LEED Needs More Verification


In March 2008, the New Buildings Institute reported the findings of its study on the energy performance of buildings that had received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for New Construction certification through 2006. Though the report revealed that a majority of the buildings in the study exhibited energy efficiency at, or above, design levels of performance, it also said 25 percent were significantly less efficient than had been forecast.

The report asserted that the energy efficiency of LEED-NC projects as a whole compared favorably (25 to 30 percent more efficient) to un-indexed values of existing national building stock. Considering that the comparison is with buildings of all types and ages, the claim may be over-reaching. These conclusions, and others in the study, point to the difficulties in reporting and comparing building energy use without considering the myriad influencing factors.

A more troubling inference of the study is that only 121 of the 552 certified projects at that time were included. Most either declined to participate or had not been tracking necessary energy data. It is not known how selective participation may have skewed the data set, but it should add further skepticism to the claim of superior energy performance for LEED-NC projects. To its credit, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), developer of LEED and commissioner of the study, responded quickly. In its latest LEED-NC version, certified buildings are required to report energy use for an initial five-year period or risk decertification.

As we attempt to drive energy performance to optimum levels through design and technology, the impact of building operations, in both execution and reporting, will become increasingly critical in providing verification of the value of these measures. Similarly, the tracking and reporting of sustainable practices in water conservation, other direct and indirect environmental impacts, and occupant health and well-being all contribute to a building’s sustainability narrative.

In 2002, four years after the launch of LEED-NC, the USGBC introduced a similar program for existing buildings (LEED-EB) to address the remaining 99 percent of building stock that is not new construction or undergoing substantial rehabilitation. With its qualifying criteria based almost exclusively on verifiable performance, LEED-EB, from inception to its current iteration, provides a benchmarking tool that allows the user to track sustainable practices.

Building owners have been slow to embrace LEED-EB. In Portland, a city known for sustainability, only four private-sector office buildings have entered the LEED market using LEED-EB. Despite incentives offered by the USGBC for reduced LEED-EB registration fees, no LEED-NC projects have certified as LEED-EB. This lack of urgency is not difficult to comprehend: A LEED-NC certification is permanent and without qualification, while LEED-EB must be continuously verified.

An example of hesitancy in the market-wide acceptance of earlier versions of LEED-EB can be noted in some of its unique challenges to multi-tenant buildings. For instance, some points required monitoring occupant purchasing, commuting and productivity attributes, which is unprecedented and difficult to control. The latest version of the certification, LEED-EB Operations and Maintenance, puts greater emphasis on the benefits of sustainable design and operation, like energy and water conservation, while maintaining the option to track occupants’ discretionary behavior.

The costs of preparing and implementing LEED-EB Operations and Maintenance can vary significantly from pennies to approximately $5 per square foot, depending on the project size, original design and specific LEED level desired. As this market matures, LEED-EB Operations and Maintenance conversion costs will be rationalized by viewing the investment from the perspective of the comparative total life cycle costs of action versus inaction.

For now, LEED-NC projects represent the lion’s share of the green building market, which is increasingly driven by progressive organizations that wish to occupy buildings that reflect traditional market factors and company emphases on sustainability. Eventually the consumer will realize what the USGBC discovered: Sustainable practices in design and construction can be rendered ineffective over the life of any project unless a similar emphasis is placed on the operational component. As this market matures, savvy tenants will demand verifiable performance in conjunction with good design.

Building operators will ultimately be held accountable for formulating and implementing sustainability procedures, as well collecting, processing and reporting related information to current or potential stakeholders. For some in building management, this is an exciting opportunity; it allows them to be part of the solution. Still, for far too many, the process is viewed as uncertain, inconvenient or unnecessary.

Common ground for all may be found in any of the many sustainability programs like LEED-EB Operations and Maintenance, Green Globes, or Energy Star. Each provides a tangible end point that is procedurally driven and can improve operating economy. The overall approach can be metered as more or less a didactic exercise when appropriate, or be completely defined by a series of benchmarks necessary to achieve certification and demonstrate a significant leg up on the competition. Most people understand the premise of competition and all indications are that building operators who wish to remain on top of the market need to document their continuing efforts toward the objectives of sustainability.
[Source: djcoregon.com, July 14, 2010]