Building Materials and LEED®

Posted by Ben Licari on Mar 18, 2015

Building Materials and LEED® 

By Ben Licari, LEED® AP, and Keith Severson, LEED® AP

All of us have heard about “Green Building”; it may be the biggest buzzword to hit the building industry since “subdivision.”  What does it really mean to you, to your customers, and to the environment?  Why do we bother with all this “green” stuff?

For purposes of this discussion, we can think of green building as having three main purposes:

Saving Energy – reducing our carbon footprint and dependence on foreign oil.  Energy savings is the “heart” of LEED®; the catalyst that started the whole movement.

Saving Water – not wasting this precious resource, so as our population grows (and it will, inevitably) we will have enough for everyone and everything.

Improving Quality of Life – reducing exposure to hazardous materials inside our buildings, like urea formaldehyde, high Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) paints, and harsh cleaning products.

Green Building Standards

LEED®, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary rating system overseen by the nonprofit United State Green Building Council, or USGBC. LEED® certification has four different levels based on the amount of compliance achieved in five different areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.  This system was created to have an objective method of assessing buildings and determining if they were actually “green.” Evaluations of LEED® certified buildings are based on “performance” standards; for example, points in the Energy Category are awarded for a certain percentage of energy savings—regardless of the system installed or the type of features that helped achieve it.

Other programs soon followed, such as Build It Green, which began in Berkeley and Alameda County.  Build It Green applies mostly to residential structures and for the most part is based on “prescriptive” standards that are more like a punch list.  For example, you get a point for using all “Energy Star” appliances, or for using drought tolerant landscaping.  You do not need to calculate the exact energy or water savings from these actions to get the credit.

Some local jurisdictions have adopted their own green building standards. The City of Santa Cruz uses a system based on the Build It Green format, and a certain point value is required for the City to even process a building permit.  Some cities are considering lowering their water usage impact fees for new homes that demonstrate water reduction points, and almost all jurisdictions recognize the benefits of in-fill development and building ‘up’ instead of ‘out’.

Extra Costs to Go Green
The jury is really still out on this one.  There is no question that the long-term energy savings easily pays for the initial investment in green technologies and methods, but often investing in additional green features up-front can strain a project budget.  Even applying for LEED® certification while refitting an existing building or erecting a new one can cost up to $30,000.

But the payoffs can, indeed, be big.  LEED®-certified buildings have a higher occupancy rate and sell for a higher square footage cost.  In their retrofit of three existing office buildings at the East and Almaden headquarters towers in downtown San Jose, Adobe Systems spent $1.4 million for energy and environmental retrofits from 2001 to 2007  and achieved LEED® Platinum status.  Adobe received $389,000 in rebates for energy conservation projects, and saved an estimated $1.2 million annually in operating costs for a 121 percent return on investment through 2007, and that just gets better as time goes on.

Rental markets have achieved similar success.  According to a recent U.C. Berkeley study, rents for green offices are about two percent higher than rents for comparable buildings located nearby.  Effective rents, i.e., rents adjusted for the occupancy levels in office buildings, are about six percent higher in green buildings than in comparable office buildings nearby. At prevailing capitalization rates, conversion of the average non-green building to an equivalent green building would add more than $5 million in market value.

Green building construction practices and products make homes more energy efficient through proper, adequate insulation and air sealing. Efficient windows, appliances, lighting and other household equipment also help add to the savings resulting in monthly energy bills that are up to 65% lower than for conventional homes. Again, the savings gets better over time.  Also, even in these troubled times, energy upgrades can pay off in market behavior. In February, 2009, data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS) in Seattle, Wash., showed that “over the last fifteen months, new certified green homes in Seattle are selling for nine percent more in 30 percent less time than other homes.”

Keeping Green in Perspective
When considering an investment in green technology, these are some of the things to keep in mind:

  1. Understand that Green and Sustainable buildings, in many ways use time-tested, sensible, and sound value-oriented building practices.

  2.  Maintain a holistic perspective and a sense of balance.  Recognize that we live in a real world and look for the sensible return on your investment.

  3.  Understand the synergies of the building systems and that you can never just change one thing.  One of the main purposes of LEED® is to make sure that systems work together and one improvement does not cost somewhere else, or how a change in one area changes another aspect of the system.

  4.  Look for the simple and the 80% solutions.  Do not let perfection stand in the way of action.

  5.  Do not get enamored by technology as your solution to all your problems.  Get an understanding of the present situation and why things are not working as well as they could.

  6.  Focus on what you can do, not what you cannot.   Look for the “Yes,” not the “No.” This is a practice that is still evolving.

  7. “Points Are Not the Point.”  The point is building quality buildings that provide value because they function effectively, are efficient, are healthier, and last.  Doing that helps all environments (small and large, social and natural.)

Distance Matters
One of the key concepts of the green movement is being a “Locovore.” When applied to food, it means trying (when possible) to consume products grown or produced within 100 miles of your home.  This food is often fresher, you know the source, and the environment is not polluted by the extra cost of shipping.  For building materials, it works the same way.  It just does not make much sense to ship materials like aggregate and cement for thousands of miles, and the heavier the material, the less sense it makes. In addition to this, other countries often do not have the pollution control equipment on cement plants that we have here.  As a result, the California Air Resources Board estimates that imported cement produces 25% more CO2 emissions, or greenhouse gases, than cement produced in California. In 2005, California imported enough cement, mostly from Asia, to construct five Hoover Dams.

Although not as much processing is involved, rock, sand, and gravel have the same shipping issues as cement.  These materials are fundamental (even critical) to maintaining our infrastructure and we use a significant amount of them.  Every one mile of a six-lane highway requires over 110,000 tons of aggregates.  They can be imported from Canada or Mexico, but each mile of transport adds one-half million dollars to the base cost of aggregates for these projects.

For many years those of us in the industry have recognized the benefits to the community to have a local supply for both cement and rock.  We have all benefitted from a stable, affordable price for materials and a good local economy with good jobs for our neighbors fueling a strong tax base.  Thanks to the “green” building movement, more people now also recognize the environmental benefits of having a local supply.  Shorter material haul trips means material haul miles can be reduced statewide by 282 million miles per year.  Diesel fuel consumption could be reduced by 44 million gallons, and a reduction of over 400,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually could be achieved.

Issues surrounding Green and Sustainable can be confusing and lead to frustration. Just as with most things in life, maintaining a sense of balance and perspective will serve one well when deciding how best to build a Green and Sustainable project. Buy local, build with a sense of how nature works on the sight. Know the normal pattern of the sun’s travel, or solar orientation, and use that to your advantage. Do not rely on energy gulping systems to make up for lack of planning. Understand how nature intended the normal course of water and rain fall to impact the building area. Work with those normal courses. Capture rainwater to irrigate.

Great buildings—great building projects--are a culmination of  keen and early planning and collaboration with all parties concerned from the end-point user all the way back upstream to the very first inspirational dream building  design charrette.

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