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September 2, 2010

Use LEED as a guide, not a bible

  • Throw away LEED point hang-ups and use the system’s design principles instead.


    Green building and sustainable design become more important to the architecture and engineering industry each year. But many design professionals dread the extra time, effort, paperwork and expense necessary to pursue the verification afforded by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification — to the point where they’d rather avoid green building completely.

    Nevertheless, the best interests of the project, not third-party verification, should be the ultimate goal, say architects, engineers, construction managers and consultants who have worked on successful green building projects. They encourage their peers to change the way they look at LEED and green building in ZweigWhite’s new book, “5 Must-Know A/E Lessons in Green Building,” which offers current green building information and case studies of successful green projects.

    Don’t put LEED first

    A/E firms that are thriving on green building projects don’t view LEED as a necessary evil. Instead, they see the complex rating system as a guideline for good sustainable design. That means putting the project’s goals above LEED points.

    “Don’t get bogged down in LEED points. Decide what’s best for the site, the owner and the project. And then disregard LEED points if they aren’t what’s best,” says Sam Batchelor, project manager at designLAB Architects in Boston and project architect for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) World Headquarters building in Yarmouth Port, Mass. “LEED provides a great framework for evaluation and comparing buildings but it’s in service of your goal, not the goal itself.”

    Scott Shell, principal at EHDD Architecture in San Francisco and architect for the LEED platinum-certified Chartwell School in Seaside, Calif., suggests putting energy efficiency at the top of your priority list for any green project. From there, the LEED points fall into place, he says.

    “If we are really aggressive pursuing energy efficiency, reducing energy use by 50 percent or so, and then we add photovoltaic panels to cover all or some of the remaining energy, then achieving platinum is not that much more of a stretch,” says Shell.

    The Chartwell School strived for net-zero energy use, which means it wanted the campus to conserve an amount of energy equal to the energy that the campus used.

    Another crucial point to remember is that not all green building projects need to track and pursue LEED certification. You can create a successful green building project without applying for LEED certification. In many cases, a project owner expresses interest in LEED for branding and marketing purposes. But the project’s sustainable features, like energy and water efficiency, environmentally responsible materials, and reduction in construction waste, are what make the project truly green — not a checklist of LEED requirements.

    Consultants lend a hand

    Often, a green building project involved in LEED certification can benefit from working with a LEED consultant.

    A LEED consultant not only helps manage some of the additional monitoring and paperwork, but also teaches A/E professionals how to complete a green building project successfully on their own.

    “From our perspective, being open to learning about the different elements of sustainability and being able to find ways of incorporating that into the way you design (makes our job easier). So instead of being something you see as a specialty, (sustainability) becomes something inherent in the way that you approach every design project,” says Colleen Soden, director of technical assistance at The Green Roundtable/Nexus and LEED consultant for the IFAW World Headquarters project.

    The documentation can get arduous, but through good collaboration and open communication the sustainable design of a project takes precedence over its LEED requirements. Soden praises the IFAW World Headquarters project’s design team for having a healthy view of LEED and its role in the green building project.

    “(The design team) saw LEED as limitless instead of being overwhelmed by the experience of this rating system. They used LEED as a measurement tool and not as a design standard,” she says.

    On budget

    Many A/E professionals perceive the cost of building green as a project deal-breaker. They believe that sustainable design can tack on more than 10 percent to a project’s budget. But the truth is that most green projects add much less to the project costs — and the energy and water savings more than pay for the higher price tag over the long haul.

    The Chartwell School reached net-zero electricity use with photovoltaic panels by adding only 6 percent to its construction costs. EHDD Architecture estimates that the solar panels will pay for themselves over the next decade or so. Other additional costs for the project’s sustainable features included obtaining certified wood and the rainwater catchment system on the campus.

    Another way to save money on green projects comes through innovation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Building 110 science laboratory in Atlanta used a new type of fume hood exhaust fan that saved money and resources.

    “Traditionally, fume hood exhaust fans are constant volume with constant velocity discharge. We performed a wind tunnel study and analysis that permitted us to vary the fume hood exhaust fan speed — producing annual energy savings of more than $35,000 as well as confirming that exhaust airflow would not be re-circulated into the building intakes. The savings quickly paid for the study and then continued to accumulate,” says Gregory Johnson, associate partner at Newcomb & Boyd of Atlanta, the M/E/P engineer for Building 110.

    While the LEED system gives the A/E industry a way to track and measure a building’s effectiveness in sustainability, the goal of sustainable design should come first. Green buildings should conserve resources like water and electricity, lowering the building’s long-term effect on its surrounding environment. LEED points won’t save on utility costs and reduce carbon footprints, but sustainable design practices will.

    Kara Hiltz is a managing editor at ZweigWhite and author of the book “5 Must-Know A/E Lessons in Green Building,” available exclusively on ZweigWhite’s website.

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