MHMag - By Jay Barker on Thursday, July 9, 2009 - 2 Comments

The LEED House

Early in 2007 the Z6 house by architect Ray Kappe was the first single family house in the US to be awarded a LEED Platinum certification. The house is said to be built with 75 percent less construction waste, and 80 percent more energy efficient than a conventionally built house. Meanwhile, just this past year The Casey, an upscale urban high-rise in Portland, Oregon, became the first Platinum level LEED certified condo.

But whether you live in a green-belt city like Portland, or a smaller city in a developing country, housing projects that can claim sustainable building credentials are all the rage. In fact 2009 may be the year house seekers find it nearly impossible not to run smack into the global green building initiatives being touted by governments, marketed by the world’s largest developers, promoted by the most famous architects, and organized by NGO’s like the US Green Building Council.

Once the province of fringe environmentalists, and largely ignored by developers and related industries, “green building” has become mainstream – and big business too. The United States Green Building Council estimates green products and services annual sales will top $60 billion by 2010.

Clearly numbers like that indicate the movement is more than just a fad, but for people who think they’ve seen this all before – they have! Green building movements have had their “15 minutes of fame” before, and they came and went riding the same horse – a small number of eco-builders and a few environmentally sensitive buyers.

This movement, however, has touched a much wider demographic and includes induction by all the aforementioned related industries, and investment by the world’s largest financial institutions. Simultaneous commitment by an increasing number of both supply-side developers and demand-side end-users would seem to guarantee the movement a longer run this time around.

Not only is green building getting the attention of new house buyers, sustainable building practices are also changing the way architects, planners, builders, engineers, suppliers, and manufacturers think about their respective jobs. In larger markets like New York and other progressive markets around the world it’s no longer acceptable to build a new multi-family project or commercial complex without addressing the environmental impact and sustainability of the building over the long-term.

To date the standards bearer for green building, and the one most industries have coalesced around is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) – a point-based system agreed upon by the US Green Building Council’s 12,000 plus global members. The LEED standard covers five key areas of environmental concern – sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. Each of the five key areas offer the builder a menu of items from which they are allowed to select LEED approved sustainable practices. As long as points are obtained from each of the five key areas, a builder is free to determine how they will reach the point total needed to achieve the desired level of certification – currently called Silver, Gold and Platinum.

In addition to offering LEED certification for building green projects, an important part of USGBC’s services are LEED educational classes attended by industry employees around the country. The USGBC also offers an individual certification for those who want to become fully steeped in the LEED building certification process. Industry professionals who obtain certification by attending USGBC classes ostensibly make themselves more valuable in the market place – a consideration that seems to hold a lot of value for the future as sustainable building practices are just hitting stride.

While largely voluntary, green building in the US, and specifically LEED is more recently getting a push from local and state governments. Some states for example have mandated that all new government buildings meet at least one LEED standard. In Portland, the city and a local non-profit are working together to award grants to project winners who use innovative technologies that spur conservation, and in a separate program the city offers tax credits to energy-saving projects. Similarly, the state of Nevada extends privately funded green developments a 35% reduction on property taxes.

Even as these organizations and industry leaders have come together to codify and systematize building the work/live infrastructure of the future, the larger question of just what constitutes a green building is more elusive and harder to define. An older definition by the United Nations and one used by the US Department of Energy’s “Energy Star” program which limited the scope to just the building structure have more recently given way to the LEED philosophy of including how the building impacts its surroundings.

However defined though, the LEED certification process is growing rapidly. Currently 41 different countries as diverse as Canada, Mexico, and India have LEED application projects underway.

One factor that is helping to propel LEED to the forefront of the building industry is that sustainable building practices are more than just accepted now, they are often demanded by both bankers and the building supply chain. Those two groups together recently signed a statement urging the US Congress to enact strict limits on greenhouse gases (Congress has yet to act).

But bankers are not just urging others to take action. The largest financial institutions have began to act like role models by employing sustainable practices in their own corporate office buildings. For example, Bank of America’s new 55-story corporate tower in midtown Manhattan will heat itself with clean-burning natural gas, cool itself with ice, and use “grey-water” to flush toilets rather than pure drinking water.

In addition to visible acts like these, bankers are also rolling out their own green investment initiatives to encourage more green commerce in real estate. Bank of America has pledged $20 billion to encourage the growth of environmentally-sustainable business practices through lending and investment, and for their part, Citibank has allocated $50 billion to support the growth of alternative energy.

The process of getting LEED certified starts with an application to the US Green Building Council stating the level of certification applied for and just how you’ll meet the standard. During the construction of the project the developer must keep track of the materials and methods used all the way up to building completion. A LEED trained inspector reviews the project site and combines the on-site findings with the architectural plans to arrive at an awarded point total.

The point system awards 1 point for each standard met – the more sustainable practices a building utilizes the higher its point total. In “LEED Speak” 52 points equals a Platinum certification, the highest awarded, 39 points is needed to reach the Gold level, and 33 will get you a Silver certification.

An obvious question one might ask about LEED is why would a developer put themselves through such a rigorous and costly process – and one which is completely voluntary? Not only is the process of obtaining certification detailed and time consuming, following the standards are often more costly to builders because “green” products sell at a premium since there are no scale economies, and extra-skilled in-demand labor is sometimes required for newer green technologies.

While there isn’t a single answer that all developers hang their hat on, the USGBC submits that the most important reason for following the LEED process to obtain a certification is “an increased asset value once the project is completed.” While that may be true for the longer-term, probably even more prepossessing for developers are the immediate benefits that have more to do with marketing appeal to the end user – such as 25%-35% less energy use than a conventional house, occupant health advantages, reduced waste sent to landfills, and then finally as the USGBC says, the ability to “demonstrate an owner’s commitment to environmental stewardship and social responsibility.”

If there is any single project that could propel LEED to a new level of acceptance it would be CityCenter in Las Vegas – a massive $8 billion dollar privately funded development that is vocal about its intent to be awarded LEED’s Silver certification, and the largest project of its kind to achieve LEED recognition.

CityCenter says it will feature low-flow bathroom fixtures, a “highly efficient irrigation system,” materials that reduce VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions, and a co-generation power solution that will employ excess heat from the on-site power plant to heat water, relieving the strain on the larger Las Vegas power grid.

In an ironic twist it seems natural to wonder if in this case in particular the certification of such a high-profile project like CityCenter on balance is actually more important to the US Green Building Council than to CityCenter. One can’t help but wonder how much leverage the USBGC may have after the largest project in recent memory commits to and follows through with its stated goal of obtaining Silver certification.

Even if the irony is partially true though, LEED certification is still important to CityCenter, and the fact that the project is in Nevada brings an added incentive. As mentioned above residential projects in Nevada who meet LEED requirements are rewarded with a 35% property tax reduction over the life of the property. For CityCenter that represents a big pile of cash no matter how much extra it costs to follow LEED regimentation on the way to certification.

Even though the USGBC’s LEED certification program is emerging to perhaps become the favored world standard, it had a relatively auspicious beginning. In 1993 Rick Fedrizzi, David Gottfried and Mike Italiano began an organization to act as environmental education and building catalyst of the largest builders in the US. At the time US green building practices were well behind fairly common green building practices in much of western Europe, so the USGBC was seeking a way to make the same standards more common in the US, a consumer of most of the world’s energy, and also the world’s largest polluter.

For the first few years LEED had difficulty gaining traction, but that all changed after recent publications of the dangers of greenhouse gases by world-renowned scientists which were then made famous by former US Vice President Al Gore in his documentary movie, The Inconvenient Truth, has all dovetailed perfectly in time for LEED – the green building standard in waiting.

Although the USGBC reports just over 900 completed and certified new buildings, the more than 13,000 current applications signifies just how quickly things have changed for the LEED certification program. The standard which most everyone connected to the industry has on their radar is now seemingly an overnight success.

More recently the USGBC has expanded its rating system into the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), a separate organization to handle professional accreditation that as of this writing is mostly about knowing LEED rating guidelines and procedures in order to make the certification process smoother both for the USGBC and developers alike. According to the USGBC more than 41,000 industry professionals have become LEED Accredited Professionals since 2001.

What was a small non-profit ran by a handful of people at the turn of this century now employs over a hundred workers – and still a non-profit. The USGBC is now a multi-armed green build rating system and educational outpost for tens of thousands of the most influential building professionals and related-product industries around the globe.

With a $50 million dollar annual budget and thousands of yet non-participating smaller builders potentially representing thousands of additional candidates for LEED’s Accredited Professional certification exams at $300 plus per exam, plus an unending number of new construction projects by those same small builders who will be looking for a new hook to sell their product in the now stagnate US housing market all adds up to a very bright outlook for LEED on into the next decade.

Learn more about the USGBC and LEED here, and read more about the Z6 house in a coming Modern House Magazine story.

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Aaron Newman
Oct 4, 2009 20:43

Very informative article look forward to more from you guys. Thank you.
Aaron Newman

elizabeth antola
May 3, 2011 5:54

we are recent ex-pats who lived abroad mostly in latin american countries for 16 years . . . from the east coast originally and now living in utah. we are having a terrible time trying to find a home that is sustainable. the homes are either too big and not efficient or too small and the electrical wiring etc. is just a mess.

we are working with a landscape architect here and would like some modern designs of homes no more than 3,000sq. ft. maximum. 3/4 bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths minimum. we love lofts, skylights, southfacing with lots of windows etc.

please send us some samples of homes so that we can start living and help the planet with our small contribution.


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