The Foundation of Green Building

By: Jacqui Cook

Associations that retrofit or design new buildings to LEED-certified standards are finding that going green doesn't just help the environment but also helps their bottom line. Find out what LEED means and what associations are doing to become certified.

Visitors to the American Heart Association-Houston (AHA-Houston) notice right away that its building is not a conventional office building: Natural light permeates almost every corner of the sweeping, modern structure. Bike racks and showers are plentiful for employees and visitors who decide to skip the car and get there by two wheels (or feet). The outdoor vegetation is bountiful and native to the area.

These noticeable differences on the surface are just a small hint of what is really going on inside the 19,387-square-foot building next door to the Texas Medical Center. Since it was constructed in 2006, AHA-Houston's headquarters has been a testament to what it means to go green, making the environment part of the discussion of everything from heating and cooling to the cabinets (which are made from sunflower seeds).

The result is not just a brighter, more inviting building. The chapter can proudly say it is a LEED-certified structure, meaning it has received the U.S. Green Building Council's coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design designation, which certifies a building truly is environmentally friendly.

"The American Heart Association is always leading the way in helping people live the healthiest they can," says Amber Baker, executive director of AHA-Houston. "What a great tie-in to that by also keeping the community and the environment as healthy as possible through our building."

Like AHA-Houston, associations of all sizes are finding that seeking LEED certification supports their mission of service and promotes a cleaner, healthier working environment for employees and volunteers. They also are discovering that the cost savings from implementing even a few LEED-eligible systems is substantial enough to make the initial investment worthwhile.

Establishing the Criteria

LEED has its own roots in the association community. It was launched in March 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council, nonprofit organization whose 17,000 national member companies set the requirements for certification. In addition, USGBC's 79 chapters help advocate for green buildings on a local level and educate individuals and businesses about the benefits of building with LEED in mind. The chapters' membership is made up of individuals, while the national organization comprises companies.

"Our membership base is not just one part of the building community; it's the whole community—engineers, architects, interior designers," says Ashley Katz, USBGC's communications manager. "Our members are the ones that developed the ratings system, and they vote on it every time there is a new rating. It's all really member developed."

The key component of LEED is that it provides third-party, independent verification through the Green Building Certification Institute that a building was designed and built using strategies intended to improve performance in areas such as energy savings, water efficiency, carbon-dioxide-emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impact. It also can be applied to existing buildings that wish to remodel an entire space or parts of the space to earn LEED certification.

The current LEED process consists of rating systems for the design, construction, and operation of buildings, homes, and neighborhoods, with categories that encompass new and existing buildings (see "What LEED Certifies" on this page). A project is graded based on 100 possible base points, plus an additional six points for innovation and design and four points for regional priority. Based on the number of points, the project can earn LEED certification at the certified silver, gold, or platinum levels. A project must satisfy all prerequisites and earn a minimum number of points to be certified.

At the time LEED was developed, there was no nationally recognized standard by which to judge a building's environmental impact, resulting in a great deal of confusion about what that meant, Katz says. The USGBC's members set out to establish an objective, comprehensive third-party rating system that could be applied in a variety of ways to both new and existing buildings in the office or residential environment.

"What LEED has come to stand for is demonstrating that the project itself is a high-performing green building," Katz says. "The certification was established because there was confusion about what a green building was. It has now come to define what a green building is all about. It goes beyond the materials and looks ahead to the location, the water, the energy, and atmosphere, making sure it consumes fewer resources and really how healthy the building is inside."

In the 11 years since it was established, LEED has become the leading certification in its field and is generally the measurement to determine if a building qualifies for tax breaks or other incentives offered to green buildings.

For example, in Illinois—the nation's number-one medical association market—a 2009 state law requires all new buildings and major renovations of 10,000 square feet or more to achieve at minimum LEED Silver or equivalent certification. New buildings and major renovations of less than 10,000 square feet must strive to meet the highest standard of the LEED rating system or equivalent but are not required to achieve certification. Shortly after that law was enacted, new legislation added LEED-certification costs as valid "redevelopment project costs" that can be funded through tax-increment financing.

Katie Kaluzny, associate director of the 1,600-member USGBC-Illinois chapter, says there are now more LEED projects registering as existing buildings rather than new construction, which is a change from just a few years ago. LEED also has become a priority for many companies when selecting new office space, making certified spaces more desirable. In fact, the USGBC-Illinois' 950-square-foot office sought LEED for Commercial Interiors certification by making modest improvements, such as upgrading windows and adding reusable material.

"In the past it was new construction, but a lot of these existing buildings are seeing they can have cost savings from upgrading and becoming more cost effective," Kaluzny says. "Also, a lot of nonprofits are seeking space in LEED-certified buildings and looking at it as a criterion. I think they're subject to what they can get and what they can afford, but there are small things they can do at cost or less for LEED for Interiors certification."

"Walking Our Talk"

The National Education Association (NEA) advocates every day for great public schools for all students, and evidence supports the idea that students learn better in green schools. So what better way to convince a cash-strapped school that LEED certification is not out of reach than by seeking that certification for its own Washington, DC, headquarters?

NEA's historic building received LEED Gold certification for existing buildings in 2010 after working on improvements for about four years, says Kimberly Dominguez, director of conference and facilities management for NEA. The quest for certification was driven primarily around the need to rein in the organization's rapidly increasing energy costs. One of its organizational priorities was to reduce energy consumption by 10 percent, and LEED certification emerged as a way to do that.

Fortunately, Dominguez says, the organization greatly benefited from a facilities manager who always had energy efficiency in mind whenever he authorized improvements. NEA was able to build upon the infrastructure it had in place to achieve maximum energy efficiency.

"It was driven around money," she says. "Our energy bill was huge, and we wanted to see what we could do to decrease our expenditures in that area. It blossomed from there as we looked into what we could do. We stumbled on the LEED process and began exploring what it would entail for us."

Some of the improvements NEA made included

  • Setting up schedules within the building control system to shut the air-handling units off when zones were unoccupied;
  • Minimizing or eliminating use of steam humidifiers within 19 air-handling units and rebuilding or replacing steam traps;
  • Purchasing Energy Star equipment;
  • Installing motion sensors in restrooms.

The primary expense, Dominguez says, was hiring a consultant with expertise in environmental efficiency, and time also must be allotted to apply for the certification and submit the necessary documents to prove the criteria had been met. Still, Dominguez says it is worth it to be able to demonstrate what can be done with just a few improvements.

"For my organization in particular, I saw this initiative as a way of walking our talk," she says. "If we believe that green schools will contribute to good learning, and a school says they can't do it, we can say, 'Yes, you can. Our building is bigger than yours, and we did it without it costing a lot of money.' It's about leading by example."

Making the Case

That example is exactly why LEED certification of any level makes sense for associations, says Brian Malarkey, AIA, LEED AP, EcoServices team leader for Kirksey Architecture and the lead architect and designer of the AHA-Houston building. His firm was contracted to build the new headquarters after the previous office space was destroyed in a fire. The initial plans did not call for LEED certification, but Kirksey Architecture worked with AHA-Houston throughout to demonstrate the potential savings and health benefits of a green building.

As Baker noted, the entire building supports AHA-Houston's mission of building healthier lives, and Malarkey says that was a major factor in conceiving the design for the project.

"The goals of this organization, promoting health and well being, are the same goals that you would have building a green building," he says. "You are promoting the well being of the occupants, visitors, and users of that building."

He suggests using that commitment as the starting point of discussions about LEED certification within an organization, then pointing to the potential savings as a counter to arguments about the potential costs. AHA-Houston achieved 15 percent energy savings and 48 percent water savings, and 77 percent of waste was diverted from a landfill. In addition, the building opens to a courtyard that makes it more marketable as a space for events. There also can be unique sponsorship opportunities in a green building, such as naming rights to the rainwater-collection system or solar panels. For building owners, having a LEED space is appealing to renters and helps the building stand out from a crowded field of available space.

"There's a myth out there that green buildings cost a whole lot more, but they don't have to," Malarkey says. "Most nonprofits have to ask for every single dollar they spend, and then they have to justify that. We showed the [American] Heart Association energy savings and water savings because of these decisions. Yes, it's more, but it's well spent. Then they can take that savings back to their board and share it with them."

After five years in a LEED building, Baker says there is no question the extra money and effort were worth it.

"I think those who have taken the time to educate themselves about it would say it was making a difference and was worth the investment to do that," she says. "When I think about the [American] Heart Association's messages, we've been talking about learning CPR since 1960, but not everyone gets it yet. So maybe repetition is key when it comes to green buildings, too."

Sidebar: What LEED Certifies

The available LEED certifications for office space are:

Green Building Design & Construction

  • LEED for New Construction
  • LEED for Core & Shell
  • LEED for Schools
  • LEED for Retail: New Construction and Major Renovations
  • LEED for Healthcare

Green Interior Design & Construction

  • LEED for Commercial Interiors
  • LEED for Retail: Commercial Interiors
  • Green Building Operations & Maintenance
  • LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance

Sidbar: What LEED Measures

These are the categories taken into consideration for LEED certification. Buildings are given credits for efficiencies within these areas:

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor air quality
  • Locations and linkages (for homes)
  • Awareness and education (for homes)
  • Innovation in design
  • Regional priority

Jacqui Cook is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Email: [email protected]