8 Tips to Fast-Track LEED for Existing Buildings

Nov. 26, 2012
Targeting LEED-EBOM certification? Let sustainability experts show you the way.

When you picture a green-certified building, what do you see? Is it the office tower with the expanse of windows? The hotel with the high-tech room controls? The school with a green roof?

Or is it an FM going about his or her day-to-day routine?

The LEED for Existing Buildings: O&M (EBOM) certification recognizes just that, rewarding applicants for increasing building efficiency and operating sustainably.

This rating system, the only one in the LEED family to require recertification, places a strong emphasis on running buildings in a way that offers maximum benefit to the environment and building occupants – and without a huge capital outlay for the newest, greenest technologies.

Sound familiar? Your building might be a good candidate for this prestigious designation, which could be yours in as little as two years. These eight tips from green building professionals will give you the best chance at achieving a high score without dragging out the process.

1) Lay the Groundwork – It’s Worth the Time
Expect to spend around two years connecting all the dots for the certification process, which includes one year of post-improvement monitoring of building performance to verify that the facility meets certification requirements. But to aim for that two-year window, you have to start off on the right foot – and some applicants don’t.

It may seem like common sense, but some gung-ho teams end up focusing too much on optional credits and not enough on the nine prerequisites that must be met to achieve any level of certification, notes Anna Dengler, director of sustainability at Great Forest, a consultancy with considerable LEED-EB experience.

If you’re trying to earn EBOM certification as easily and quickly as possible, spending time up front on the prerequisites saves you the extra time, money, and frustration you’d otherwise incur down the road, such as if you’ve neglected the IAQ Performance point, for example.

Meeting the minimum requirements for ventilation and energy efficiency requires careful thought and attention, so don’t leave it until the last minute.

“The first step is to look at your ENERGY STAR rating in Portfolio Manager. ENERGY STAR is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck,” Dengler says. “Ventilation is more of a cost item – you may or may not see a big return on it, but it is important to make sure your building is appropriately ventilated. An engineer has to calculate this for your building by checking every air intake.”


College of Health and Human Services Building
Western Michigan University – Kalamazoo, MI
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LEED-EB Level: Gold

Square Footage: 240,000 square feet

Originally Built: 2005

Project Timeline: Feasibility study from October 2007 to February 2008; implementation to the conclusion of the certification review spanned February 2008 to May 2009

Costs: USGBC certification fee of $6,000, plus roughly $20,000 for a LEED consultant

Green Updates: Retrofitted dual-flush valves with signage indicating proper use, chemical-free water treatment system for the wayfinding water fountain

770 Broadway
New York, NY
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LEED-EB Level: Silver

Square Footage: 1,137,698 square feet

Originally Built: 1907

Project Timeline: Registered in 2008 and application submitted in 2009; certification officially granted on Jan. 5, 2010

Costs: $15,000 to $20,000 due to size; exact cost not available

Green Updates: Low-flow water fixtures, greener cleaning products, standardized waste management practices, an Energy Information Portal that displays tenants’ hourly consumption data on their desktops

750 East Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD
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LEED-EB Level: Gold

Square Footage: 364,177 square feet

Originally Built: 2002

Project Timeline: Feasibility study completed in September 2010, with performance period ending March 31, 2011; official certification granted August 2011

Costs: Typical costs to certify comparable Class-A office buildings range from $0.35 to $0.65; exact figure for this building not available

Green Updates: LED/fluorescent retrofits, continuous commissioning program, lighting control upgrades, low-flow fixtures, single stream and electronics recycling, green cleaning plan

Portfolio Manager benchmarking is required if your building’s primary space type is represented in the tool, according to the USGBC’s official LEED criteria. Buildings not eligible for Portfolio Manager must perform better than 69% of similar buildings using one of the alternative paths specified in the LEED-EBOM guidelines.

This benchmark must be measured before you make improvements to the building – otherwise, your final tally of LEED credits won’t accurately reflect all of the work you’ve put into the building, says Jim Nicolow, director of sustainability at Lord, Aeck & Sargent, an architecture firm that has served on several EBOM projects.

“You have to develop the policies and make changes to the building first, and then you start the clock on the one-year performance period,” Nicolow explains. “With a typical LEED project, you finish the construction of the building and then certify it, basically meeting the requirements as you go. With an existing building, any physical changes you make to the building – like dual flush toilets or carbon dioxide sensors – need to happen before you start the performance period.”

2) Bring the Team Together
Starting such a project with LEED in mind encourages the general contractor, every subcontractor, and other key players to focus on the same goal, says Denise Simmons, an associate who specializes in green efforts with interior planning and design firm H. Hendy & Associates. If you make the decision late in the game, you may not get the result you want.

“You need to have ample time to process all of the documentation and get everything lined up ahead of time,” Simmons explains. “One client decided late in the game to go with a LEED certification, and as it turned out, no one on the team had ever done it before. It was challenging to not only get certification done in a timely manner on a shortened timeframe, but also to hand-hold along the way to help everybody get their jobs done. It pretty much doubled our efforts, but the client got the certification on time.”

Western Michigan University, which enlisted Lord, Aeck & Sargent to help certify its College of Health and Human Services building under the former LEED-EB 2.0, targeted certification from the beginning. This initial venture blossomed into a campus-wide sustainability policy and led to additional certifications under the current LEED-EBOM system.

“In the same way a new building incorporates the integrated design process and gets all the disciplines together to make decisions, LEED-EB or EBOM forces the same interdisciplinary conversations,” Nicolow says. “We ended up gathering input from over 40 people from across Western’s campus. Organizations and groups that are often siloed on campus and wouldn’t be talking to each other on a day-to-day basis were forced together to talk about how they operate. It facilitated a lot of conversations that wouldn’t necessarily have happened if each group wasn’t forced into discussion through LEED-EB.”

Similarly, your in-house facilities team must get up to speed with the requirements of greening your building and running it sustainably afterward, Ackerstein says. Though it’s tempting to bring as many services under your roof as possible, you may run into manpower and cost issues if your colleagues don’t have the right training.

“Oftentimes management is overly optimistic about how much bandwidth their operating staff has to perform various audits or surveys for the LEED process,” Ackerstein notes. “When you fill out that scorecard thinking you’re going to be able to do a lot of things in-house and then your team says, ‘We don’t have the time or expertise to perform an ASHRAE Level II audit,’ that can create stress.”

3) Chart a Course to Certification
After you’ve made plans to address all nine prerequisites, start looking at the optional credits with an idea of which certification level you’d like to target. Develop a specific plan for how you’ll achieve each credit, and don’t rely on assumptions about your building’s performance, even if you’re confident your assumption is right. This is another area where initial planning ends up saving you from wasting time redoing tasks later.

“Oftentimes people will check those boxes enthusiastically without giving careful thought to what it means. It’s easy to say yes in the assessment phase without flushing out the technical challenges and the costs associated down the road,” notes Dan Ackerstein, president, CEO, and founder of Ackerstein Sustainability LLC, a sustainability consultancy focusing on LEED-EBOM (which Ackerstein helped develop). “Go into the LEED certification process with a full understanding of what you’re signing up for.”

Sometimes it can be easy to overlook the total time investment for the project, says Gary Thomas, director of sustainability programs for CBRE, a global real estate firm with a project management division that has completed over 160 LEED-EB certifications.

“You’re going to spend about 10 to 15% of your time on certification, especially in the five to six months where you’re going through the pre-performance and performance period,” Thomas explains. “You have to put in the time, energy, and effort to have a successful certification. There’s no way around it. Some weeks you might spend 2 hours and another week you might spend up to 15 depending on what credits you’re seeking to achieve.”

Also understand the total cost of certification, Dengler advises. The fee to register your project with USGBC isn’t cost-prohibitive – for $900-1,200, you gain access to LEED Online, the mandatory Web-based tool you’ll use to complete documentation requirements, upload supporting files, and complete other tasks to take your building from registered to certified.

However, applying for the necessary pre-certification review can be costly if you have an especially large or complex building, she adds.

“If you’re over 500,000 square feet, the application fee can get into the $15,000 to $20,000 range, so make sure you have the funding for that,” Dengler says. “That’s something people either don’t think about, or they think about it at the beginning and then once they actually apply, they say ‘Wait, who’s writing the check?’”

4) Jump into Low-Cost Water Strategies
Water efficiency is a great place to start earning credits, Dengler says. Up to 14 points in the Water Efficiency section are possible in the 2009 version of EBOM, with up to five points just for going above and beyond with indoor plumbing fixtures and fittings.

“It’s an easy fix to put low-flow aerators on faucets. Also, swapping out older toilets and urinals or just putting flushometers in those devices will gain significant water savings,” Dengler explains. “You can earn more if you’re getting regional credits. For example, here in New York City, we have an abundant resource of water, but all of the water we use goes back into the combined sewer system. When we have a lot of water coming from buildings plus floodwater, it combines into a particularly difficult situation for the city. For our region, reusing your water can gain you additional regional credits with LEED.”


5) Look to the Roof
Got a blacktop roof? Depending on your climate, it could be absorbing much more solar heat than necessary – and taxing your HVAC system. This fix could earn you a Sustainable Sites point and lower your energy consumption at the same time.

“A relatively easy win that buildings wouldn’t normally do if they weren’t pursuing LEED is to have reflective material or paint on the roof,” says Dengler. “A white roof is more cost-effective, and because it’s reflective, it actually increases the life of the roof. It also reduces the urban heat island effect and cools the first few floors under the roof.”

Either paint or a membrane works, Dengler says, as long as it covers at least 75% of the roof surface and meets the high solar reflectance index (SRI) defined in the official EBOM guidelines. Normal aging will lower the SRI value, she adds, so choose a product that can still achieve high reflectance after a couple years of weathering.

6) Enlist Tech Tools
Your building management system (BMS) can help you target efficiency – and the points that come along with it – more easily, Dengler says.

Start with real-time data from the BMS (if your system can support that) and add historical records, such as utility billing information, to present a more comprehensive picture of your annual energy consumption. Context is key, because a season that was notably extreme or surprisingly mild will affect your calculations.

“The most important thing you can do to understand your energy usage is either monitoring it in real-time or looking closely at your records to see trends over time,” Dengler explains. “You’d think it would be straightforward, but it’s not. You might have a hot summer one year and a cooler summer the next year. You have to compare your consumption against what your systems are able to provide in a certain scenario, so having software or a consulting firm in place to analyze this is key for energy efficiency.”

A BMS can also help track generation from renewable energy sources and substantiate claims of lowered energy consumption after you hone the building’s efficiency, Dengler notes, making it a valuable tool in documenting performance for your LEED application.

7) Green Your Purchasing Process
Of the 10 points possible in the Materials and Resources category, six cover sustainable purchasing policies, as does one of the prerequisites.

On top of that, your pest treatment choices affect your ability to earn a Sustainable Sites credit, and several Indoor Environmental Quality credits focus on sustainable cleaning solutions, equipment, and more.

To meet the prerequisite, you’ll have to implement an Environmentally Preferrable Purchasing policy in your organization using USGBC’s policy model, provided free in its official guide to EBOM. (The current EBOM standards were issued in 2009, and the next update, LEED v4, is set for release in 2013. LEED 2009 will remain available for three years after v4’s release.)

To give your building a fighting chance with the optional credits, though, you need to make sure your vendors and outside service providers are on board with stricter purchasing policies covering everything from recycled content to labeling. Cleaning in particular offers many opportunities to substitute healthier materials, Ackerstein notes.

“With green cleaning, the marketplace has really responded and the main product providers have been exceptionally aggressive in providing cost-effective alternatives to meet marketplace needs,” Ackerstein says. “Integrated pest management is developing more slowly because of the regional nature of pest control and the need to develop long-term, effective solutions in every microclimate and ecosystem.”

The policy template USGBC provides is easily adaptable to vendor agreements, Thomas adds. For example, the integrated pest management section offers a great outline for a pest control provider. You’ll also use this template to update internal policies and procedures.

“I would suggest that a site take the integrated pest management plan that’s part of the LEED certification process and attach it to your vendor contract,” Thomas says. “You could pull pieces out and try to embed it in the contract, requiring the vendor to abide by that plan in addition to what that vendor is already doing with you. In most cases, a good quality vendor’s going to say, ‘Yes, we can do that.’”

8) Remember the Big Picture
Five years after earning certification, you’ll have to get your building recertified by LEED if you want to maintain your designation, so don’t let your sustainable practices lapse. This requirement is unique to EBOM and underscores the importance of operating and maintaining facilities sustainably. Keep enforcing those green policies and monitoring energy and water consumption – records can only help you as you move closer to recertification time.

Good management is the key to this, Ackerstein says. Prepare your staff to operate the building sustainably for the long haul by providing the time, resources, and education they need to work efficiently in your newly certified building. And don’t forget the core message – LEED is a vehicle for sustainability, not just prestige.

“When you’re thinking about all the mechanics of the certification process, asking, ‘Can I earn this credit? Can I get this point?’, it’s easy to become focused on the credit requirements, calculations, and the semantics of credit language,” Ackerstein explains. “But even if you can’t earn a LEED point, ask yourself if you can make progress toward that point that will benefit the environment. Fundamentally, the environment doesn’t care if you earn a LEED point.”

Janelle Penny [email protected] is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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