Architecture & Design and Sustainability

Is the US Green Building Council going too far

June 18, 2012
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A West Coast architect, who is noteworthy for being ahead of the sustainable design curve by about a decade, said once the U.S. Green Building Council established its Leadership in Energy and Environment Design guidelines in 2000, he thought the organization would back off and sort of slip away into the design sunset.

But just the opposite has happened: The council has relentlessly updated its design principles since then and recently closed its fourth public comment period on the newest version of its guidelines — LEED 2012.

However, on June 5, the USGBC decided to delay the release of its latest version because members complained the council was moving too quickly, and they needed more time to review and digest the upgrade. The council now intends to release LEED v4, as it’s called, in June 2013.

“They’ve given us just more stuff in trying to build themselves to be ubiquitous and, for us, it’s getting kind of silly,” said Ted Lott, a principal at Lott3Metz Architecture in Grand Rapids and an acquaintance of the pioneering West Coast designer, before the council took action to delay the next version.

“They’ve achieved their goal. You can’t find very many people now that won’t do green building, with or without LEED. The knowledge is there. And instead of the council saying they’ve accomplished their goal, they’re now trying to figure out how to make more money to keep the business model going,” said Greg Metz, also a principal in Lott3Metz and past president of the Grand Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Neither Metz nor Lott is opposed to LEED. Both have done numerous LEED designs and feel the guidelines have helped to deliver more environmentally sound buildings, which is good for the community and for building owners.

“Nobody is doubting that or denying that,” said Metz.

“They taught us stuff, too, and we’re grateful for that,” said Lott.

It should be noted that many of the local projects that have sought and attained LEED certification have been financed by nonprofits and by public units such as schools, rather than for-profit businesses. Lott said their commercial clients have been building green, but haven’t been seeking LEED certification.

“Very few of our commercial clients see value in actually certifying things. So what we do here is, everything that comes out of our office, with some exceptions, are certifiable at a (LEED) Silver level. That is pretty much the standard that we design to in the firm,” said Lott.

“Now, do we certify everything? I don’t remember the last time we certified something,” he added. “The Fulton Street Farmers Market will be certified, but that was a requirement based on the funding allocations that we have. … But that’s the only project we’re certifying in the office right now.”

The USGBC certification scorecard has a maximum of 100 base points across five categories that lead to four possible outcomes. The first is Certified, for which a project needs to score 40 to 49 points. Second is Silver; 50 to 59 points must be scored for that designation, which is the most common, by far. Next is Gold at 60 to 79 points. Platinum is at the top of the LEED totem pole at a minimum of 80 points.

The council also offers bonus points, which it defines as “regional credits.” These are awarded when a project addresses critical environmental issues in an area. A project can collect up to four bonus points across six “priority credits”; the council has chosen various categories for different regions. There also are certifications for interiors or exteriors only.

But the real value for the firm’s commercial clients in having a design done to LEED guidelines isn’t in being certified. It’s about doing the right thing for a community that prides itself on being a leader in sustainability and for the savings a company can gain on construction and energy costs.

“Those folks want to see the best we can do in those situations within the bounds of their program and budget. Certainly, around here, that is a standard operating procedure for architects and construction projects,” said Lott.

Lott said the availability of LEED certification hasn’t resulted in more work or more design fees for his firm, but he felt that may not be the case for other architects.

“Some architects and some consultants have, for the lack of a better word, wrapped their business around this and made this part of their business model. And they do a very good job and they do make money because of that,” said Metz.

“You need specialists. You need people that focus on certain things. You know, we do have certain firms that are great at schools. We do have certain firms that are great at churches. There are certain firms that are good at the LEED process, and I think in the short term, for the next few years, they’re still going to see work because of that.”

Metz pointed out there is a new “green” kid on the block. In March, the International Code Council issued a set of principles it calls the International Green Construction Code. The council says the new code is based on three years of input from industry members and the public. CEO Richard Welland expects the IgCC, the code’s acronym, will raise energy efficiencies and will be adopted across the country and globally.

“Michigan has not adopted this, and I don’t see it being adopted for a while, but some states are adopting it. It’s a code that basically dictates how to build a green building, which is interesting because I think that’s kind of the LEED effect. But why do you need LEED when you have a code and you don’t have to pay a dime?” asked Metz.

Lott said the USGBC, which calls itself a third-party verification process, has been trying to get states to adopt its LEED principles or its building code, a move his firm has opposed from the start “because we really think these are two separate things and should be treated separately,” he said.

“LEED is a private entity, and I never want government tied to private entities because they can’t control the outcome,” added Metz.

“So that’s just part of them expanding their business model,” said Lott of USGBC.

Lott doesn’t think there is an architect in Grand Rapids who is not able to design a green building. He said the fee the USGBC charges for certification isn’t the single biggest cost to becoming certified. The most expensive outlay normally comes from a project’s LEED consultant, who does the documentation, Lott said.

“So it’s a consultant’s cost to the owner, not necessarily a cost to the USGBC,” he said. “When we look at the cost compared to what it takes for us to spend the time to certify that stuff, the fees that somebody is going to need to pay us to keep track of it are much higher.”

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