The Cost and Value of Green Buildings

The cost of a project is always a major concern for building owners. Recently, the desire to have a project“do good,” in addition to meeting its programmatic and aesthetic requirements, has turned the attention of owners to green building. For educational institutions in particular, there is a desire to model the values they seek to impart to their students. Students, for their part, are looking to their schools for leadership in what they see as necessary action in addressing global resource depletion and climate change.

Green buildings are one of the ways in which institutions can visibly respond to issues of environmental leadership and resource conservation. In considering green buildings, the issue of cost has taken on a disproportionate burden for owners who are trying to decide how they can afford to build them. In truth, the investment required for a green building is smaller than commonly perceived. Owners who have delved into sustainability have taken different paths. There are lessons to be learned from each, but one needs to be aware of the motivation and nature of each effort.

Evaluating Costs

When evaluating whether an individual project costs more or not, one should consider the owner’s choice of taking on additional cost to achieve a particular goal of sustainability. While some owners have made a commitment to spend more to accomplish a higher level of sustainability, others have done solely what they could afford. When talking with these owners, you are likely to hear that they believe in what they did and they have extracted“value” for their efforts. For some, it is the financial value of lower energy and operation costs. For others, it may have marketing, recruitment, curricular, or fundraising benefits. For many, the value is greater than what was anticipated because it includes all of the above, whether they planned for it or not.

I have not met an educational institution that does not want to embrace sustainable practices in their building programs and on their campuses. Nor have I met a client, now or before sustainability was a familiar term, whose top concerns for their capital projects did not include cost.

The US Green Building Council has determined that the average cost increases for each level of LEED certification based upon projects that they have certified. LEED projects are certified at varying levels. The average cost increase for a LEED building at each level is 0.66 percent for a Certified building, 1.9 percent for Silver, 2.2 percent for Gold, and 6.8 percent for a Platinum certification. The majority of projects target Silver as the level of achievement.

The mistake that institutions, their boards, and their building committees frequently make is to consider sustainability as an overlay. Anything taken in that context can be identified as an added cost. For example, let’s assume that ABC University wants to build a classroom building. They want it to be made of brick. They want smart technology in every instructional space. They want 20 classrooms instead of 18. Each one of these desires, whether programmatic, curricular, or aesthetic, can be shown to cost more than a lesser alternative. ABC University will decide to do some or all of these items based upon value to the institution. How a brick building affects their image is important in a different way than how smart technology supports their programs.

Assigning Value

Budgets are set to accommodate programmatic needs, curricular needs, and even aesthetic priorities, according to the value that the institution places on them. Once set, design teams are hired to work within the budget, or justify a change. Creative design teams work closely with their clients to balance the challenges of program and budget. Sustainability should be considered in the same context as these other values.

The question should not be “What does sustainability cost?” The question should be “Is sustainability a value of our institution?” If sustainability is determined to be a value of your institution, incorporate it into the project requirements from the beginning. Separating sustainable strategies and asking the design team to think of things in this way only encourages the likelihood that your project will cost more.

Sometimes owners cannot afford what they want or need even if it is of institutional value. ABC University may not be able to afford a brick building and 20 classrooms. They may need to use a blend of materials on the exterior of their building, or they may have to defer the smart technology for their classrooms. This is reality, and it is true of the elements of sustainability as well. This is the challenge of leadership and creativity. It should not deter campuses from doing what they can and what makes economic sense for the project.

Many features of sustainability have become cost-neutral, such as low-VOC products. Others have “trade-off” costs. For example, a white roof membrane may have a higher cost, but it will reduce energy consumption, thereby reducing the size and cost of mechanical equipment. This may be a net-zero cost to the project. Still others provide a return on investment through time, such as improvements to the building envelope that reduce energy consumption for the life of the building. While this option may initially cost more, it presents a worthwhile return on the investment within a period of time acceptable to the owner. Other green elements may be included for curricular reasons or to make a statement about the institution’s commitment to sustainable principles. I advocate a “do what you can” approach. You do not need to have a living roof or solar panels to be sustainable.

Pursuing Certification

The question can arise as to whether or not to pursue certification. The important thing for the institution to know is that it has gotten what it has designed and paid for. It does not hurt for the institution to be able to tell others, as well as inform itself, that its sustainable objectives have been achieved and verified by a third-party process. There is a definite cost to this pursuit that will vary as a percent of project cost based upon the size of the project. Generally, it will have a smaller incremental cost for larger projects.

I believe there are intangible benefits to pursuing certification, such as marketing, recruitment, and campus image and development, to mention a few. Still, the decision whether or not to certify must be based upon the goals of the institution and the individual project.

If you are considering a new project and are considering sustainability, I recommend the following actions.

1. Start early and commit. This is critical in maximizing benefits and minimizing costs for sustainable design.

2. Hire an experienced design team. This team needs to be familiar with sustainable design as well as your building type. Make them a part of the goal-setting and budget process.

3. Hire an experienced contractor. The contractor needs to be familiar with sustainable construction as well as your building type.

4. Establish goals and priorities for the project, including sustainable goals and priorities. Do this with your design team.

5. Build a realistic budget. Do this together with setting the goals.

6. Commission the building whether you certify it or not.

7. Let your community know what you are doing. Share information with your faculty, students, alumni, neighbors, and peers.

The community of green building experts has grown tremendously in the past several years. There are experienced professionals available throughout the country. There are very few barriers to sustainable design and every opportunity to find the professionals, products, and technology you need.

Peter Doo, AIA, LEED-AP, works as a consultant on sustainable design and is chair of the USGBC North East Regional Council. He can be reached at 443/463-5859 or [email protected]