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3:07 PM Wed, Nov. 14th

LEED: Waste of money or LEED-ing the way?

LEED-Gold Highlands Center for Natural History Designed by Catalyst Architecture

LEED-Gold Highlands Center for Natural History Designed by Catalyst Architecture

The US Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED Green Building Rating System turns 13 this year. So what's the verdict on this internationally recognized, 3rd-party rating system, which has provided visibility and some measure of credibility to the business of building green. Is it all it's cracked up to be, or just an expensive waste of money designed to make ourselves feel better?

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and has become something of an international standard for what constitutes a green building. The LEED Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven rating system based on existing proven technologies. There are 4 levels of LEED certification, in ascending order they are- Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum- the highest level possible. Since 2000, when LEED first became available to the public, over 13,000 building owners across the nation have striven for and achieved this coveted green building credential.

Critics of the USGBC's flagship program are many however. The LEED program has been slammed from both sides as being overly bureaucratic on the one hand, while being too easy to achieve on the other- and with no real way to account for actual energy consumption over time. Proponents argue that a LEED rating improves overall building performance, increases lease and rental rates, elevates occupant health and well being, and saves money and the environment by using less energy.

So, what's the truth?

In a 2010 interview with NPR's Robert Siegel, USGBC CEO Rick Fredrizzi acknowledged that tracking ongoing building energy performance is an important next step for the ever-evolving LEED program. Version 4, the most recent iteration of LEED currently in review, has been developed to address some of these concerns, but is now running into resistance from construction industry special interests, as affected manufacturers anticipate threats to their bottom lines. Industry lobbyists aim to slow the adoption of further mandatory LEED standards by an increasing number of municipal, state, and federal agencies, as well as a growing number of universities across the nation.

Regarding concerns about ongoing building performance, there are other factors that can affect this beyond the architectural design or the specific heating and cooling systems installed. "What really needs to happen is the transformation of the owners and the operators of the buildings to ensure that the building is being operated properly," Fredrizzi noted. "LEED buildings are significantly more energy efficient than your typical building stock," he goes on to say. "Ultimately it's not just about the design- it's about how the building is run. I like to say you can get the same gas mileage out of a Prius that you get from a Hummer- if you drive it incorrectly"[1].

Fredizzi's comments certainly track with our own experience in designing LEED buildings. It's clear that building owners need to allocate the necessary resources in order for their LEED certified facilities to continue to perform as designed. Risks to this include the deferment of critical heating and cooling systems maintenance work, or an unauthorized field adjustment to a building's systems control software, which can cause such things as air-handling equipment to suddenly begin running full tilt 24 hours a day- instead shutting itself off at night, as intended. Even seemingly minor glitches to a building's mechanical systems hardware or interfacing software, if not properly monitored, can result in a serious blow to a facility's operations and maintenance budget, and any preset energy performance targets.

Despite criticism to the contrary- when properly designed, installed, and then maintained, LEED certified buildings still outperform their conventionally constructed neighbors, and are doing so at price points that remain attractive to building owners- especially those with the data needed to track what it costs to construct and operate their facilities. It's interesting to note that many of the earliest LEED buildings were built by institutions who had the resources to collect and understand this type of information.

LEED will add to the initial cost of a building, and there are 3 areas where this should be anticipated. These are 1.) registration fees with the USGBC- typically $.03-.05/square foot[2]; 2.) added architectural and engineering (A&E). Expect an increase of 8-10% of the total A&E fee in order to prepare the required LEED documentation; and 3.) added construction cost- typically around 1-2% of the construction cost for the upgraded material and building systems needed to achieve a LEED basic, silver, or gold certification level. This can go as high as 7.5- 8% of the total construction cost for a Platinum certified structure. Still, these costs are relatively minor in the big picture, and do not account for the dollars saved in reduced operations and maintenance costs, which as any building owner will tell you- adds up quickly.

Terry Alexander, executive director of the University of Michigan's Office for Campus Sustainability, states that "the added cost of LEED certification is a relatively small percentage of the overall cost of a building". Alexander has been involved with several of the university's LEED certified building projects, and has prepared post-construction analysis of the institution's numerous building efforts. With Terry's input, the University of Michigan has decided that achieving LEED certification sends the right message about the school's environmental priorities, which carries a lot of weight with potential students and employees[3].

Systems payback and utility-savings aside, there are other, less tangible benefits that come with a LEED certification. While perhaps a little harder to quantify- they exist nevertheless, and can play a significant role in contributing to a building owner's commitment to go LEED. Some of these benefits include demonstrating leadership in the community, expressing a commitment to an institutions values and priorities, and educating the public about building in harmony with our environment.

After 12 years of experience, 3 major versions of LEED, and examples of both successes and failures, it seems that the bottom line is this- while still imperfect, demand for the LEED Green Building Rating System continues to grow, as building owners seek the tools they need in order to take their facilities to the next level of occupant health, and the more efficient use of our planet's energy, material, and environmental resources.