10 Tips for Green Building Certification

09/10/2018 | By Janelle Penny

Green Building Certifications The main driver can be anything from prestige and branding to a genuine desire to protect the environment and keep building occupants healthy, but one thing is certain – as green building certifications gain wider understanding and multiply in availability, they’re becoming an increasingly important way to set apart your building from the competition.

Find the right certification for your building and start the process with these 10 tips from industry professionals.

1) Understand Your Motives

Knowing your own reasons for pursuing green building certification sets the tone for the rest of the project.

“Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish,” advises Allison McKenzie, principal and director of sustainability for design firm SHP Leading Design. “Are you trying to reduce utility costs, lower [operations and maintenance] O&M costs or focus on attracting tenants?”

Building owners pursue healthy, sustainable and resilient features for many reasons, but not all require certification, explains Corie Baker, senior architect and sustainability leader for Gresham Smith’s healthcare group. “Most clients are interested in sustainability. Not all of our clients are interested in a third-party certification,” Baker explains.

“Most of our clients are interested in operating a building more efficiently, making sure the building is healthy for the occupants or staff, or in the case of healthcare, for their patients. We have some clients whose policy is that all of their buildings are certified. In some jurisdictions, the code requires a certification. There are other clients who are interested in the marketing aspect because there’s data out there that says LEED buildings rent faster and for higher rates.”

The last factor is a powerful driver because certification can help attract and retain tenants. At Marquette Plaza, which houses the Minneapolis offices of tenants like Xcel Energy and several federal agencies, dual certification – an ENERGY STAR rating of 99 and downtown Minneapolis’s only LEED Platinum multitenant office building – is a valuable recruiting and retention tool.

The Bank of America Plaza, a 1.8-million-square-foot office tower and the tallest building in Dallas, earned three certifications – BOMA 360, LEED Gold and ENERGY STAR – and can also add “award-winning” to its resume after clinching a coveted TOBY (The Outstanding Building of the Year) award at BOMA International’s 2018 conference in the Greater Than 1 Million Square Feet category. 

The structure, which was originally built in 1985, boasts a recycling program that diverted more than 582,000 pounds of consumables from landfills, energy-efficient operation that saves roughly 67,000 kWh compared to a conventional building annually, a fitness center for tenants and a sophisticated tenant communication system.

On topic: Architectural Salvage: Benefits of Reusing Old Buildings

Prioritizing efficient and healthy building management and features raises the bar for other buildings in the market, and building certifications verify the legitimacy of those priorities, notes Adam Bernhardt, vice president and general manager with Peloton Real Estate, which manages Bank of America Plaza.

“Many building certifications have requirements that overlap, and if you’re already doing a lot of the required functions to remain competitive in the market, it’s just a matter of documenting and maybe enhancing your services,” Bernhardt explains. “We saw it as a way to validate the product we put out and help us seek improvements on how we can do better.”

Meeting the bar set by a certification program without applying for the designation will result in a more efficient building. However, without third-party validation, it can be difficult to substantiate performance claims and gain credibility, says Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute, which administers the Living Building Challenge program.

“It’s very easy to say you followed the guidelines, but without having the building certified, it doesn’t really assure people that it was actually achieved,” Sturgeon explains. “Many teams want to show others that this is a path to follow, and without being certified, it’s hard to make that case.”

2) Choose a Certification Program

Many of the certification bodies publish their requirements online, allowing you to review what’s expected of your building before anyone lifts a finger on renovation.

Discuss key differences and how to meet your objectives with your in-house team and others who can advise you, including colleagues who have achieved certification for their buildings and your project engineer and architect.

Consider questions like:

Certification scope: Do you want to focus on achieving the best in one area (such as energy), fine-tune the whole building or expand your green goals over the whole property? Are you certifying one building or an entire portfolio? Certifications like Class-G (a reference to the office space grading system) are portfolio-driven, while others focus more on certifying one building at a time. "Imagine you have 543 stores and you want them all to ramp up and manage those facilities more sustainably," posits Joe Blattner, president of Class-G. "What does that mean? How do you get there? What do you do with the certification if you pursue it? We created a platform to disseminate education and measurement and meet corporate sustainability goals at a low cost and in less than 35 minutes."

Newcomers vs. established systems: Some of the original certifications like LEED are more instantly recognizable, but that doesn’t mean a younger certification is the wrong choice. Lesser-known programs may offer additional opportunities for consumer education, but some may be too stringent for your situation, so compare the requirements closely.

Complexity, cost and benefits: Your engineers or consultants can explain what’s required for you to hit mandatory targets and earn credits, then help refine your budget and project plans, says Stan Samuel, director of sustainable construction for the Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities (SERF), a certification body founded by industry professionals seeking an alternative to LEED. “You have to have a complete analysis of the building to identify the costs, benefits, ROI and period of payback,” Samuel explains. “Once you get a complete idea, go ahead with the renovation.”

The certification may require application fees, and some also mandate third-party inspection.

The cost of the inspector may be included in the certification cost for programs such as Green Globes, while other certification bodies levy a separate fee for assessment.

“If you’re looking at certifications, you’ve got to do a realistic assessment of your building and say ‘What do I have in place here? What have I already achieved and what do I need to do to get there?’” advises Dan Cote, chair of the BOMA 360 Performance Program and general manager of THE BLOC, owned by National Real Estate Developers, LLC.

“What is your goal in achieving the certification? Are you really focused on energy savings? Is that a hot button for your company? Do you have a corporate mandate for sustainability or are there other things that are driving that decision? Once you know what your goals are and where you are already on that metric, that helps you decide where to go from there and what direction to pursue.”

3) Check the Building’s Current Condition

Obtain concrete data about your building’s performance, policies and other benchmarks. When the building is operational, you can compare its performance with previous data to bolster your application.

At Marquette Plaza, consulting firm Sustology conducted energy, waste and water audits, assessed the structure’s maintenance and cleaning policies, and obtained information on tenant behaviors, such as how many people commute to the site. This information laid the foundation for the ensuing building improvements.

“Take a look at your building and first identify where your low-hanging fruit is,” Cote suggests. “Do a full assessment of your project and look at what you have already and how far you have to go to get to the next step. Look at the criteria for each certification and then assess what you have. That makes it a lot easier to decide which certification makes sense for you to go after.”

Even if your team pursues a program targeting one facet of sustainability, like ENERGY STAR’s focus on reducing energy use, examining equipment performance and the building’s response to changing conditions may uncover other opportunities. It can also provide guidance on next steps, says Joe Markling, BOMA Fellow and head of real estate operations at USAA Real Estate.

“Don’t be afraid to pull the criteria from online and do it as a self-assessment first,” Markling suggests. “It’s a great way to see where you are and get you to a level where you would qualify if you made certain changes.”

4) Get Creative with Sustainable Solutions

Budgetary concerns and certification requirements heavily shape the areas your team will tackle, but making specific game plans requires you to further delve into the details.

Assess the cost vs. benefit of pricy and highly visible green technologies, but don’t forget to include more affordable ones like dimmable lighting or tightening the envelope. "Water conservation strategies are becoming increasingly affordable and are becoming a preferred way to make incremental improvements," explains Shaina Weinstein, vice president of engagement for the Green Building Initiative, which administers Green Globes. Baker advises plucking the low-hanging fruit first.

“Almost all of our clients are doing LED lighting, and the first cost has come down substantially in the last five to seven years,” Baker says. “We look at the building envelope to make sure it’s highly efficient and high-performance. We always want to use low-VOC materials in the building, and there’s very little upfront cost associated with that. Another strategy we try and look for is thinking about active design; one way to do that is to focus on the staircase by making sure it's inviting and accessible.”

Remember that a limited budget doesn’t actually preclude you from getting creative.

Used office paper from 330 N. Wabash in Chicago is recycled into toilet paper off-site. The building has earned LEED-EB O&M Silver, SERF, ENERGY STAR, and BOMA 360 certifications.One memorable project, 330 North Wabash in Chicago, opted to reprocess used office paper into toilet paper, says SERF president and co-founder Joe Maguire. Your team might decide that services like this offer good value for the cost – in this case, the same dollars helped recycle used paper, build green credibility and keep toilet paper stocked. 

(Photo: Used office paper from 330 N. Wabash in Chicago is recycled into toilet paper off-site. The building has earned LEED-EB O&M Silver, SERF, ENERGY STAR, and BOMA 360 certifications. Credit: SERF)

Related: The Impactful Benefits of this LED Lighting Retrofit

If you’ve set an especially high certification goal, however, your end result might dictate the process instead of the other way around. The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY, embarked on an unconventional path to earning both LEED Platinum and the Living Building Challenge with a combination classroom-wastewater treatment plant: the Omega Center for Sustainable Living.

The pursuit of dual certification led to the incorporation of a staggering amount of regionally salvaged building materials, adds CEO Robert “Skip” Backus. Take inventory of materials, technologies and tools you own or can obtain easily and inexpensively – you, too, may end up gaining points from surprising sources.

“We had the opportunity to salvage the Obama inaugural platform, so we used a lot of its plywood,” Backus says. “We took down a building here on campus and used its materials. We have doors from an apartment building that was torn down in Philadelphia, and the siding is from an old mushroom farm. Each component has its own story and it really changes what the building is.”

5) Don’t Overlook O&M

A high-performance building needs a high-performance facilities team. Review your O&M practices to find inefficiencies, outdated information and less-than-green practices.

A standard operating procedures manual and formal preventive maintenance practices are required for BOMA 360 certification, but regardless of certification choice, guidelines for everything from maintenance schedules to bid-letting protocol helps your team keep your sustainable building performing at its best. Updating these policies may reveal other ways to improve efficiency.

Purchasing and cleaning policies should also go under the microscope on a regular basis – you may be able to find vendors closer to your area (thus reducing carbon emissions from transporting your orders) or switch to greener cleaning products.

Rick DeKam, principal of Midwest Realty Group, found opportunities for waste reduction simply by restructuring recycling programs at two buildings aiming for SERF certification.

“We used to have a cardboard recycling dumpster, and I don’t think we even filled it that much because it was cardboard only and people didn’t want to break apart their bags of garbage to sort them,” DeKam says. “SERF pushed us to have a recycling program inside the building, draw more attention to it, and let people know exactly what we’re doing and why. Now we make it easy.”

6) Get Buy-In

A directive from company leadership is crucial for certifying owner-occupied buildings and portfolios, Blattner explains. Make the time to enlist the help of your CEO or board of directors in rolling out a certification initiative. Present them with evidence of concrete benefits, like the projected reduction in energy and water costs, and demonstrate how spending time and money to certify buildings can save more money in the long run.

“People who are running businesses say they don’t have time for this. It’s a hard challenge,” Blattner explains. “It takes a commitment from the very top of an organization that says ‘Make time. This is good for our profits, our people and the planet.’”

Certifying a multitenant building will require additional assistance. Present each tenant with compelling reasons to revise its own purchasing and waste policies. Offering a green building that makes it easier to recruit talent may persuade some to renew their leases, but others will need hard numbers.

Water improvements alone saved about 700,000 gallons annually for Marquette Plaza’s manager, Base Management. Its in-house recycling program has diverted around 89 tons of waste from the landfill in the last year. This holistic approach is required for some certifications.At Marquette Plaza, enlisting tenants in the certification effort took the form of discussions, training sessions and emails that explained certification, the difference between pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled paper, and other ways to green their purchasing policies.

(Photo: Water improvements alone saved about 700,000 gallons annually for Marquette Plaza’s manager, Base Management. Its in-house recycling program has diverted around 89 tons of waste from the landfill in the last year. This holistic approach is required for some certifications. Credit: Sustology)

DeKam streamlined recycling to earn SERF certification by giving each tenant separate, clearly labeled containers for different materials and signage showing the recycling process.

“Sometimes I feel like a used car salesman because customers are wary of spending more dollars or doing anything that’s too ahead of the market and they don’t want to be bleeding edge,” remarks Blake Jackson, sustainability design leader for Stantec. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the cost and benefits of these buildings.”

Stantec certified several of its own buildings under Fitwel, a health and wellness-centered certification.

Getting employees on board with the health-centered mission required plenty of signage and programming information to draw occupants’ attention to the available health and wellness spaces, as well as documenting the company’s existing healthy eating policy.

Engaging building occupants before you start actively pursuing certification is a crucial first step that can pave the way to an easier certification process, Baker adds. Consider having each department nominate a representative to a project team to ensure that everyone's voice is heard.

7) Pay Attention to Lifecycle

Age and lifecycle considerations are just as important for the existing building as they are for products and remodeling plans. For instance, if your building has a black roof that’s still functioning well, you might find that the emissions you save with a reflective white roof are voided by the energy used to replace the old one, not to mention the resulting waste.

Also look at the lifecycle of products and materials destined for your building. Look beyond the first cost of the material, advises Carrie Malatesta, senior interior designer for SHP Leading Design.

“A big piece of lifecycle cost is maintenance,” Malatesta explains. “Are you going to select a floor that may require no finish or sealer or something that needs to be stripped and maintained once a year?”

8) Do Your Due Diligence with Documentation

If there’s one thing all building certifications have in common, it’s that you won’t earn your recognition without documenting why your building deserves it.

This is extra important if you’re pursuing multiple certifications; in many cases, certifications will require the same data (say, a year’s worth of energy consumption information) but one may require more paperwork and the language used might be different. 

Sourcing is also a major concern for many certifications, so do your homework on materials, suppliers, inventory and lead time. Make sure you can demonstrate where the components of your building came from. Weigh material attributes against their distance from your site.

For example, will buying solar panels manufactured closest to you earn more points than the 20 percent more efficient panels made 500 miles away?

“Know every single thing you can about the building, what it’s going to cost, what you need to gather and how you’re going to put it together,” Backus explains. “You can’t go to your local hardware store or lumberyard and do this anymore because the economy doesn’t allow that kind of inventory, so sequencing becomes an issue. You need to know what you’re doing from beginning to end on every project.”

9) Manage Costs

What you can achieve will come down to your budget, in terms of both project costs and the extent to which incentives defray those costs. Rebates for sustainable features and efficient equipment will help make your certification more affordable, but will likely require some extra paperwork.

Make sure that someone on your project team is staying on top of what’s needed to qualify for rebates and the deadlines for requesting incentives. If you opt for a certification program that requires you to recertify later, such as LEED O+M, you’ll need to budget for ongoing costs in addition to the cost of whatever renovation is needed to qualify you for the initial certification.

Choosing a certification also requires you to examine how the act of certifying might benefit you financially and otherwise in the coming years, and making that prediction is difficult at best.

“We see a number of projects wrestling with whether to pursue a third-party verification of a high-performance building,” says Lauren Seydewitz, director of sustainability for Gresham Smith and a member of the firm’s water and environment group.

“There are some action items and investments you can make that do have a quick return on investment, but they’re also thinking about it from a goal perspective. What are our options? What do we want to invest in now so we can set ourselves up in the future five to 10 years from now as we make additional investments in buildings? Cost always comes up, but it’s also important to think about your long-term goals of how certification fits in and what you want to achieve.”

10) Strive for Continuous Improvement

Your certification might last the life of your building, but the building’s performance won’t, especially if you don’t keep up with your new, more efficient practices. It’s easy to forget about annual reviews, Markling says, but without them the building’s performance suffers.

“Things get overlooked when people get busy,” Markling explains. “If you haven’t updated your O&M manual in a few years, or you’re a new manager and you only have old information and phone numbers, stop and take a look at it.”

Demand for resilient and efficient structures will only grow, so keep pushing your building toward greater performance. Keep your finger on the pulse of new rating systems that can provide a framework for better building management, like the soon-to-be-launched RELi, a resilience-focused building designation that could help you improve emergency preparation and disaster planning.

The improvements in performance and branding achievable with sustainability and resilience certification frameworks are worth it, and so is the effect your building can have on its surroundings – not just the environment, but the community its occupants call home.

“We’re in a service industry providing services to tenants and organizations, and we make an impact on our communities,” Bernhardt says.

“We get to be a conduit to coordinate between tenants and organizations to provide some of these services, like supporting local schools or charities. That’s impactful, and whenever you go through something like BOMA 360 or a TOBY competition, you have to really drill down and try to quantify what that impact is.”

This article was originally posted June 1, 2012. It was updated Sept. 6, 2018.


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