Shades of Green
Eco-Friendly, Budget-Friendly Facilities
By Dawn Klingensmith
"The idea that green is fun, it's easy and it's profitable is dangerous," corporate sustainability leader Auden Schendler told Business Week in October 2007. "This is hard work. It's messy. It's not always profitable."
Yet he and others argue vehemently that going green is the right thing to do, even as support for LEED certification is dropping. Some 92 percent of design and construction professionals continue to endorse green building despite the recession, while at the same time support for LEED certification has fallen by about 15 percent since 2007, down to 62 percent of designers and builders in 2009, according to the "Fourth Annual Green Building Survey" published in March by Allen Matkins law firm, Constructive Technologies Group and the Green Building Insider.
LEED continues to hold sway, though, due to its merits and the fact that it's become "the definition" of green building, according to Jim Nicolow, a LEED Accredited Professional and principal with the architecture firm Lord, Aeck & Sargent. And though a project can certainly be green without being LEED-certified, "If public recognition and acceptance of a project's green building credentials are desired, LEED has become the consensus standard," he writes in Building Operating Management, November 2008.
LEED certification does not make sense for every project, though. How can you decide whether it's right for yours?
First of all, "It's important to realize that LEED certification does not equal green or vice versa," said LEED Accredited Professional Sam Statz, director of construction services, Hoffman LLC, Appleton, Wis. "At times, choosing certification is critical to the project and is the right business decision. But even if certification is the best choice, LEED is not the only option. LEED has become the most recognized process for sustainable certification in the United States, but options exist, such as the Green Globes program."
Green building owners who don't seek LEED certification often cite cost as the reason, and the green movement is still fighting the perception that designing and building to certifiable standards will cost more than a conventional building. "We have on several occasions achieved a LEED Gold certified building at a total project cost below non-sustainable buildings," Statz said.
Confusion arises because most comparisons only take into account the cost of construction.
"There are additional costs to LEED certification versus a highly sustainable project without third-party validation," Statz explained. "The additional costs are the actual certification and the additional expense of the accompanying documentation that the process requires."
Monitoring the Data
Those costs differ from one project to the next, but Nicolow has written that if LEED certification is pursued from the get-go, teams can conservatively budget 2 percent for construction costs and $150,000 in soft costs for the lowest level of certification on up to Gold.
However, more than half of Green Building Survey respondents indicated that a LEED Gold rating increased project costs by 4 percent or more, while nearly 30 percent of respondents reported the costs of LEED Gold rating at significantly lower than 4 percent. The discrepancy may relate to stringency of local codes and the level of professional experience in various regions, as well as the varying degree of difficulty in achieving a LEED Gold rating on different types of buildings.
Projects that remain on or under budget and earn the coveted LEED certification are those that had clear goals established from the start and that integrated the green elements into the design at an early stage. "The biggest single thing I would tell people is to start immediately. Set your sustainability goals from the very beginning, and don't decide in the middle of the design process to pursue LEED" or a higher LEED certification, said Jim Brittell, a LEED Accredited Professional at the University of California-Irvine.
He speaks from experience. Working with the university's Design and Construction Services department, he has sought and achieved LEED Gold certification for five buildings on campus. "We had one project where the design team was charged with getting LEED-certified," he said, so building features meriting a Silver rating were specified. Well into the process it was decided that a Gold certification should be sought. At that stage, "We really had to scramble to come up with ways to earn the additional points," Brittell said.
When Is LEED Less Green?
Both supporters and critics point out that the cost of the LEED certification process cannibalizes funds that otherwise could be used to further improve a building's efficiency and performance.
That's not the only criticism of LEED. Wassaic, N.Y.-based architect Allan Shope said the LEED rating system is well-intended but does not go far enough. "It leads many people in the right direction," he said, "but it doesn't encourage innovation." Nor does it always result in energy-efficient buildings, he added. A building can attain Platinum certification, LEED's highest designation, without giving much thought to the structure's energy usage by racking up points in other areas, such as landscaping features. And in some places, simply following municipal or state building requirements is enough to earn the lowest level of LEED recognition, in which case LEED-certified projects claim bragging rights they haven't truly earned, Shope said.
Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, or NEEP, a nonprofit organization that facilitates regional partnerships to advance energy efficiency, shares the concern that LEED's basic prerequisites for meeting energy requirements may not actually generate energy savings. In fact, a significant number of LEED-certified buildings do not even meet existing energy code requirements, according to a New Buildings Institute study. NEEP takes the stance that any green building standard, such as LEED, needs to make energy efficiency a weighted prerequisite, not just an option, with resulting energy savings of 20 percent to 30 percent better than code at minimum.
"The key word in the acronym LEED is leadership, and unfortunately we think it has been shown that LEED buildings don't necessarily exhibit leadership when it comes to energy use," said Jim O'Reilly, NEEP's director of public policy.
Another issue critics have with LEED is that it rewards better-than-average performance rather than excellence. To illustrate this point, Shope applies the LEED rating system to cars. If automobiles burn 18 miles per gallon on average, cars that get 22 mpg could hypothetically receive a bronze rating and those that get 34 mpg could achieve platinum. The problem with this system is auto manufacturers are capable of making cars that get 60 mpg, not to mention the fact that cars can be made that don't burn fossil fuels at all.
Perhaps the wisest approach to green design is to forget about points toward certification and focus on broader and ultimately more meaningful goals. One downside of LEED is that building owners sometimes resort to "buying" points. The focus is on accumulating points for LEED certification versus the longer-term goal of optimizing building performance and adding environmental value. Sometimes, the potential public relations benefits of certification drive the design process; besides completing a pile of paperwork, not much needs to be done in terms of energy efficiency to make a building LEED certifiable, though plenty of other features—such as the point-earnable presence of bike racks—may be green. An example of point-mongering that actually has occurred is a recreation center receiving a point for installing an electric-vehicle recharging station that, subsequent analysis revealed, is used about once a year.
One way to gain points that is essentially an outlay of money—in other words, points that are frankly bought—is to purchase renewable energy credits, or RECs. Schendler—the corporate sustainability leader, currently employed by an Aspen ski resort—spoke in support of, and then came out against, the purchase of RECs to gain green cred. As was discussed in his Business Week interview, RECs are essentially a financial arrangement that companies use to justify assertions that they have reduced their carbon footprint. The idea behind RECs is well-intended—they are supposed to result in a third party developing pollution-free power. In many cases they enable REC buyers to say they have offset 100 percent of their electricity use. RECs were meant to marshal market forces behind wind and solar power. Developers of clean energy sell RECs, usually measured in megawatt hours of electricity, to buyers who want to counterbalance their pollution by funding environment-friendly power. However, according to Schendler and others, RECs allow purchase of bragging rights as opposed to providing incentives that lead to the construction of wind turbines or solar panels. Simply put, the dollar amounts are too small to support alternative energy developments that weren't already in the works.
Philosophical arguments aside, with a properly trained professional you can determine whether pursuing LEED certification makes sense. Due to the so-called "LEED premium," the University of California-Irvine decided to not pursue LEED certification on projects less than $5 million, although the campus has a strong commitment to sustainability and supports LEED in general.
Bottom line according to Statz: "We encourage our clients to certify their construction projects only if they can affirmatively answer the question, 'How will a sustainable certification benefit your organization today and in the future?' LEED certification is worth the additional time and expense if it strengthens the organization's story and improves their ability to obtain their goals."
However, "If certification is not likely to produce any tangible benefit to the organization, then we would guide away from it."
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