Guest Column - October 2005
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LEED the Way

Green Building


Sure, you've heard the term batted around, but what exactly is a green building anyway?

Good question. It's a high-performance building designed with integrated systems that are constructed, monitored and controlled to operate at maximum efficiency throughout the building's lifetime. It's also a building that strives to balance environmental responsibility, resource efficiency, occupant health and well-being, and community sensitivity.

Why design green?

Green buildings are more efficient, less expensive to operate, more marketable, more productive workplaces and learning environments, good neighbors, consume less energy, and emit fewer harmful chemicals.

What is LEED?

LEED is a system for defining and measuring what makes a green building. It is a voluntary certification process created and managed by the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization of building industry professionals committed to sustainability. LEED certification creates a standard to recognize leadership in this field.

The LEED rating system is organized into five environmental categories:

  • Sustainable Sites
  • Water Efficiency
  • Energy and Atmosphere
  • Materials and Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality

There are many benefits associated with fulfilling credits in the LEED rating system.

Why would I want a green building?

Other than the obvious environmental benefits, there are significant economic benefits that can be realized by building green. Operating costs can be reduced by up to 60 percent by employing aggressive energy and water conservation techniques. Building valuation can increase due to operating-cost reduction. Improved indoor environments can increase employee productivity by up to 15 percent. Employees in buildings with healthy interiors are absent less and tend to stay in their jobs longer, which are important factors, given that the cost of employee turnover averages one-and-a-half times employee salaries. All of these factors in aggregate create a market advantage.

Free Green—
Why Wouldn't You Do It?
  • Develop on appropriate sites
  • Select appropriate landscaping
  • Build near public transportation
  • Use light-colored roofing & paving
  • Orient the building in accord with nature
  • Harvest daylight
  • Build with local materials
  • Specify fewer finishes
  • Use water-efficient plumbing fixtures
  • Provide areas for recycling
  • Reuse a building
  • Recycle construction waste
  • Use materials with recycled content
  • Reduce indoor air contaminants
  • Maintain a clean construction site
  • Provide daylight/views for all occupants
Benefits of Green Building:
  • Lower operating costs
  • Increased building valuation
  • Enhanced productivity and reduced absenteeism
  • Health/safety/community
  • Competitive first costs
  • High-performance design

How much does it cost?

A LEED-certified green building can be delivered for as little as $0 hard cost over a conventional project—with careful planning and an integrated team approach. A "Free Green" strategy on projects aims to design a sustainable project or achieve a LEED rating. To achieve a higher LEED rating, and therefore a higher performing building, some first costs may be more than those associated with the conventional approach. Planners should evaluate these options for return on investment before implementation.

From experience, we have found that the payback from typical energy- and water-savings strategies can be realized in two to 10 years. Soft costs for the documentation and cost-saving evaluation depend on project type and scope, but they are typically between 1 percent and 2 percent. These fees easily pay for themselves when considering the long-term economic benefits. Only 5 percent to 20 percent of the total cost of building, owning and operating a typical office building is for design and construction. Yet that small percentage has a huge impact on the other 80 percent it takes to own and operate a building. If it is spent wisely, you will see a better bottom line.

A case study: South Montgomery County YMCA

Opening in February 2004, the South Montgomery County YMCA serves about 5,000 families in The Woodlands, Texas, with more than 2,000 members using the complex daily. This new 40,000-square-foot building contains an aerobics center, gymnasium, cardio area and weight room, play fields, child-care rooms, a 35-foot rock-climbing tower and rock walls, and outdoor waterpark. The design team used Free Green strategies in this project in order to produce an easily maintained facility with a low operating cost for this nonprofit organization.

Habitat preservation plays an important role in the new facility, maintaining an important connection to the site. Planners implemented a tree preservation plan beyond what was required by local code, protecting stands of trees in the parking area and adjacent to the building. Native and adaptive vegetation is used for ease of maintenance and low water requirements. Light-colored and reflective roofs, as well as light-colored concrete, are used to mitigate the heat island effect, lowering the ambient temperature around the site.

Designers also employed several strategies to save energy and lower operating costs for the project. For example, proper building orientation exposes minimal surface area to harsh sun angles, and glazing on the east and west help protect against such. Exterior shading devices are located on the south side, while more translucent glazing is used on the north because of minimal direct-sunlight penetration. Low-E insulated glazing is found throughout the YMCA, with specific performance criteria applied to each elevation due to the different sun exposures. CO2 monitoring throughout the building yields better indoor air quality and energy-efficiency. Monitoring the amount of CO2 decreases the amount of unconditioned air that has to be conditioned, therefore lowering energy use.

Exposed structure, concrete block and exposed sealed slab are used throughout the building, reducing maintenance costs and eliminating the need for additional finishes that traditionally off-gas harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that particularly affect children. Durable, simple to repair, exposed surfaces adorn the interior, while exterior brick and stone eliminate the need for continual painting.

Exposing most of the structure and natural finishes of building materials help the YMCA maintain a simple functional aesthetic. Stained concrete floors, burnished concrete masonry blocks and stained natural wood structural elements allow the building to serve as a teaching tool. Many of these building materials extend into the interior volumes to achieve an overlapping of exterior and interior. Interior spaces throughout the building were organized and aligned to take advantage of views to the outside through large windows and clerestories. In particular, the climber who scales the 35-foot rock tower is rewarded at the top with treetop views of the surrounding woodlands.

The Montgomery County YMCA fits into a community that places a premium on co-existing with and preserving its natural surroundings. The team exceeded design and construction guidelines set by The Woodlands to ensure minimal visual and ecological impact on the wooded areas and wetlands that define the community. These wooded areas were visually integrated into the building by the generous placement of windows. Every public space has access to outside views and natural lighting. The natural materials throughout the building further strengthen its connection with nature.


Brian Malarkey, AIA, LEED, is vice president and eco-services team leader for Kirksey in Houston. For more information, visit