The Big Deal about LEED

September 16, 2008

The opening of a new fire station is a big deal, whether you live in small town America or a big city like Chicago.  Such an event calls for a small parade of flower girls, all the local politicians, and even a marching band.  On this beautiful summer morning, even the mayor of Chicago is on hand.  Amid all the major construction projects of the metropolis, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of a new fire station in the community.

But wait, this particular station holds even more significance; its LEED silver certified.

What’s the big deal about LEED – a program for promoting more environmentally conscientious construction?  To start with, buildings consume 40% of all mined and processed materials and 30% of the energy supply.  A typical construction project generates up to 2.5 pounds of solid waste per square foot of floor space.  Beyond the environmental impacts of “green” construction, studies now show that people work more efficiently and take fewer sick days in “green” buildings.

Despite the benefits of green construction, the building industry has been slow to change.  Much of the resistance was a caused by the lack of understanding about “green” building practices and how to measure their impact.  After years of research and debate, the US Green Building Council piloted a program called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

The program uses a point-based rating system to provide a framework for all the stakeholders in building construction to work together.  Points are awarded for meeting performance benchmarks in six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, materials & resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation & design process.  The end result of the program is to tally the points and award a certification.  Achieving a silver, gold or platinum certification provides an advertising incentive to developers competing for environmentally conscientious tenants.

Some points are easy to achieve – like the one that promotes construction in urban settings.  Others require a fairly rigorous accounting of energy savings and comparisons with baseline buildings; 10 credits can be earned if a new building can be shown to save 42% of total energy consumption versus the baseline.  And then, there are competing points that cause a lot of confusion.  Pick up any trade magazine and you’ll probably see competing advertisements from the steel, concrete, masonry and timber producers associations, all touting their material as the best way to earn LEED credit.

Unlike a law, the provisions of the LEED program are strictly voluntary and there are no “LEED police” to make sure you follow the rules.  They also frequently change the rules.  To promote understanding and adherence to the rules, the USGBC now certifies LEED Accredited Professionals.  Your project gets a point if the key consultants are LEED A.P.  This has prompted a wave of architectural and engineering firms to encourage their employees to become LEED certified.  My company offers a $500 reward for successfully passing the certification examination.

…and that’s probably the biggest reason why I’ve been studying up on LEED, but I think that’s ok.  Once I started reading the study material about LEED, I instantly keyed into the necessity to start designing more environmentally friendly buildings.  Industry-wide acceptance has been a slow process, but today, it is a very big deal for many architects and consulting engineers.  If the City of Chicago, its politicians and public servants can learn to be LEEDers, then it is certain that environmentally conscientious construction has a green future.

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