By Peter W. Bardaglio
Even in the midst of the most serious economic downturn since the 1930s, sustainability continues to be a hot topic. New construction is the darling. However, LEED certifications do not come cheap, and retrofitting older buildings is problematic. Is LEED worth it?
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), as certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, has become the coin of the U.S. realm of green buildings. LEED is a rating system with six components: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials and resources selection, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design process. In ascending order, the levels of achievement are certified, certified silver, gold, and platinum. It’s all in place to encourage building owners to construct, renovate and operate facilities in an environmentally sensitive manner.
In 2005, green building made up roughly two percent of both nonresidential and residential construction in the U.S., with a total value of $10 billion. Today it’s grown as high as $49 billion. By 2013, McGraw-Hill Construction estimates it could reach $140 billion. McGraw-Hill’s published report concludes “Green seems to be one area of construction insulated by the downturn.”
Green, all the way to the bottom line
Why? Several factors are involved, including growing public awareness, aggressive government incentives, and perhaps most important, recognition of the bottom line advantages afforded by high performance construction. Going green makes good business sense, especially as energy costs rise.
Buildings account for as much as 60 percent of all electricity consumed. On a college campus, buildings are central to a large portion of the operating budget. More and more colleges and universities are requiring that all new construction meet LEED standards.
Buildings also generate nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment encourages signatories, of which there are now 650, to commit to a minimum of LEED Silver or its equivalent for new campus construction.
A lesser number of colleges and universities have adopted LEED for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance (EBO&M), although existing buildings typically represent 95 percent of the building stock on campuses. Upgrading and retrofitting older buildings to improve their energy performance may not have as much curb appeal as a new project, but they offer more opportunity to reduce energy costs and much more potential for lower carbon footprints.
LEED EBO&M is a performance-based system with strong energy and water components that emphasize operational best practices. A pilot program has been launched for institutions that want to implement LEED across the campus rather than on a case-by-case basis. For example, an institutional policy that mandates green cleaning products can establish a LEED points baseline for the entire campus.
Certifiable, rather than certified
Administrative fees accompany LEED designation. On new projects some campuses are foregoing LEED certification and are settling for the designation “LEED certifiable,” which means that a project meets LEED standards, but does not incur the expense of going through the documentation process. The possible downside is that the project team may not be as rigorous when it’s not subject to third-party verification.
“LEED is any institution’s insurance policy that green building standards are being met and verified by a third party,” says Brian Malarkey, executive vice president of Kirksey, a Houston-based architectural firm. “Having worked on millions of square feet of LEED projects, I am here to tell you that sometimes the only thing preventing cutting out a particular green feature is the potential loss of LEED certification credits and a resulting rating that’s lower than desired.”
Malarkey, who heads up Kirksey’s ecoservices division, also adds, “Bragging about your green buildings without this third-party certification can sound hollow, especially to savvy students, faculty, and researchers.”
What does LEED certification cost?
As the talent pool of LEED-aware firms deepens, the extra cost of achieving and documenting LEED has declined significantly. Kirksey estimates that its average LEED premium is only 1.14 percent of the overall construction cost. Even the cost of going Platinum has flattened out, provided it is an explicit goal from the outset.
Ithaca College, opened a Platinum Park Center in 2008 which incurred a premium cost of less than 5 percent, according to Vice President for Finance and Administration Carl Sgrecci. “Building in these sustainable features may add a few percentage points to the cost today, but we will quickly recoup the investment with a facility that’s less costly to operate each year,” he says. “And the investment will yield returns for the life of the building.”
The business case for green buildings makes so much sense to Sgrecci that he urged the college to also shoot for Platinum with its new administrative center. The $25 million, 55,000 square foot building, opened in April, and it may make Ithaca College the only campus with two LEED Platinum buildings.
Building usage makes a difference
Among academic buildings, the toughest nuts by far to crack are the science labs, very energy intensive because of ventilation and exhaust requirements. In fact, labs consume four to six times more energy than the average office building. Many labs exhaust the entire internal volume of the building more than 10 times per hour.
Classroom and office buildings recirculate air, exhaust a small amount of conditioned air, and operate 50 to 80 fewer hours per week than a lab building. In large research universities, energy use in labs makes up as much as two-thirds of campus electricity consumption.
Nevertheless, a number of high performance labs have come on line in recent years. One such is Weill Hall at Cornell University, which opened in October 2008. The $162 million, 263,000 square-foot life sciences building has a green roof that absorbs rainwater, incorporates natural lighting, and uses 30 percent less energy than comparable buildings. It is one of only six university laboratory buildings to have achieved LEED Gold certification.
Green residence halls are cropping up on campus, and they prove very popular with students. The Home Depot Smart Home at Duke University is a 10-person residence hall for green living and learning that achieved LEED Platinum certification in June 2008. It was designed by students and advisers, and the 6,000-square-foot building is the first Platinum residence hall on any campus. It’s also spawned an undergraduate discipline involving more than 100 students.
The Smart Home incorporates a green roof, solar cells, rainwater cisterns, and sophisticated digital electronics. Its fiber-optic network sports the fastest internet access on the campus, about 40 gigabytes per second. Workshops adjacent to the living areas enable students to experiment with and deploy new technology, while wall panels in every room open easily so that students can add features.
Unity College in Maine has provided its president with a net-zero-energy house. With solar panels on its roof the house sits on a concrete pad that retains heat in the winter and helps keep the well-insulated house cool in the warmer months. South-facing windows, all triple-glazed and argon-filled, provide natural light. Low-flow water fixtures, compact fluorescents, and high-efficiency appliances and mechanical systems further minimize the house’s carbon footprint.
Unity College president Mitchell Thomashow is an environmental scholar, and his wife Cindy is executive director of the college’s Center for Environmental Education. They moved into the new 1,900 square-foot residence in fall 2008. “Unity House is more than just a sustainable solution,” blogs Thomashow. “It’s a wonderful educational opportunity. We are hoping that the countless visitors to the house will be impressed, inspired, and motivated to live similarly.” The architect, Hilary Harris of Bensonwood Homes, worked with a budget of $200 per square foot to demonstrate that a Platinum home can be built at an affordable price.
Thanks to media coverage we know poorly designed and operated “sick buildings” can cause serious health problems. But the positive impact of green buildings on their occupants is less well known. A growing body of research suggests that the occupants of LEED certified buildings experience a higher satisfaction level, better health, and improved personal productivity. A 2003 study by the Federal Energy Management Program, for example, found that such buildings resulted in productivity increases of 6 percent to 16 percent.
What about the impact of green buildings on student learning? Few studies have as yet been reported in higher education. K–12 findings suggest substantial positive benefits. Turner Construction released a 2005 survey of 665 school construction executives. Of those involved with green schools, more than 70 percent reported that these new facilities reduced student absenteeism and improved student performance.
There are drawbacks. A “Campus Application Guide” for LEED colleges and universities does not adequately deal with issues such as transportation, central plants and sites. In addition, as Brian Malarkey is quick to observe, LEED has yet to deal with total life cycle issues, “an important topic considering higher education builds and owns for the long run.” The LEED checklist format also imposes limitations. It’s easy to “get seduced by ‘chasing credits’ and lose sight of the larger green goals of a project,” notes Malarkey.
Yet there is no question that LEED has transformed the market. And LEED now has a competitor, Green Globes, developed by the Oregon-based Green Building Initiative, positions itself as a more economical alternative to LEED. Like LEED, Green Globes employs a 100-point system, although the applicant can determine that certain points are not relevant to a project. One to four globes are issued, based on the percentage of applicable points achieved.
Green Globes registration and certification fees are significantly less than those for LEED. Total registration and verification cost runs between $5,000 and $7,000 for any project. Green Globes keeps certification costs down by not using a specialized consultant, instead providing a web-based self-assessment tool.
Both LEED and Green Globes grew out of the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), launched in the United Kingdom in 1990. BREEAM is the most widely used assessment method outside the U.S. and can be used for a single project or a portfolio of projects both within and across national boundaries.
More flexible than LEED, BREEAM is more adaptable to local circumstances. BREEAM Gulf, for example, places considerable emphasis on water, a critical issue in the Middle East. BREEAM UK focuses more on energy. Desiring to counter the perception that LEED is a one-size-fits-all system, the latest version of LEED, released in April, began to move in a similar direction.
Meanwhile, Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and Founding Chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council, says with no equivocation: “Going backwards after this point in time is simply not an option.”
Peter W. Bardaglio, Ph.D.
is a Senior Fellow at Second Nature
and co-author of Boldly Sustainable.