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Is LEED Really Green? I’m Operating in the Red!

Sustainable land development is beyond buildings. The predominant industry focus to date has been on making buildings more efficient and healthier to inhabit. That’s a great start, but it’s not near enough to achieve true sustainability. Biodiversity, soil and water management, waste management, and much more needs to be integrated – and that’s just the environmental concerns. Social and economic needs must be considered as well.

Without getting into the site-specific pros and cons of this particular project, an important point that also needs to be considered here is the common misunderstanding, as demonstrated herein, about what "sustainability" really means.
Sustainability is more than "green." Sustainability is a blend and balance of environmental, economic and social components which combine to produce optimal results for present and future generations. Although the individual components of sustainability have come together in definition, we must remember that these components were initiated and promoted by separate advocates and frames of reference. This article provides some historical foundation behind today’s reality: while we all acknowledge the need for equity between economic, social and environmental concerns and work passionately to promote it, the sustainability movement continues to struggle.

Frankly energy costs may well be falling like a stone following the November 2012 elections provided Republicans move forward with their plan to drill for energy in the US as a means of eliminating debt and reducing unemployment. Cap and Trade is dead and alternative energy sources have proven to be far less robust that hoped leaving the alternative options of wind and solar as small players on the global stage.

Before we run to mandate green buildings I suggest we think about the investment required and the impact of those investments. Remember any rise in corporate costs results in a similar if not more substantial rise in product costs-the corporate return must always be defined in percentages above the costs of production.

I am talking, in particular, about Green Building and Sustainable Development in our cities. This notion of incorporating green building practices in retrofitting and new building developments has been bantered about and vehemently debated throughout the country for over a decade and yet we are still at the beginning stages of a wholesale build-out.

One can’t help but be confused by all the differing reports from industry experts regarding the true cost of building green. No doubt, on a national level, the awareness is growing and some states and local municipalities have already implemented Energy Performance Regulations requiring various levels of disclosure and reporting.

The big question in my mind is where is the bottleneck that is preventing this renaissance? There are many incentives and subsidies that help diffuse the pain of high capital costs, as well as, the recurring operational cost savings from a “greener” building.

In the latest Sustainability Round-table: Management Best Practices publication, they outlined three recent trends:

1. The most respected statistically normalized studies consistently demonstrate that green buildings create value through leasing (5%) and sale price (5-7%) premiums.

2. When consultants are not overpaid, green buildings and, specifically, green building certification, are in fact far less costly to achieve (0-2% additional cost) than many real estate professionals assume.

3. There is increasing recognition of the health and productivity benefits of green buildings.

Another key take away from the report stated, “leading companies are moving to a more sustainable leased space to lower operating costs, reduce environmental risks, increase productivity, improve recruiting and retention, implement corporate sustainability mandates, and enhance brand and reputation.” It would stand to reason that a project certified by the USGBC LEED program would achieve maximum energy performance. But the two are not necessarily mutually inclusive.

Essentially more effort is needed to ensure life-cycle cost benefits in the form of energy savings and reduced operating costs. The key to energy savings comes through a building operator’s involvement in the design process and then ensuring that what was designed is actually installed and functional. LEED attempts to address this issue via additional points for enhanced building commissioning. But similar to energy conservation points being awarded based on design elements, commissioning points may be attained by simply having a commissioning plan and providing documentation, not necessarily from acting on an of the findings.

The LEED process addresses the sustainable aspects of the building process. Owners of LLED buildings have been rewarded for use of building sites that would have otherwise been considered unsuitable. Similarly, local sourcing of building materials has reduced the carbon footprint of the building process itself. Water conservation and recycling are also significant pieces of the process as well.

However what may gain points on a LEED scorecard may not be the right solution for your building. Following these tips will help assure that you get the maximum benefit from the LEED process.

1. Stay involved in the process to understand the basics of the design.

2. Engage an owner’s representative that understands building operation, building performance, and building construction.

Engaging in the process is vitally important if a building owner or developer is looking to gain the long term financial benefits of improving building performance through LEED.

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