LEED: Prioritizing Energy Efficiency

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the first and largest certifier of green building, is by now familiar to anyone who works with buildings or campus planning. Another LEED (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building is registered, completed, or certified every day, and it only takes a quick scan of university and college websites to see how many colleges are working with the organization to get voluntary certification for renovations or new construction. LEED, which accounts for almost every aspect of green building, awards points for each feature within five main categories: Energy and Atmosphere, Sustainable Sites, Water, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Air Quality, with a few extra points available for design innovation or special elements. As of April 2008, almost 2,000 buildings have been certified, and another 12,000 are registered as somewhere in the process of planning, building or certification.

However, the system has taken some flak recently, with critics citing high administrative costs, a preference for surface-level improvements, and a “checklist” approach as deterrents. The fact that the rating of Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum LEED can sometimes come down to adding a bike rack and installing bamboo flooring is, to some, lacking teeth, and has a much smaller effect on carbon emissions than might be hoped. Depending on a variety of factors, a LEED-certified structure built with local materials and compact fluorescent bulbs can actually be less energy-efficient than its older, better-insulated, non-LEED neighbor. As Paul Erlich of the Building Intelligence Group notes, “The sad truth is that many green buildings today are neither highly efficient nor particularly intelligent, and this is a missed opportunity.”

However, since LEED’s launch in 2000 it continues to evolve, and with a new version expected by the end of the year, the guidelines will delve deeper into what it means for a building to be green. The idea of holistic planning will take a more central role, and certification for campus-wide policies, such as purchasing recycled paper or using non-toxic cleaning products, will be a streamlined process that doesn’t require each additional building to re-document. Credits for regional initiatives and building designs that interact better with their surroundings are being considered. Most importantly, credits will be weighted more heavily according to their impact on carbon emissions, making it harder for a carbon hog to be certified.

While LEED guidelines do an excellent job of calculating broad sustainability, new technologies are making it easier to calculate and reduce carbon emissions even in non-green buildings. Demand response, which automatically shuts down unnecessary utilities (such as lights in empty rooms or heat in unused buildings) to redirect electricity at times of peak demand, is one such example that requires only minimal retrofitting. By reducing the likelihood of a blackout and requiring less from the grid, an automated monitoring system can save millions of dollars and tons of CO2 by adjusting usage according to need. In the corporate world, kickbacks to companies who commit to shutting down non-essential systems in their buildings at times of peak demand have prevented blackouts.

This smart grid technology seems tailor-made for college networks, and is already being tested by campuses like the University of New Mexico. UNM, starting with a 200-building audit, will link monitoring and control systems for their utilities. Once the assessment is completed, buildings which require additional smart technology will be retrofitted. Then the whole campus will be linked together by Internet controls and connected to the local electricity grid, as well as UNM’s own solar and natural gas generators, which contribute about six megawatts to the campus. Ideally, this kind of technology will earn credits under revised LEED guidelines, making the USGBC’s recommendations more useful to schools working to reduce their emissions by 80% before 2050, as endorsed by climate scientists.

While there are admitted imperfections in the current LEED program, its greatest strength is its requirement that all designers and stakeholders be involved in the planning from the very beginning. Melissa Gallagher-Rogers, a US Green Building Council manager who works with higher education projects, says, “One of the main tenants is integrated design, the idea that you have all the project members together to talk about the building from day one, and then they stay connected to the building, so if things come up, or you need to be innovative, everyone’s still there to work together. Buildings register so that you don’t have architects designing a building, drawing up the plans, turning them over to the engineers and disappearing.” More than any other organization, the USGBC has brought together architects, designers, engineers, and facilities managers to create a useful system for measuring sustainability and creating buildings that sit a little lighter on the land.

Just the fact that so many people are taking LEED as a given and looking beyond to next steps in carbon-cutting is an indicator of the success of the program. The raison d’etre of USGBC, says Gallagher-Rogers, was never to award points. Rather, the creators hoped to bring about a market transformation, which seems to be the case. McGraw-Hill Construction estimates that green building will constitute 9-10% of the market within the next few years, and that number will only grow, particularly as costs decrease (for some new construction, costs for green buildings are already equal to those for conventional building) and the knowledge base grows. There are currently about 45,000 LEED-accredited professionals in the building field, and demand for their services is sharply increasing. As the process becomes more sophisticated, greener practices will become the norm rather than the exception, making campuses smarter, more beautiful, and ultimately sustainable.

Resources: Several excellent sites exist for information on building green, including of course, the US Green Building Council’s, which includes documentation for LEED and resources for designers, architects and engineers. Also check out GreenerBuildings.com, with a wealth of articles and news, Architecture2030.org, which aims for carbon-zero buildings by the year 2030, and the GridWise Architecture Council which focuses on interoperability and intelligent building technology. If your campus is located in the Pacific Northwest, the Cascadia Green Building Council goes a step beyond LEED and has ideas unique to your region. Finally, download the National Wildlife Federation’s Higher Education in a Warming World report, which highlights examples and practices already being used at colleges and universities nation-wide.