To LEED or Not To LEED? That Is the Question

Institutions of higher education are in a unique position to be leaders on the long journey to secure a balanced and sustainable future. As the shapers of young minds, they can lead their students by exhibiting institutional behaviors that those students will one day emulate in their own vocations. The campus itself has the potential to be a laboratory for innovation and learning. And as a developer of the built environment, the institution holds the power, as a consumer, to create demand. Consider:
•    The impact of energy use from buildings is significantly greater than the impact from transportation.
•    65 percent of electricity use is attributable to buildings.
•    40 percent of raw material use is attributable to buildings.
•    Generally, the second highest institutional expense (after salaries) is energy.
•    Roughly 80 percent of net atmospheric carbon gains are attributable to energy generated from fossil fuels.

I cite these statistics to underscore the importance of buildings in this struggle for a balanced relationship with our planet. And those individuals who are planning and purchasing buildings will have a tremendous impact on the built environment for the next two or three generations (or more).

A question that we (architects) are increasingly facing often starts with a statement: “We want to incorporate sustainable principles into our buildings, but what is the value of LEED certification?”

A LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified building may involve a project cost premium depending on the level of certification (zero to two percent for up to a Silver rating, perhaps three to 10 percent for Gold and Platinum ratings). Most of the costs are discretionary, in that certain types of investments (i.e., triple-glazed windows) can contribute to a higher level of performance, equaling more return on investment (ROI) and a higher certification level. These are evaluated throughout the process, usually in terms of ROI.

There are also some premium costs that are mandatory within the program, and these I will discuss. For simplicity of illustration, I will put them in three categories: commissioning, energy modeling, and administrative.

A basic level of building commissioning is required as a prerequisite in the LEED certification program (no commissioning equals no certification on any level). Some institutions of higher education require commissioning regardless of any LEED aspirations, but others do not; consequently, commissioning is often regarded as a project cost premium associated with LEED.

To appreciate the value of commissioning, it is important to understand that buildings are increasingly complex assemblies of interrelated systems. As a means of comparison, an automobile’s design will develop through much engineering, prototypes, model generations, and millions of duplications, and will still need a periodic tune-up to keep running near optimum efficiency. A building, in contrast, may consist of standard parts, but those parts are being organized into configurations that are almost always unique. Further, the building is constructed through the efforts of many different contractors, and its systems are controlled by highly complex computer programs that are often run by end-users with little specific training or understanding of the design team’s intent. The net result is that the vast majority of brand-new buildings significantly underperform their potential efficiency.

Commissioning is the process by which the building’s installed systems are meticulously reviewed and compared to their design performance goals. Usually this process uncovers installation mistakes, missing devises, malfunctioning sensors, and operational issues which contribute to underperformance. This process is usually linked to the training and education of the building operators on the intricacies of the system’s performance.

The reason that the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which administers the LEED program, has chosen to make commissioning a prerequisite is that the problem of underperforming buildings is pervasive, and commissioning can reap enormous benefits. How much value depends on many factors, but studies show reductions in maintenance and energy costs in the range of five to 30 percent, often resulting in a return on investment within a five-year window. This may not be compelling for a developer seeking to “flip” a project in 24 months, but to an institution of higher education, it makes a lot of sense.

Energy Modeling
Almost every building has mechanical systems that are sized by software programs that calculate heating, cooling, and ventilation loads. These calculations are derived from a relatively small amount of information and some intuitive approximations by the modeler. They tend to result in oversized systems and are not carefully tailored to the buildings they serve. Oversized systems are the norm because no one ever complains about having too much air conditioning. In standard practices the goal is to meet, and not exceed, the requirements of the energy code. The engineer running the program is often sitting down to make a mechanical system work in a design that has long since been established. The chance to comment on shortening a duct run, to use less fan energy, or protecting a wall of south-facing glass from the summer heat, is not afforded.

LEED forces a better type of practice by creating goals to optimize energy performance beyond the building code. The design team establishes a target for energy optimization: two points are required, but as many as 10 are obtainable. The members of the project team collaborate and determine how to most effectively configure the many building systems — including walls, windows, mechanical systems, lighting, etc. — to result in a high-performance building. The modeling exercise is rigorous, involving far more detail than basic modeling, and examining not just options, but combinations of options whose synergistic relationships often result in great operational savings with minimal additional construction cost. This means a smaller impact on the environment as well. Rhetorically, even if the cost were equal to the savings, is it not better to pay a salary than to burn coal?

The cost of this level of energy modeling comes in the form of additional professional services fees, but can result in a return on investment on a time scale that can be appropriately measured in months.

The third type of LEED-associated costs I will lump together as administrative. These are the fees associated with LEED documentation and the USGBC review process. Documentation costs include the time it takes for the project team to record proof of each LEED point pursued. The review process includes a registration fee paid to the USGBC. These administrative costs often seem the most difficult to justify. At face value, they may appear as vanity — just bragging rights or “a plaque on the wall.” Owners often wonder if this money could be better spent on insulation, or a similar “value-added” improvement.

I am going to argue that these administrative costs are indeed value-added, and perhaps the most valuable investment to be made in any project. My premise hinges on two ideas, inertia and accountability.

Inertia — From Newton’s First Law of Motion comes the concept that a mass will move with a constant velocity in a straight line until another force acts upon it. The larger the mass, the harder it is to change its direction (i.e., the Titanic couldn’t turn on a dime). I am speaking of the design and construction industries, and further, those industries that procure such services, and those entities that regulate such services. We all know how hard it is to change — I’ve been told it takes 21 continuous attempts to change a habit before it sticks. Moving toward a better type of practice — one focused on a more sustainable use of resources — involves the changing of habits. And for a project to be successful by these measures, there must be buy-in and commitment from the many and diverse members of the project team: from the owner’s many representatives, to the architectural team, the mechanical and electrical engineers, the contractors, etc. There is no better way to communicate to a team that you mean business than to require LEED certification.

Accountability — Most people are well intentioned. But when pressures begin to mount from every side, the natural tendency is to prioritize tasks by degree of exposure to risk. In the college classroom, the number of students who finish the required reading assignment will vary widely, depending on whether there will be an exam at the end of the term. A project team can make the noblest declarations about integrated, high-performance design, but without the motivation of an independent review at the end of the process, it is unlikely that the effort will be comprehensive. A sophisticated owner can introduce those standards and make that review independent of LEED, but this requires significant technical knowledge and resources. For most situations, the LEED certification system is the most sensible way to introduce accountability.

The value-added dimension of the LEED administrative costs are present in the way the program compels everyone involved in the process to work together to do a better job. This total team commitment results in a building that delivers greater returns. It would be extremely difficult to quantify this effect, but it is both tangible and dramatic.

For better or worse, there seems to be no natural force as powerful as consumer demand. Those involved in the planning and procurement of building projects send a very powerful message when they define their motivations about sustainability. Unfortunately, when you say, “we want a green building, but we’re not going to require LEED,” what the industry is hearing is “there will be no exam.”

Ray Micham, AIA, LEED-AP, is an architect/partner with The Collaborative Inc (