Searching for Gold in Green Buildings

Feb. 1, 2008
Improved building processes can lower energy consumption and operational costs while enhancing occupant comfort.

Avariety of green initiatives in the construction industry are helping to spotlight the importance of being good stewards of the environment. However, many manufacturers and corporations who can smell a good thing are branding numerous initiatives as “green,” when clearly they are not. Because “green” can mean many things, depending on who is using the term, some organizations have made legitimate gains with their green strategies, while others are plagued with misleading statistics and hype. Despite the somewhat blurred definitions of green that abound, the concept of green is slowly changing the electrical industry.

With the help of manufacturers, the specifying community and electrical contractors are delivering and installing more green products — particularly in the field of lighting. For example, lamp/fixture companies are not only following their internal corporate strategy to reduce waste and increase efficiency in manufacturing, but they are also responding to inquiries from designers, specifiers, and end-users regarding packaging and other matters. Lamp makers are eliminating lead and reducing the mercury content in most of their light sources. Many lighting designers are now going beyond an assessment of the energy consumption of a fixture and looking at a broader picture of the product, such as the recycled content of the fixture and packaging. Understandably, the installing electrical contractor also has a stake in this initiative.

LEED catches on

The major force involved in raising the operating efficiency of buildings is the 14-year-old, nonprofit United States Green Building Council (USGBC), which back in 1994 took a new tack by inviting corporations to the table in hopes of making a business case for developing building performance standards. The result was the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.

Launched in 2000, LEED has a checklist of prerequisites and credits for six categories, including: siting, energy, materials, indoor air quality, water use, and innovation in design. At the design stage, architects and engineers establish the energy and environmental factors they want to have for a structure. When the building is finished, a representative from the USGBC reviews the documentation (plans, engineers' calculations, etc.) and awards points out of a possible total of 69. The levels are: certified, silver, gold, or platinum (at least 52 points). Basically, each initiative, such as personal lighting control or daylighting in an office area, earns a point.

The USGBC says that 2.3 billion square feet of commercial construction has been registered in the last seven months. This is much less than the seven years it took the council to register the first billion square feet. A LEED registration and certification costs $2,500, and membership in the council is $1,200. LEED certification typically adds 1 percent to 5 percent to the construction budget, because of the added consultant fees, and LEED requires the commissioning of a new building's mechanical system, which costs about $25,000 — for a small building. Documentation of the design could be another $20,000.

In the case of a 20,000-square-foot data center in Chicago, which was erected within an existing industrial building and achieved a platinum rating, the costs were 4 percent higher, half of which were materials and tools and the other half administrative. Essentially, the owners are looking for long-term cost savings.

Seeking to make a business case for projects other than new construction, the council also has a LEED rating system for interiors and for core-and-shell construction, one for existing buildings, a pilot program for Neighborhood Development, and a LEED for Homes. With this broad array of LEED certification, the hope is that a national standard for green buildings of all varieties can be promulgated and thus help reduce the troubling plague of “greenwashing.”

A number of federal agencies, 22 states and 75 localities across the nation have instituted policies to require or encourage LEED. In New York City, the program is expected to affect $12 billion in new construction over the next few years. Manhattan alone now boasts a skyrocketing green industry, as seen in the new 7 World Trade Center and the Hearst Tower projects, both awarded gold certification by the USGBC. The Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, slated for opening in 2008, will also boast a LEED platinum certification.

Peter Eppie, executive vice president, SJP Properties, the rental agency for a new 1.1 million-square-foot office tower called 11 Times Square, says the first question tenants now ask is about green status. Even donors to non-profits are making stipulations that the organizations must be housed in LEED-rated buildings, according to Dan Kaplan, senior partner with New York-based FxFowle, which has been promoting green city architecture and is designing 11 Times Square.

The USGBC has grown to more than 11,000 members and organizations, a staff of more than 100, a portfolio of LEED rating systems and services, an annual budget of $50 million, an annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, and a network of more than 70 local chapters, affiliates, and organizing groups.

Not surprisingly, the USGBC is a vehicle for selling new products, materials, and systems to builders as well. For example, the Greenbuild Expo, held Nov. 9 -11, 2005 in Atlanta, drew more than 10,000 attendees. At the 2007 Greenbuild Expo, held in Chicago's McCormick Center in November, more than 20,000 attendees packed the aisles to see an array of products and services from 850 exhibitors, such as building information modeling (BIM) software that enables architects and designers to continually calculate the use of energy, daylighting, the potential LEED rating (along with other factors) in developing a building design. Also at the November conference, the USGBC introduced a rating system for homes. In this case, builders can score points for items such as solar electric/solar water heating panels and energy-efficient appliances. The cost of LEED certification for a home will be between $500 and $2,000, depending on the size of the house and other factors.

Housing represents a significant new market sector for USGBC, one that is important despite the current construction slowdown. Although 45 percent of home buyers are attracted to green construction, McGraw-Hill SmartMarket reports that only 2 percent of American houses are built green. Already, there are signs that the new program will increase that percentage. More than 300 houses have earned LEED certification since USBGC began a pilot program in 2005, and 8,000 more homes will be joining this number. However, USGBC is facing some competition in the housing market. The home building industry itself wants to develop a voluntary green standard before the federal government gets involved in this market. Home builders recently lobbied Congress against legislation that would have the federal government write some energy-efficient building codes for states.

As a counter to the USGBC program, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is developing its own standard, which will have regional characteristics and supposedly attract more first-time buyers. Certified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), this program, which should be available this month, will involve training certifiers through local builders associations, and is slated to be as rigorous as the LEED process.

Although a green home costs more up-front, a number of state and federal tax credits are available for energy-efficient upgrades, and utility bills should be lower down the road. For example, energy-efficient HVAC equipment earns a $300 federal tax credit. Some banks even offer a discount on mortgage closing costs for new homes that are energy-efficient. However, some builders acknowledge that various green labels can confuse homebuyers, who may balk at the added cost.

Many home builders see an opportunity for the electrical contractor who has the skill to tackle green building projects. A contracting firm familiar with energy-conserving products, such as energy-efficient lighting packages (including LED light sources), monitoring/control systems, solar electric power systems, and energy-efficient appliances, can promote itself to all “green” home builders. The insulation contact airtight (ICAT) sealed canister incandescent downlight is an example of an energy-saving fixture for homes. The introduction of alternate power sources also brings electrical contractors into a new market category for installation work. For example, photovoltaic power systems could be connected directly to receptacles installed in the garage for electric-powered autos. As sustainable buildings grow in importance, new opportunities for electrical contractors will emerge.

Critics of LEED

According to Rob Watson, one of the co-founders of USGBC, the point system was specifically established to entice builders and drive the market in a green direction. The system is set up so one definable action gains one point in the rating system. However, some critics maintain that this simplistic rating system falls short in terms of energy-saving possibilities, and suffers from a number of other shortcomings.

For example, until recently, you could certify a building to LEED without using any energy-saving methods, and the categories aren't weighed according to importance. For example, installing a $400 bike rack gets the same point as spending an extra $1 million for a heat recovery system that will save about $500,000 in energy costs per year.

Another drawback, some say, is the fact that a design team can become obsessively focused on getting credits regardless of the environmental value or can be driven to receive regulatory approval, free press coverage and adulations from the community — all things that could be classified as green-mongering.

Additionally, the rating system doesn't make adjustments for local conditions, such as water saving, since a building in Seattle is treated the same as one in Phoenix. Some industry experts have voiced a desire to see a simplified rating system for small buildings. Another complaint is the complexity and high cost of the review process. There is, however, hope that a refinement of application/certification will be ongoing. Some comment that Green Globes, organized by the Green Building Initiative, a Portland, Ore., non-profit initiative, may erode the LEED dominance.