Published on March 1st, 2013 | by UC&D Magazine0
LEED-ing the Way to Greater Sustainability
When it comes to designing and building sustainable, ‘green’ projects, in the minds of many A/E/C professionals nothing has raised the bar higher than LEED. nc
An acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design created in 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the program has been embraced as the go-to sustainability standard by many people in the commercial design and construction industry, including owners, architects, engineers and contractors.
In Utah, the LEED certification process has made major strides since the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns earned the state’s first LEED certification in 2001. Designed by GSBS Architects of Salt Lake City and constructed by Layton Construction of Sandy, the project was one of the first 13 LEED certified buildings in the world, according to GSBS principal David Brems.
In the 12 years since in Utah, the entire LEED process has transformed considerably from LEED Version 1.0 to the upcoming LEED Version 4.0, all the while helping educate the people who ultimately make the final decision on whether or not buildings achieve LEED certifications – owners.
“The public is certainly more aware of LEED as time goes on,” said Brems. “Owners have become much more knowledgeable of the benefits of having a LEED certified building.”
“LEED has done a lot for the building industry in making green buildings more visible and educating the public on what sustainability means,” said Whitney Ward, Sustainable Systems Manager at Salt Lake-based VCBO Architecture. “Its prevalence in the marketplace has been fantastic for educating owners and building officials; it’s pushed people to be more sustainable. The value that comes from LEED has been important for our market specifically.”
“The USGBC has done what it set out to accomplish and that is transform the marketplace,” added Kenner Kingston, Director of Sustainability for Architectural Nexus of Salt Lake City. Kingston said that while the architectural community has always been conscious of including sustainable aspects in its designs, the fact that owners and contractors have also become well-versed in what it takes to get LEED points shows just how far the concept of ‘green building’ has grown.
“Something like documenting recycled content has become routine,” said Kingston. “90 percent of the projects we see max out (LEED) points in many categories. LEED Gold used to be considered something that was difficult to achieve. Now, the majority of LEED certifications are Gold or Platinum.”
“(LEED) is a big deal,” said Patrick McLaughlin, a Senior Associate for MHTN Architects of Salt Lake City. “It sets an expectation in the market. It can be a marketing tool for owners.”
Indeed, in the past two years according to information on the USGBC’s website, 37 Utah projects earned either LEED Gold or LEED Platinum certification – more than double the amount to earn either of those designations combined since 2006. It’s a trend that won’t be going away anytime soon, despite the fact that the LEED certification process can be rather expensive and increase up-front costs from one to two percent of a building’s total cost on average.
“(LEED) is an environmentally sound process, one that makes a more efficient use of limited resources,” said Bruce Bingham, a founding partner with Hamilton Partners in Salt Lake City, which built the 22-story 222 South Main project, Utah’s first high-rise building to earn a LEED Gold certification. “The other thing is that it’s appreciated by the tenants, who are more likely to lease from you if your building is LEED certified. We find it’s worth doing. We’re willing to pay a little more for it.”
What is LEED?
LEED is a consensus-based, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings. LEED’s focus is on ensuring that a building owner takes necessary steps to make their building sustainable, which includes things like greater energy efficiency, lower water consumption, an increased amount of natural daylighting, and low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in paints and adhesives in a building.
There are a requisite number of ‘points’ that can be earned through myriad ways during the construction process. Buildings that earn a higher number of points are designated at a higher level (i.e. LEED Silver, LEED Gold, LEED Platinum). According to the USGBC, since 1998 there have been more than 7,000 U.S. projects to earn LEED certification, accounting for approximately 1.5 billion sq ft of building space.
Commercial buildings must achieve a minimum of 40 points on a 110-point LEED rating system scale. LEED has progressed from Version 1.0 to its newest incantation, Version 4.0, which is open for public comment from March 1-31, and will be voted on for final approval in the summer of 2013. The USGBC states that its primary LEED goals in regards to making buildings more sustainable include:
• Lower operating costs and increase
• Reduce waste sent to landfills
• Conserve energy and water
• Be healthier and safer for occupants
• Reduce harmful greenhouse gas
• Qualify for tax rebates, zoning
allowances and other government
While owners are always loathe at spending more money on something that might seem hard to quantify, with LEED many owners see a tangible return on investment (ROI), particularly if they plan on owning the building long-term. Owners who just develop a project with the intention of selling it quickly might view LEED as an unnecessary expenditure.
Public owners in Utah seem to have caught the vision, with many agencies, universities, and cities viewing LEED as a system that puts in place a measurable way to achieve not only greater energy efficiency and lower water consumption, but a ‘healthier’, more ‘user-friendly’ building which contributes to hard-to-measure variables like greater productivity and overall better moods among occupants.
“It fulfills some of our needs as a building owner,” said John Burningham, Energy Program Director for the State of Utah’s Division of Facilities and Construction Management (DFCM), the largest public owner in the state which approximately four years ago started requiring that DFCM projects earn at least LEED Silver certification. “Over the last three or four years LEED has provided an excellent means for the state to effectively communicate to design and construction teams many of the goals the state has for energy efficiency and sustainability.
“I like that it provides a level of third-party verification,” he added. “I appreciate the effort that the USGBC invests to always be looking for ways to make the built environment better for occupants as well as the environment.
Burningham also said the LEED process is not without its faults.
“Many of the credits require a fair amount of effort to demonstrate compliance,” he said. “Often the amount of effort, cost, and documentation is not proportional to the goals of the state institution or agency but yet we have to chase these points in order to meet the requirement that we have set for ourselves. In short, we end up chasing our own tail a bit. I am currently working with the design and construction professionals who do work for the state to find more effective and efficient ways within LEED as well as beyond LEED to meet the goals we have for state buildings.”
Brems said many owners have just accepted the fact that the costs associated with LEED certification are simply the price of doing business in the 21st Century.
“It’s not even a valid conversation anymore,” Brems said of LEED’s extra up-front costs. “An owner like the University of Utah understands it is part of the cost of the building. Owners believe that they will save money long-term, and even recapture that cost quickly. Everybody has a different (ROI) threshold; some people say three years, some seven, some 12 years.”
Is Net-Zero Next?
A Net-Zero Energy Building (NZEB) is becoming the new, trendy buzzword in sustainability circles. 15 years ago it would have been hard to fathom this concept, but given LEED’s growing popularity and an enhanced awareness by the general public on the importance of being environmentally conscious, it’s not hard to visualize a society where buildings indeed meet this dynamic threshold.
NZEB is a building with zero net energy consumption annually, and zero carbon emissions. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, traditional buildings account for up to 40 percent of total fossil fuel energy consumption in the U.S. and Europe. Reducing that number could go a long way to improving air quality via reduced carbon emissions and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Salt Lake City Corporation’s new Public Safety Building is an example of a building that is aiming for Net-Zero status, according to Brems.
“We designed it to be Net-Zero,” said Brems. “What’s remarkable about the building is how low the energy use is. The average workstation in the new building is 85 watts, which almost sounds impossible. It’s a whole new way of thinking about reducing energy use of a building. This is the future of buildings.”
Kingston agrees that Net-Zero is a worthy and necessary goal, but said true sustainability and energy efficiency is still in the hands of the people who use the building.
“We need to move toward Net-Zero architecture,” said Kingston. “But you have to realize that sustainability still comes down to the people occupying the building. You can have a building that is optimized for high performance, but the largest single use of energy is the people inside. A high performance building requires high performance occupants. Owners often get their LEED plaques and then stop thinking about sustainability.”