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February 23, 2012

Your projects can still be green, even if LEED doesn't fit

  • Many projects are too small for LEED, but you can craft a plan to meet your sustainability goals.



    Lots of public agencies and private organizations have embraced sustainability over the past few years. And many of them have adopted environmental goals for the design and construction of their facilities.

    Whether you are a school district, a municipality, a commercial property management firm, an affordable housing provider or a retail chain, if you have facilities to construct, renovate or simply maintain, you are in a position to benefit from green building strategies.

    However, establishing environmental goals is only the first step. The next challenge is how to carry them out across a variety of project types. To develop a successful sustainable building program, you need three basic ingredients: strategies, structure and measurement.

    Too small for LEED

    For most new construction projects, there are lots of available “off the shelf” green building programs to choose from that would offer all three of these attributes.

    LEED has been very popular nationwide as a green building standard, but there are many other recognized national, state and local programs that offer a variety of best management practices and sustainable design, construction and operating strategies. In the Pacific Northwest, LEED, Green Globes, Living Building, Evergreen, Built Green and Energy Star buildings can all be found.

    Each of these green building programs has its merits and its constraints. However for large property owners, many building projects are either too limited in scope to be able to meet the minimum qualifications or too small in scale to cost-effectively implement the requirements of a whole building certification system.

    The city of Seattle, for example, has required LEED silver certification for new construction projects since 2000, but only for projects over 5,000 square feet. But with more than 200 existing city buildings under its management, there were numerous construction projects that fell outside these criteria.

    Typical projects might consist only of a roof replacement or installation of a new boiler, or replacement of interior finishes. Sometimes a renovation or tenant improvement would offer a broad scope of tasks but only on a very small scale.

    Yet despite their small size or limited scope, the city wanted to use sound, sustainable measures aligned with its broader goals surrounding climate change and carbon reduction. So how did city staff go about it?

    A green master plan

    They set out to develop a sustainable master plan: a framework of green design and construction strategies and best management practices that aligned with city goals and policies, and offered measurable performance standards to which all their projects could adhere.

    ArchEcology, working with a local public relations firm, won the opportunity through a public solicitation process to help them do it.

    The team began with a gap analysis, using staff interviews and surveys, to assess both current city sustainable practices and unsatisfied needs. Research into the best practices of local and regional peer organizations that had developed recognized sustainable design and construction programs yielded hundreds of potential sustainable strategies.

    In a facilitated workshop, ArchEcology gathered feedback on the collected strategies and best management practices to evaluate performance standards and determine what attributes were most important to project managers when evaluating the feasibility of integrating a sustainable measure — cost, difficulty and environmental benefit.

    Armed with this information, we carefully calibrated the sustainable strategies to suit the city’s varied project types by creating both baseline and target levels of performance. A baseline level of compliance set a moderate but achievable standard of performance like meeting or minimally exceeding the code or regulatory standard, while more ambitious target thresholds encourage progress over time.

    There are lots of standards and best management practices out there. Of course, some are more feasible and cost effective than others depending on regional resources, the scope of the project, and local and state code requirements.

    However, to deliver an effective master plan we needed more than just a collection of sustainable measures and best practices gleaned from peers or other green building programs. We needed a way to align the strategies with the goals to create a tool to prioritize sustainable choices in a project-specific way.

    Carrying out goals

    Using the analogy of a trip to help define a structure of goals, strategies and tactics, ArchEcology conducted a facilitated workshop that allowed city staff to participate in creating the structure of alignment between city goals and the sustainable strategies and tactics that they needed to evaluate and selectively carry out on a project-by-project basis.

    In the analogy, the decision to go to a specific destination establishes the goal. The choice of traveling by plane, train or car represents the evaluation of potential strategies. And each mode of travel, or strategy, has a variety of tactics associated with it that speak to the efficiency, convenience and comfort of the journey, or the successful achievement of the goal.

    It doesn’t matter what terms you use or how many levels of hierarchy you employ — whether goals or initiatives, strategies or priorities, tactics or requirements. Your structure should give you a way to understand how each small step meets your larger goal, or a way to break down your big-picture goals into achievable bite-size chunks.

    With that structure, we developed a customized database implementation tool using a simple Excel spreadsheet interface. Using this database, project managers can filter sustainable strategies that have been coded with construction-specification section references and city-identified attributes into a project-specific checklist. The tool was dubbed Capital GREEN, and its use is currently being expanded to other city departments.

    Find out what works

    Feedback and reporting functions should also be built into the process. Once an implementation structure is established, project efforts must be measured and progress toward the goal reported. Measurement is just as vital to success as a framework of well-crafted goals supported by a roster of best management practices. We pay attention to what we measure.

    Trying new things costs money, and as a result, evaluating return on investment is vital. If a strategy was a success, it might bear repetition or expansion. If a strategy was a failure, it might need refinement or to be replaced with something new.

    The process of measurement provides a frame of reference for determining success and failure. Moving forward, measurement provides a mechanism for continuing improvement. Reporting may seem like the natural result of measurement, but it needs to be built into the process or important trends can be overlooked.

    If your projects don’t fit the green-rating systems already available, developing your own program doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel.

    Craft some quantifiable goals. Look to available resources to assemble a repertoire of sustainable strategies. Adapt the strategies with baseline and target performance standards appropriate to your projects. Align your strategies in support of your goals to establish a basic structure for implementation. Then measure the outcomes and report on the results.

    There are after all many shades of green.

    Michelle Rosenberger and Nancy Henderson are partners in ArchEcology, a sustainable design consulting firm in Seattle.

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