LEED Consultant Fights Falsehoods

August 18, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — LEED is focused on much more than saving energy — and building to LEED standards doesn't necessarily have to add anything to the cost of construction.

Those are points often made by Sam Pobst, an accredited Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design construction consultant who has been involved in some high-profile LEED construction in West Michigan, including the corporate headquarters of Cascade Engineering and the historic Felt Mansion near Holland.

Pobst said one of the biggest misconceptions he hears about LEED is that it revolves around energy, which, he says, is actually a small piece of the package.

“Energy is maybe 20 percent of the puzzle. Although energy is increasingly important, what is probably even more important is the health of the building occupants."

He noted that the "sick building syndrome" that was a problem in the 1980s and 1990s was the result of new buildings designed to be almost hermetically sealed in order to lower energy costs for heating and cooling. When employees become ill from a lack of adequate fresh air, the loss due to absenteeism can easily cancel out savings in energy costs, said Pobst.

Another misperception about LEED is that it can add significantly to construction costs.

"The fact is, it doesn't need to cost a penny more than standard construction, particularly in the West Michigan market where we have a fairly large inventory of LEED buildings," he said. Because of that LEED experience here, he said, "We have an educated work force — not only designers but constructors that know how to do it."

But there is a learning curve to building to LEED standards, which is why there is a demand for services from LEED professionals like Pobst.

The U.S. Green Building Council established the LEED Green Building Rating System, which spells out in detail what constitutes a "green building" in five areas related to environmental protection and human health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, use of recycled or recyclable materials, and indoor environmental quality.

Pobst, who has 30 years of experience in construction management, started his consulting business, Eco Metrics LLC, in 2005. Principals at the firm are Pobst and his daughter, Rachael Pobst, an interior designer who is also LEED accredited in commercial interiors. The two maintain working relationships with a number of experts, including energy analysts, biologists, native plant experts, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, lighting designers, green cleaning experts, commissioning agents, water treatment, wastewater treatment, storm water, transportation, recycling, supply chain management and others.

According to Pobst, there are over a dozen LEED design guides, including those for new construction, existing buildings, health care, schools, homes and others in special market niches. Each design guide contains 60 to 110 design elements called credits. More design guides are in development, and LEED standards keep evolving.

The first big project Pobst did — and his favorite — was working with Cascade Engineering a couple of years ago during the renovation of its corporate headquarters to ensure that it would qualify for a LEED certification. He said it was a long and challenging process because at that time, LEED standards for renovation of existing buildings were new to everyone in the industry.

"That was the first LEED Platinum building in the state of Michigan," said Pobst. The highest LEED rating is platinum, followed by gold, then silver. Below silver are several levels of "certified" ratings.

Attaining a platinum rating is "really a reflection of not only Cascade Engineering's commitment to sustainability, but a reflection of the type of culture they have there." He said it was "a dream job" for him because the people at Cascade Engineering "really understood the essentials of what we were trying to accomplish there."

"Their whole culture is really permeated with the triple bottom line mentality," he said.

The "triple bottom line," often referred to as 3BL in the business world today, emphasizes a company's bottom line results in conjunction with economic, environmental and social responsibility.

The Felt Mansion, which just became the subject of a new book, is a 17,000-square-foot home on Lake Michigan a few miles south of Holland. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites, it was built in the 1920s by self-made millionaire Dorr E. Felt of Chicago, inventor of the first office calculating machine to accurately do four math functions. Today the huge home is owned by Laketown Township, which recently began renovations to turn it into a meeting center for corporations and other organizations — without compromising its historic integrity.

According to Pobst, the mansion restoration and renovation is being done to LEED standards for existing buildings.

"The intent is to demonstrate that green building technologies and historic restoration are not mutually exclusive," he said.

Interestingly, Dorr Felt put a great deal of avant-garde green technology into his mansion when he built it, according to Pobst. He said it had six windmills producing power, two inches of cork insulation inside the masonry walls, a rainwater collection system, and a wave-actuated pump in Lake Michigan that brought water up to the orchards and vineyards.

Other projects Pobst has worked on recently in West Michigan include the new Hines Building in downtown Muskegon, the Grand Rapids Ballet Company's Peter Martin Wege Theatre, and the Nichols Paper & Supply Co. building in Spring Lake.

Nichols Paper & Supply is "leading the charge" in sustainable business practices by training cleaning contractors around the state in the use of environmentally friendly products and materials, said Pobst.

But he stresses that LEED only pertains to construction. The Eco Metrics Web site states that the USGBC certifies only buildings, not products or people. "If anyone tells you otherwise, they are itching for a fight," wrote Pobst on the Web site.

However, the USGBC does accredit individuals in LEED construction standards (LEED AP), after a rigorous examination.

Eco Metrics is one of several LEED consulting firms in West Michigan, but unlike some small business owners who don't like to think about their competition, much less mention them to a reporter, Pobst said some of his competition is "rather exceptional," naming Catalyst Partners, whose president, Keith Winn, is a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Pobst is a member of the West Michigan Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and its past president.

Pobst sometimes works with John Stivers, a member of Catalyst Partners, in training hundreds of LEED-accredited professionals in Michigan who work for themselves as architects or builders, or are employed by large companies and organizations that are determined to build or renovate to LEED standards.

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