LEED on a Budget

02/24/2010 |

By Alan Scott, AIA, LEED Faculty

LEED on a Budget

Nearly everyone has heard about LEED, the USGBC’s voluntary rating system for green building design, construction, and operation. Numerous government entities, private developers, and building owners are attracted to the fact that achieving LEED guidelines can result in better building performance, healthier spaces for occupants, less environmental impacts, and a competitive edge in today’s market.

Shift the Scorecard
Some who consider LEED certification ultimately decide against it because of cost. It costs to register and certify a building, but achieving points to hit a targeted level is where many see their budget teeter. The inherent problem is that this approach is backwards. Rather than embark on a project with the objective to attain points, look for opportunities that promote sustainable buildings and sites, and points will follow.

Begin planning for LEED certification before programming and design. A good building site offers great LEED value, and credits are available for location efficiency in sites that offer access to public transportation, bicycle routes, pedestrian pathways, and livable communities with amenities within walking range. In fact, proper siting alone can offer up to 35 percent of the points needed for basic certification at no cost.

Align your project with your programming and green building goals. When you examine what the building is intended to do and why it’s being built through the lens of green building, opportunities and synergies appear earlier. Because these strategies grow out of your goals, they will generally cost less and be easier to implement. For example, some high-performance buildings may require premium systems and sophisticated controls that add upfront cost, but pay off over time. But, in many cases, an occupant group that’s educated and engaged with green building goals can help achieve greater energy savings in a building with simple systems. Orienting your process in this manner avoids forcing measures onto a project that aren’t a good fit, which means more money out of your pocket.

Challenge Assumptions
Get the entire project team involved in taking a hard look at the performance requirements and parameters for the project, including lighting levels, temperature, the time and capacity at which systems must run, etc. Often, facilities standards specify a certain minimum illumination level throughout the office that haven’t been updated for the visual needs of those working on flat-screen monitors. Assessing the true lighting requirements, focusing on lighting quality (occupant perception) rather than quantity (footcandles), and using a task/ambient lighting approach can reduce upfront costs for light fixtures, reduce energy bills, cut relamping costs for the life of the building, and contribute several points toward LEED certification.

On a new project, an integrated design team can ascertain how to lay out the building to optimize solar orientation and harmonize with the climate. On a retrofit, interior spaces can be reconfigured to best take advantage of sunlight; adding features like light shelves can help balance daylight within the space. Once the requirements for general illumination are lowered and supplemented by daylight and task lighting, the team can assess the ability to downsize or eliminate systems. The air-conditioning systems won’t need to manage the heat of so many overhead lighting fixtures and lamps, and the team may also consider the reflectance of ceiling and wall surfaces when evaluating illumination levels, further reducing the number of light fixtures needed. Again, these are cost-neutral or cost-saving strategies that contribute to LEED points.

Less is Less
Green building shouldn’t be an additive process, and LEED doesn’t reward you for this approach. Identify which things are essential, and think creatively minimalist. Fewer systems and materials will garner LEED points and cost you less. LEED materials credits are based on a percentage of the total cost, so you compare the total materials cost to the cost of those that contain recycled content or are regionally sourced. One way to come out on top of this equation is to put more money into the materials with sustainable attributes. The other is to use less materials overall. Design the floor and roof systems so that suspended ceilings are unnecessary. Stain and polish concrete, and eliminate additional flooring materials.

Make sure you understand the requirements of the process, and consider working with a good consultant to save time, effort, and potential disappointment. Thoughtful engineering can also help you see where costs might be removed. For example, there might be money set aside in the budget for high-performance glass when exterior shading could offer much better protection from solar heat gain. With an investment in exterior shading, you could save money on lower-performance glass and downsize the chiller, the fans, and the perimeter ductwork.

Stepping Stones
For existing buildings, LEED is best viewed as a process. Create a long-term plan from your goals. Gather your team to brainstorm solutions, and start with the low-hanging fruit. A lighting retrofit or plumbing fixture replacement can pay for itself in a year and may quality for incentives. Sustainable operation and maintenance policies cost very little to develop and implement, and they often reveal areas where waste is occurring and savings can be generated. Examine your interior microclimates and the limitations of your current systems. Can you program around the areas that have a lower tolerance for heating and cooling rather than try to keep an even temperature across the space? You can redirect your savings into more advanced, higher-cost items that bring lasting value. Depending on your budget and the level of LEED-EB O&M you want to pursue, it may take time. But patience will pay off and LEED points will accrue if you remain true to your green building objectives.

When it comes to LEED, the best advice is to focus on value rather than points. Those who embark on a point-chasing exercise blind themselves to a wide range of opportunities and spend needless money. Avoid the pitfall of the least-cost-per-point mentality and keep your vision on the highest value per strategy. You will not only create a LEED building on a budget, but it will be one that truly meets your goals.

Alan Scott, AIA, LEED Faculty, is a principal at Green Building Services Inc., one of the most comprehensive sustainable consulting firms in the nation. He provides environmental leadership and practical applications for green building projects in the United States and around the world. Alan can be reached at 866-743-4277 or alan@greenbuildingservices.com.

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