Viewpoint: To LEED or not to LEED
Although Hamlet wrestled with a deeper question, today’s city and county administrators are wrestling with a question that is philosophical, financial and strategic. The decision of whether to pursue the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for city- or county-owned facilities is not only complex, it has lasting implications.
LEED-certified buildings are designed to have low operating costs, provide healthy working environments and limit the use of natural resources — all qualities that owners can take pride in and showcase. The number of LEED projects has steadily increased since the standard’s inception in 2000, rising to more than 25,600 registered projects and more than 4,000 LEED-certified projects at the end of 2009, and 30 percent of all LEED projects are either government owned or occupied, according to the USGBC. Local governments account for 455 certified projects, and an additional 3,044 government project owners are pursuing certification, according to the USGBC. So far, 35 states and more than 200 cities, counties and towns have passed LEED initiatives, which range from requiring all future government-owned or commercial projects to attain certain LEED standards to providing incentives for LEED projects, such as property tax credits or expediting permitting processes.
If LEED certification is optional, local government leaders have some choices to make. Following are four key issues for city and county staff to consider when evaluating whether to pursue LEED certification.
LEED certification costs can be significant with USGBC registration fees; design, construction and implementation costs; and ongoing maintenance, monitoring and reporting costs. Those costs can vary widely depending on the type and size of building, the LEED certification level and the presence of existing maintenance programs.
Cities and counties can decide not to pursue LEED certification but still incorporate LEED concepts and strategies into building projects. That way, the community can achieve the financial, health and environmental benefits of a green building without incurring the LEED registration and reporting costs. Ultimately, the value of LEED certification needs to be determined for each case, and outside consultants may help evaluate the life-cycle costs of LEED building designs and strategies versus other alternatives.
Pursuing LEED certification may make sense if the community is taking other steps related to sustainability. Questions to consider may be:
Does the community already have a sustainability vision and plan that includes LEED-certified buildings as one component?
Does the community already show that it values environmental stewardship in other ways, such as providing a curbside recycling program, maintaining bicycle paths, encouraging/subsidizing residents to purchase Energy Star appliances, or providing incentives for local solar or wind power projects and development?
Has the community made active efforts to clean up nearby waste sites or increase green space?
If LEED aligns with other sustainable initiatives, then certification might make sense. However, if the community has not endorsed or created a sustainability vision, pursuing a LEED certification might be viewed as contradictory and a form of municipal “greenwashing.”
Pursuing LEED certification may make sense if the community is attempting to solidify or build a reputation of being a sustainable community. That kind of community reputation is not only attracting residents but businesses, as well. Many businesses have adopted sustainability-related policies, which dictate that they should locate or expand in communities that are receptive and conducive to their corporate sustainability goals. That may mean that they look for communities with access to certain types or percentage of renewable energy, have incentives for commercial renewable energy projects, or have public transportation and bike paths that support their alternative transportation incentives.
4. Alternative strategies
There may be alternative strategies to LEED that provide lower life-cycle costs and environmental impact. For example, some strategies used to achieve LEED certification can include complicated and expensive subsystems and devices that increase the efficiency of energy-delivery systems. However, in practice, some of those subsystems and devices could be abandoned or removed because they are expensive to maintain, complex to operate, or not required to operate the building.
Many people would say that pursuing more environmentally friendly buildings is the right thing to do, and LEED is having a significant impact on how buildings and infrastructure are designed, constructed and maintained. LEED has been a game changer in the construction world and has contributed to the development of strategies and products that can help create healthier and more environmentally friendly buildings while reducing life-cycle costs. Additionally, it can provide numerous strategic benefits. However, it is not the only way to design efficient buildings, and an alternative strategy may be the most prudent for some communities.
Raymond Randall, LEED AP, is a senior consultant and project manager, and Sarah Kutnink, LEED AP, is a consultant and civil engineer for Seattle-based R. W. Beck, an SAIC company.