Is my building certified green? Does it need to be?

The importance of understanding the difference between building green, building a certified building, and sustainability with respect to building construction.

06/13/2008


No one can deny the interest and momentum that the green building movement has developed in the past few years. Quite a few programs have popped up to help developers, architects, engineers, and operators gain an understanding and quantify just how much energy modern buildings are using and what kind of impact that has on the environment.

Programs like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED or Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes establish an integrated design approach to projects and a way of benchmarking the environmental impacts. Often the goal of these projects starts out by stating the intent to “get LEED or Green Globes certified” without a proper understanding of what is required to achieve that certification. A few simple questions might help to narrow down a potential client’s expectations and project intent before deciding upon a methodology for a project.

What stage is the project in?
It is important to start out the LEED integrated design practice at the earliest stage of the project in order to properly evaluate the feasibility of the available credits. Items such as site selection, proximity to public transportation, brown field redevelopment, and community connectivity all factor into the level of certification available to a project. These items are often locked in once a project has been schematically designed and might reduce the appeal of pursuing certification.

How important is the official certification granted by the USGBC or GBI?
The appeal of a certified building can, in reality, have limited usefulness for a lot of clients. The benefit of having a third-party verified structure with a plaque to indicate that the building is green is something that must be of value to the owner. Some potential clients might seek certification as a means of adding marketing appeal or improving public image. If the true intent is to lower costs of operating and maintaining a facility, certification from the USGBC or Green Building Initiative is required and can be achieved through good design without the additional documentation effort required.

Is the underlying intent of the project to lower maintenance and energy bills?
With rising energy prices and the increased cost of producing products for manufacturing clients, the real intent of going green might be to simply improve the comfort and indoor health of the employees work space or to lower the costs to heat, cool, and light the building. This type of energy conservation measure can be accomplished without certification and does not require a completely integrated design approach for the building.

What extent are all disciplines incorporated into the project?
As part of the integrated design philosophy, all disciplines need to be committed to reducing energy, saving water, and lessening the impact of the building on the client’s wallet as well as the environment. Without having all members of the team on the same page or committed to the same goals, it is increasingly difficult to achieve certification from the USGBC or the Green Building Initiative. Part of integrating the design practice is so that each discipline realizes the impact that design decisions have upon other disciplines and the effect in environmental and economic impacts to the project. This approach also strives to come to decisions quickly based upon a collaborative understanding that the decisions made sooner in the project reduce rework due to late design changes in the project.

Can the project sustain the additional cost of documentation and commissioning services required for certification?
There is a lot of debate about whether certification of a building should cost more to a client. In reality, there are costs associated with commissioning services, documentation, and additional calculation procedures that must be completed to obtain certification. These impacts can cost anywhere from an additional 20% to 30% of an individual discipline design fee. For a $20,000 engineering fee, that’s a range of $4,000 to $6,000, and that’s a significant cost.

Who have been assigned to be members of the design team? Contractor, independent commissioning agent, architect, engineer, construction manager?
Certification for a project requires basic understanding of the fundamental commissioning of energy using systems and recycling construction practices will be conducted through the design and construction phases of the project. Having these individuals on the team early can help ensure that there are fewer rough spots in the project execution because understanding of the project goals and expectations have been clearly defined from the start. This is something to consider if a client is determined to bid a project in order to get competitive value in the marketplace.

These few questions can be asked to any potential client to help define the vision and scope of the project. In any case, the basic principles of good fundamental engineering apply to any sustainable design. Certification is not needed to have a building operate more efficiently or to be optimized for its occupancy. The same building does not need to cost substantially more because of required documentation for third-party verification. It’s important to first ask “Why would you like to build a green building?” and then determine if certification is the right path to choose.

--Lininger is a project engineer and primary LEED consultant at Graef Anhalt Schloemer & Associates Inc., concentrating on improving the energy efficiency of retail and commercial building designs.





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