Taking the LEED in Green Building and Design

From China and Australia to Canada and the United States, the green building movement, which espouses eco-friendly building practices, has taken the world by storm. Following closely on its heels is the coveted certification referred to as LEED.

Adobe Systems, the company made famous by its desktop publishing software, was awarded three platinum ones. The US Census Bureau received a silver one, and NRG Energy, Inc. received a gold. Are we talking credit cards, Olympic medals, or something else? If you guessed something else you would be correct.

From China and Australia to Canada and the United States, the green building movement, which espouses eco-friendly building practices, has taken the world by storm. Following closely on its heels is the coveted certification referred to as LEED, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and registered trademark of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC is the organization responsible for developing a set of standards for the green building industry worldwide. These standards, which are voluntary and geared toward building owners and operators, are referred to as the Green Building Rating Systemâ„¢.

The LEED rating system made its public debut in 2000. Standards currently exist for several types of building projects, among them new and existing construction, buildings undergoing renovation, commercial interiors, neighborhood developments, individual homes, multiple buildings and on-campus facilities, and building shells or installation of building systems such as HVAC for future tenants. The USGBC is in the process of developing standards for schools, healthcare facilities, and new retail construction in the near future and no doubt will develop more in the years to come.

LEED is just one aspect of the USGBC, which was established in 1993, and whose mission is to promote consumer awareness about the benefits of "building green". Central to the LEED rating system are six key elements that include human and environmental health, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

These concepts are familiar ones to William Maclay, AIA, principal architect and founder of William Maclay Architects in Waitsfield, Vermont. Maclay has been designing environmental buildings for more than 30 years, focusing on some of the same issues that LEED deems important, such as indoor air quality and energy conservation in his building designs.

Maclay, who completed his first LEED certified building in 2004, says that while LEED isn’t a perfect system, it is a rigorous assessment, especially at the gold and platinum levels that separates the “best from the rest”. “LEED uses a point system and looks at the components in the building, but not at the building as a whole and places a lot of emphasis on obtaining energy from renewable sources,” explains Maclay. For Maclay, LEED is just one tool in the toolbox.

While the design process is a collaborative effort between the architects, engineers, and lighting, energy, and cost consultants, the LEED process itself is not. It’s more a matter of careful documentation says Maclay. “The construction phase must be carefully documented on paper because there are no inspections by anyone from the USGBC. Once the building is completed, the owner must apply for certification, a process that usually takes about 6 months to a year after the proper documentation is submitted to USGBC.”

Advantages to LEED Certification

As one might imagine, there are both advantages and disadvantages to obtaining LEED certification. One of the main benefits is that LEED provides third party verification that a building is built to the same level of standards as other sustainable buildings. LEED buildings are more energy efficient and as a result are less expensive to own and maintain.

LEED certified buildings also use fewer resources such as water and energy, and of course a LEED certified building makes a bold statement to the public about who the company is and what they stand for. “The greatest benefit I’ve found is during the construction process. Contractors are less likely to drag their feet and more likely to have a higher level of performance because they must adhere to the LEED standards,” adds Maclay.

“From an economical standpoint building a green building costs the same as building a LEED certified building,” says Jim Smith, Senior Director of Real Estate and Facilities at Mortgage Lenders Network (MLN). Smith is overseeing the construction of the new MLN headquarters in Wallingford, Connecticut and is planning to apply for a LEED silver certification when the project is completed.

Maclay agrees and says that the additional expenses incurred for LEED certified building owners are mostly due to the extra paperwork and time that is required to document that the building and design in order to meets LEED standards. “This typically adds an extra $50,000-100,000 to the project’s costs, so LEED certification is not practical for small projects,” says Maclay. That doesn’t mean buildings can’t be a sustainably designed building however, it simply means that they won’t be LEED certified.

LEED Registered vs. LEED Certified

Building owners who are considering LEED certification, must first register their project with LEED, but it’s important to note that not all of these projects will go on to become certified. There’s a difference says Maclay. “A registered LEED building does not mean it complies with LEED standards, it only indicates that the intent is there.”

LEED has five certification levels for building projects; certified, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Certified is the lowest certification level and platinum is the highest. While a number of buildings have achieved the status of certified and even more are registered, fewer buildings have achieved silver, gold, or platinum certification. The headquarters of Wind NRG Partners, LLC (NRG) in the village of Hinesburg, Vermont is one of these LEED certified gold buildings--and a wonder to behold.

Wind NRG Partners

Situated on a small knoll just outside the village, the NRG building faces south to capture the light and heat of the sun. Deciduous shade trees are strategically placed to provide shade in the summer months and help cool the building. The exterior of the building is a heavily insulated metal skin and the warehouse is filled with light from the skylights and tall windows on three sides of the space.

The heart and soul of the building is a wood framed structure in the center that serves as a gathering space for employees and guests. Above the central space are exercise areas. An analysis of electrical loads resulted in employees using laptops instead of desktop computers. Also unique to the NRG building is that there is both radiant heating and radiant cooling, making it one of only a handful of buildings that use radiant cooling in the United States. Sensors are used to control the relative humidity and temperature and adjust the water temperature accordingly. 75% of energy is derived from renewable resources such as the windmill and a giant wood pellet stove.

Seventh Generation

Maclay is also the architect responsible for designing the interior of the Seventh Generation company headquartered in Burlington, Vermont, a space that he feels is certain to become LEED certified gold in the commercial interior category.

As opposed to being a new building, the Seventh Generation project was a retrofit for an existing building. Features such as daylighting, views out, and material selection such as green certified carpet and how these materials affects indoor air quality were important considerations when designing the interior space says Maclay. Automated technology to control HVAC and lighting systems are also used to increase energy efficiency.

Mortgage Lenders Network

Being in the business of alternative energy, NRG considers itself a green company as does Seventh Generation, but it’s not just green companies that are taking LEED certification seriously. Mortgage Lenders Network (MLN), a company that specializes in loan mortgages, is currently in the construction phase of their new headquarters in Connecticut.

MLN has hired Workstage, a division of Steelcase, to handle the design process for its new headquarters whose features include walls of glass that allow daylight to bathe interior spaces, biodegradable furniture and recycled wood tables in conference rooms, forced air heating systems under the floor, recycled steel, and lighting that is built into the furniture.

Also on the property is a building that Smith calls the Founder’s Cottage. The Founder’s Cottage, which will resemble a 200-year old Connecticut farmhouse from the front and a high tech wonder from the back, will be used for corporate events, overnight accommodations for clients, and as a learning center dedicated to sustainable healthy living. It will also be 100% off the grid. In other words, 100% of its energy will come from renewable resources. Centerbrook Architects has been hired to design the Founder’s Cottage, and Smith believes that when completed, the cottage will be certified at the gold level.

The Motivation Behind LEED Certification

For the majority of companies wanting to build “green”, LEED certification is not usually what the company or architect has in mind when the design process begins. It’s only later that in the design process that the idea of LEED certification enters the picture. In the case of NRG, it was Maclay who brought up the idea because as he says, “The building was at a point where it was already designed to be green and without any changes could be a gold certified building.”

What motivates a company like NRG or MLN to design and build a sustainable building? Companies like MLN, NRG, and Seventh Generation see it as making a company statement, one that reflects their corporate philosophy as employee-centric companies who strongly believe in environmental stewardship. For example, MLN took a 110-acre cornfield and only developed one third of it, keeping the rest in agriculture. Even though the town approved a $1 million SF building, the square footage of the new headquarters will only be 315,000 SF.

MLN went so far as to take a company wide poll to see which features employees were interested in and have incorporated many of these features into the design. MLN made the decision to take a wholistic approach to the building design creating a café that serves healthy food and a health club for employees.

“MLN also sees the new headquarters as part of its brand image and is in the process of designing and building five other branches as well as another headquarters on the west coast,” says Smith. “It’s a chance to marry green technologies with the image of fast money. It’s also a tool for recruiting and maintaining employees, a ”˜Build it and they will come’ philosophy if you will.”

A similar philosophy is behind NRG and Seventh Generation as well. Like MLN, both companies are interested in providing their employees with a pleasant working environment and consider a sustainable green building to be an integral part of their corporate philosophy. In addition, because it is in the alternative energy industry, NRG felt it was important to set an example of an environmentally and energy efficient building and to educate the public in the importance of energy conservation.

LEED and the Future of the Green Building Industry

As sustainable buildings and green building techniques become more mainstream—and there’s every indication that this will happen--LEED will continue to have a significant impact on the design and construction industry worldwide. Not only are more and more buildings around the world becoming LEED certified, here in the United States entire cities are adopting LEED standards.

In November 2006, the District of Columbia adopted the LEED standards and beginning in 2008, every city-owned commercial project will be required to meet LEED standards and obtain LEED certification. More recently, the New York Times reported that Boston is going even further, revising the city’s building code so that all large-scale construction projects are built to meet the minimum criteria for LEED certification. Doubtless many other cities will follow suit. It’s only a matter of time.

Heleigh Bostwick is a Vermont-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Organic Producer, Natural Family Online, Collectors News, and D’Luxe magazine.

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