LEEDing the Way

As a LEED accredited attorney, I thought it was time to address a question that seems to cross many of our clients' minds: Should we aim for LEED certification (whether on a specific project, or as a matter of general policy)?

First, for those who may be unfamiliar, LEED,which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a system of rating construction projects based on environmental considerations, from open space to sustainability of construction materials to energy efficiency. LEED was created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit organization that advocates for sustainable development practices, and is now administered by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), a for-profit corporation started by USGBC in 2008. As the USGBC describes it: "LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building, home or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at achieving high performance in key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality."  (More information here)

LEED has become increasingly well known, but not well understood. We thought it would be helpful for our clients and blog followers to know a little bit about the benefits of LEED, what it is not so good for, and offer some guideline on how to ensure that LEED is evaluated and best used.

What LEED can do is provide a third-party certification that a construction project meets some level of environmental stewardship. In fact, the lowest level of certification - simply entitled "LEED Certified" - currently requires only 40 points on a scale that can exceed 100. [Side note: the USGBC is in the process of preparing new LEED standards that they intend to put into effect in November 2012, so specifics of everything from points, to categories, to types of rating systems, such as a new system intended for existing schools, is likely to change later this year.]

Now, for what you should not look for from LEED. As the USGBC contends, LEED-certified buildings are designed to:

  • Lower operating costs and increase asset value
  • Reduce waste sent to landfills
  • Conserve energy and water
  • Be healthier and safer for occupants
  • Reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions
  • Qualify for tax rebates, zoning allowances and other incentives in hundreds of cities

Take note that the USGBC does not claim that LEED is designed to result in cost savings. Some people mistakenly believe that a LEED building will be so energy efficient that the cost of securing LEED certification will be offset by lower energy bills. If LEED certification could be obtained on energy efficiency alone, that might be plausible, but, that is not the case. LEED was never intended to be cost-effective.

However, that doesn’t mean cost-effective LEED certification cannot be achieved if great care is taken to minimize costs and balance the initial capital cost against reduced operations costs and reduced maintenance over the life cycle of the facility, or certain of its components. Lifecycle cost reduction can come in the form of reduced operations costs by maximizing savings from water and energy efficiency. It can come in the form of reduced maintenance over the life cycle of the project by reducing electric lighting usage through daylighting, so there are fewer ballast changes. LEED points can also be secured with relatively inexpensive design choices, such as by providing preferred parking for low-emission vehicles and bicycle racks and shower facilities for bicyclists, or planting drought-resistant plants that require less water and less frequent maintenance.

Another way LEED certification can be secured cost-effectively is by combining LEED-driven design choices with other incentives. For example, incorporating solar energy into a project can secure a large amount of LEED points, may be eligible for subsidies under the California Solar Initiative, and may also help qualify your project for a High Performance Incentive grant from the School Facilities Program.

What LEED does for the owner, primarily, is to demonstrate environmental leadership in the community. To do that, first and foremost, LEED provides guidance in the area of environmental stewardship, where building codes have set a low threshold on issues like water and energy efficiency. Environmental advocates represent a wide and chaotic range of opinions on what is "sustainable" or "green" development. Using LEED gives an owner concerned with environmental issues some benchmark to meet that isn’t necessarily beyond their financial ability, but still has the imprimatur of the largest green development organization in America, the USGBC. Securing points on the rating scale for water efficiency, as an example, also arms an owner with facts that they can present to the public to demonstrate their good environmental stewardship: the threshold for scoring points in water efficiency is a 20% reduction over the baseline according to the Uniform Plumbing Code, and additional points can be had for stronger efficiency, up to 4 points can be had for reducing water use by 40%. In California, we are all concerned about water use, and aggressive water efficiency measures can get 4 out of 40 points needed for LEED certification, cut the operating cost of water, and contribute to preserving California's water security.

So, LEED does open up the opportunity to find synergies among LEED Certification showing environmental leadership, making a difference in the community by using less of our scare natural resources, reducing the lifecycle costs of operations and maintenance, and securing all possible financial incentives for energy efficiency, water efficiency and renewable energy. When all of these puzzle pieces are put together, a local educational agency can have LEED Certification cost-effectively.

The key to realizing all of these synergies, to fiscally responsible use of LEED in public projects, is how you structure your development team and what obligations you communicate in agreements with your team members. Every member of the team, from the design team to the builder, has an important role to play in the design of the project, selection and procurement of materials, construction of the facility, and documentation for LEED Certification. There are two main themes for owners seeking LEED certification, 1) building a development team, and 2) ensuring accountability among the various team members for specific benchmarks that you need to achieve in order to secure a LEED certificate and ensure that you do it in the most fiscally responsible manner. Securing a cost-effective LEED project really comes down to the old adage: success is 90% planning and preparation, and 10% execution.

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