Shades of Green

Eco-Friendly, Budget-Friendly Facilities

By Dawn Klingensmith

maddening number of articles on eco-friendly construction and operations start by quoting Kermit the Frog, yet his immortal words—"It's not easy being green"—are at odds with the message being put forward that doing what's right by the planet is a straightforward process, thanks in part to the "checklist" of sorts provided by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) point-based rating system.

"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

The U.S. Green Building Council last year announced that as a "precondition" to LEED certification all new projects will be required to provide energy and water usage data. The council's release states:

"Today there is all too often a disconnect, or performance gap, between the energy modeling done during the design phase and what actually happens during daily operation after the building is constructed. … We're convinced that ongoing monitoring and reporting of data is the single best way to drive higher building performance because it will bring to light external issues such as occupant behavior or unanticipated building usage patterns, all key factors that influence performance.

"USGBC will be able to use the performance information collected to inform future versions of LEED.

"Building performance will guide LEED's evolution. This data will show us what strategies work—and which don't—so we can evolve the credits and prerequisites informed by lessons learned. …"

Projects can comply with the performance requirement in one of three ways:

  1. The building is recertified on a two-year cycle using LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance.
  2. The building provides energy and water usage data on an ongoing basis annually.
  3. The building owner signs a release that authorizes USGBC to access the building's energy and water usage data directly from the building's utility provider.

USGBC is proactively investigating cost-effective ways for every LEED building to become metered as a way to capture this data directly from the building's utility provider.

"The requirement creates a data stream on LEED-certified building performance that can be used by owners and operators to optimize their building performance and promote the establishment of energy efficiency goals over the life of the building."

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?

LEED certification does not make sense for every project. And certain things that have been done in the name of LEED don't make sense, period.

No sooner had Yale University issued a press release stating it had earned platinum-level LEED certification for its new forestry building than the Yale Daily News published an embarrassing fact about two other LEED-certified buildings on campus: They were built with showers and changing rooms for bike commuters, which helped earn their LEED certification, but cyclists were denied access. A university official told the Daily News the shower room would remain off limits in the Sculpture Building, where students have studio space they already spend a lot of time in, because "if they had access to it, people would be living in the building." The showers in the other building would remain locked as well because there is no way to lock them from inside to guarantee privacy, another official said.

"What was the point of building the showers if they had no intention of letting anyone use them? Talk about waste," a reader wrote on the newspaper's Web site.

"Install a couple dollars' worth of hardware on those shower doors," wrote another.

And yet another: "The solution to energy conservation: Design a LEED-certifiable building that denies access to its users. All those energy-wasting humans kept out. Perfect!"

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.

Tree Huggers

The parks and recreation department in Grapevine, Texas, bent over backwards to incorporate environment-friendly features in its Oak Grove Ball Field Complex renovation project, but though LEED certification was discussed, it was not pursued. "It was an existing complex that we basically were going to bulldoze and rebuild from the ground up," said parks superintendent Kevin Mitchell.

But a lot of heavy lifting occurred before those bulldozers moved in. Oak Grove got its name for a reason—the presence of scores upon scores of old-growth oak trees.

"Right in the center of the complex we had these huge trees," Mitchell said. In fact, when tallied, "We had 200 trees that were in the way."

The parks department spent a quarter of a million dollars to set up a nursery, and each tree was uprooted and moved with a crane to the temporary setting or to another park. When construction was finished about a year later, the trees were replanted throughout the complex. Boasting many other green features, the complex in March earned the Texas Recreation and Parks' Design Excellence Award.

In Clermont, Ky., the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest earned LEED Platinum for its visitor center, which also is an ode of sorts to trees. "Imagine a building like a tree" was the instruction given to the design team, who incorporated trellises, arbors, pergolas and a vegetated roof into the structure. The building is assembled mainly from cypress wood sourced from donated H.J. Heinz pickle vats. Though the containers had been in use for more than a century, to offset the use of wood, Bernheim planted 256 cypress trees in the arboretum. "Further-more," said education director Claude Stephens, "our building is designed for deconstruction so that one hundred years in the future that wood might still be usable for some new purpose."

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."

Green Innovations

LED lighting: Long-lasting LED (light-emitting diode) lamps can potentially reduce lighting power use by 50 percent or more. LED lamps don't require the use and management of mercury, as is the case with fluorescent lamps. LED lamps cost more and are not as readily available, but as technology progresses, demand increases and initial costs are reduced, this likely will change.

Electrochromic windows: Electrochromic windows have improved greatly in recent years. On an ongoing basis, they adjust to exterior lighting conditions. The brighter the light outside, the darker the window becomes in order to manage glare and heat gain. Their cost at this time is too high to make them practical for the majority of budget-conscious building projects; however, prices should eventually come down.

Smart grids and meters: The current utility power system depends on meters that merely record the amount of power used, and perhaps when that power is used. Smart grids are entering the market that will provide the ability to read a price signal from the power grid, using that price signal to control the operation of equipment in a building. For example, if power costs are high, the temperature in the building would be permitted to rise a couple of degrees so the air-conditioning unit runs less. Smart grids utilize smart meters and control systems to more efficiently and effectively manage the operation of a building and its equipment.

Source: Hoffman LLC, Appleton, Wis.

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