their planning," Saphir said. "They are mindful of low impact development tools and they're using them."

But even with county encouragement, many commercial projects pull the green plug-often at the last minute and often for financial reasons.

"You need that one person to make it happen," Conner stressed. "Billy Beale has been a member of this community for a long time. He believes in doing business the way things should be done, and he did this for the community."