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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2007 : Building


A Holistic Approach for LEED
A committed team stays on track with high performance goals for the whole building’s benefit.

by Bryna Dunn and George Nasis

Buildings in the United States consume 36 percent of our nation's total energy, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). As the appeal of building green continues to grow in response to rising energy costs, owners and developers continue to look at new strategies for pursuing high performance design. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)'s LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Green Building Rating System is the predominant certification program in the US. LEED is powerful both in keeping design teams focused on the most important aspects of high performance design and by recognizing the achievements of teams who successfully certify their projects through this rigorous third party certification system.

A high performance building's potential benefits include increased market value, lower operating and maintenance costs, improved occupancy for commercial buildings, and increased employee satisfaction and productivity for owner-occupied buildings. LEED certification, based on compliance with a rigorous rating system and verification by an independent third party, provides a well-recognized, nationally accepted standard for high performance buildings. And, although the average additional cost of certification is two percent, the extra expense is frequently recovered through improvements in occupant productivity, faster lease rates and increased market valuation.

In order to successfully achieve LEED certification, a strategy toward constructing a single, well-integrated building system is best. A holistic, or "whole-building," approach starts with an inclusive high performance design team, which considers all environmental, energy efficient, and sustainable aspects as they pertain to the individual building.

In any holistic approach to building design, key concepts to consider are: open and frequent communication among team members, commitment to achieving a high performance end product, budgetary limits and opportunities, and benchmarking of success.
Open and Frequent Communication

Strong leadership is critical to a successful high performance building project. The first step is assembling a high performance design team, whose members are committed to thinking ahead and collaborating. These members include the building owner; the commissioning agent; architects, engineers, and consultants; the facilities manager; and building occupants.

It is important for the team to set goals early, and to communicate frequently to ensure a fully integrated design. By continually integrating their efforts, architects, mechanical engineers, and other consultants often develop unanticipated synergies as they work towards their original goals. Throughout the design process, the team ideally uses the LEED rating system as a guide for making design decisions. LEED provides the requirements that must be met in order to attain certification; how those requirements are met is left to the discretion of those involved in the building's design and construction. In a whole-building approach, many considerations must be reviewed and balanced before making selections. With ongoing communication and cooperation among team members, environmental and certification goals are evaluated equally for the building design as a whole.

Commitment to High Performance
All members must be committed to high performance objectives throughout the entire design process, ideally beginning before the site is even selected. Using the LEED score sheet is a helpful tool in creating a framework for decision-making. The full design team, however, must be on board to evaluate what types of design and construction strategies make environmental and financial sense for the conditions of their project.

Many owners consider LEED certification for their projects because it is so positively recognized, but other reasons exist to pursue certification. For schools, high performance buildings teach by example and instill a sense of pride in the students. LEED certification can lead to improvements in both student and faculty recruitment for higher education facilities. In government, LEED certified buildings exhibit responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars, especially over the life of the building. In general, high performance buildings improve work-force productivity through greater interior comfort, including better air quality and use of day lighting. A committed team successfully incorporates the elements that lead to these results throughout the integrated design process.

Budgetary Limits and Opportunities
The LEED fees for registration and certification review do slightly increase the initial project cost; however, for strategically designed buildings, that cost is easily recouped by the long-term operating cost savings and increased productivity associated with high performance buildings.

For USGBC members, registration for all buildings is $450. Certification review fees are based on building size. The design-phase certification review fee for buildings less than 50,000 SF is $1,250; 50,000-500,000 SF is 2.5 cents/SF; and over 500,000 SF is $12,500. The construction-phase certification review fee for buildings less than 50,000 SF is $500; 50,000-500,000 SF is 1 cent/SF; and over 500,000 SF is $5000. Fees for non-members are slightly higher. The design and construction review fees are additive and both phases of certification review must be completed before a building can earn a LEED certification.

In order to coordinate high performance goals with the realities of a fixed budget, it is important that the team look for solutions that can each solve more than one challenge. This is easier said than done. During project meetings, team members must analyze all of a project's high performance opportunities and work to engage in holistic design solutions while explicitly avoiding the trap of immediately linking design decisions to specific dollar amounts. While exploring various solutions, both financial and environmental synergies between them often become evident.

For example, the use of energy modeling is a LEED-encouraged strategy that may, at first glance, appear costly. Energy modeling, however, can lead to design decisions that can be quite cost effective. A project's energy model allows the team to explore the relative importance of materials such as glazing or insulation to the long term operating costs of that building. Optimizing the building's shell design based on energy modeling should lead to reductions in the long term operating costs of the building, and very well may also lead to first cost savings, as well.

Storm water management also offers plenty of opportunities for integrated design. For instance, including a cistern to collect roof run-off water can look like an expensive line item, but it may reduce the amount of infrastructure the civil engineer must include for stormwater management elsewhere in the budget. In addition, the water collected in the cistern can then be used for irrigation, toilet flushing, and cooling tower makeup water, thereby reducing the project's life-long potable water bills.

Once the most appropriate set of design solutions is established and agreed upon, the project team can determine the overall budgetary impacts of those strategies. The team can also correlate the design recommendations to an anticipated LEED score. It is important to point out, however, that a project's scope and size cannot predict its dollar cost in achieving certification levels. A LEED Gold building may cost less than a LEED Certified building, on a “per square foot” basis, because there are so many factors that affect construction pricing. The use of LEED as a design guide and a certification program does not need to be a major cost driver, especially when the ultimate goal is a well-integrated high performance building.

Benchmarking Success
The LEED score sheet is a helpful tool that the team should complete early in the design process, and update periodically throughout design and construction. Early goal setting facilitates later review of anticipated achievements.

Using the score sheet as the record of the team's intentions, the team can spot-check throughout the design and construction process to ensure the project remains on target. And because, even during integrated design, individual team members have specific responsibilities, the score sheet also reminds each member of those responsibilities. There may be some shifting and realigning of goals based on changing conditions during design and construction; the score sheet is a very convenient and central location to record those changes.

High performance buildings offer owners many powerful benefits ranging from higher market value to more satisfied and productive employee occupants. Pursuing LEED certification may also contribute to a building's increased value through award recognition.
Integrating goals of achieving energy efficiency, water conservation and exemplary indoor air quality, among others, forms the best path for a team to follow in planning for each high performance building's particular set of conditions. A holistic approach to designing a high performance building can produce long lasting economic and operational results.

While a building can be considered green without achieving LEED certification, the result is something like auditing college without earning a diploma. LEED provides a critical tool for benchmarking the performance level achieved by a particular building, while also demonstrating where the building industry as a whole is headed in sustainability and energy efficiency.

Bryna Dunn, Moseley Architects
George Nasis, Moseley Architects

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