Dollars and Sense of Self-Administered Certification

The case for LEED certification is a compelling one. It provides third-party verification that your project has met the requirements of an established green building rating system. This is valuable for many reasons but, certification costs money. It is not so much an issue of construction costs, which have come down dramatically as project teams and product manufacturers have gained knowledge and experience. Most clients are willing to pay these modest cost increases for the benefits that accrue. Though small, it's the cost of the certification itself — the fees and administrative costs — that cause many institutional owners to pause. For colleges and universities, the problem is compounded by the perception that certification of one building suggests the need to certify all campus buildings. That's a lot of money that could be used to make buildings “greener” or for other sustainable campus initiatives.

Benefits of certification for educational institutions are many. They may come as increased financial support for green capital projects or positive impacts on admissions. Additionally, certification allows the compilation of data and sharing of information among peer institutions. This is important as more colleges and universities commit to the goal of climate neutral campuses. It is also important to alumni, donors, students, and parents as a testament of the institution's commitment to sustainability and proof that projects are truly meeting their stated goals. It is simply not the same to say, "We are LEED equivalent." Currently, no one knows how many “LEED equivalent” academic buildings exist. And, the data is lost to the larger community. Additionally, LEED “equivalency” is highly suspect as “close enough” often equals compliance when it should not.

As a consultant, I frequently encounter schools that choose to spend money on programs rather than on certifications. Who can argue with that? But, I believe that educational institutions undervalue the benefits of certification and have not explored the opportunities for self-administering the certification process. The benefit is both financial and educational — dollars and sense.

If one separates the registration and certification fees from the cost of administering the documentation, certification costs are miniscule, less than $2,500 for buildings under 50,000-sq. ft. The administrative fee for documentation is the more significant cost. Students and faculty, under the direction of the campus Office of Sustainability, can perform these documentation functions, and project certification is still affordable. A LEED consultant can assist in establishing a process for a one-time fee rather than engaging one for each project.

The benefit of self-administering LEED documentation goes well beyond the certification of campus buildings. It engages students, faculty, and community in an understanding of the challenges and real efforts of the college administration to meet their stated sustainability goals. Students would be learning and have the opportunity to recommend improvements or new ideas to advance sustainability on their campus. Older students could be responsible for teaching new students about the program. For an educational institution, what could be better?

A steering committee of faculty and students should be created, and might include members of the departments of environmental studies, sciences, engineering, architecture, and others. Students who have participated on a regular basis should be eligible to join this committee. All students who want to participate in the certification process should be welcomed. However, it should be made clear what the responsibilities and expectations are.

Participating students need to be trained to do those tasks that will be necessary while they are in school. For some students, this may mean design reviews. For others, their experience may include construction and project performance evaluations. Yet others may experience the greening of existing buildings (LEED-EB). Documentation of any compliance activities will be another opportunity to learn. The level of achievement for all projects can be declared proudly and the LEED plaque will be more meaningful to students as they graduate: “Certified by the Class of 2010!”

Campuses are living laboratories for sustainability. They are constantly building new buildings or renovating old ones. They are communities in themselves, and they are often linked to an even larger one. Some are urban and some are quite rural. Beyond the certification of buildings, campuses can discover better ways to distribute energy, manage waste and wastewater, implement effective and carbon free transit systems, and many other sustainable practices.

The certification of projects is important. Documentation and recordation is central to the constant improvement of the way we build buildings and communities, which is what campuses are. Colleges and universities know this. Self-documentation provides substantial educational opportunities while making certification of all buildings affordable.

Peter Doo, AIA, LEED-AP
is President of Doo Consulting, LLC, a sustainability consulting group supporting sustainable design, high-performance buildings, and emerging green building initiatives through LEED documentation, education, and professional consulting services.