Four standards that guide environmental conservation in the built environment

To combat greenhouse gas emissions and design healthy and productive spaces, engineers and designers should strive to apply not only LEED standards to their projects, but also RESET, Living Building Challenge, Passive House and WELL Building standards.

By George Miroshnikov and Justin Di Palo October 7, 2021
Courtesy: Javier Laos Photography, Syska Hennessy

As we write this article, global temperatures are breaking records and the East and Gulf Coasts are recovering from Hurricane Ida while the Caldor fire rages in California, threatening Lake Tahoe. It’s clear environmental conservation is a matter of urgency and that, as members of the architecture, engineering and construction industry, we have an obligation to do our part, considering that the built environment contributes nearly 40% of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Fortunately, the A/E/C industry has already taken many steps to reduce emissions. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system is an excellent example. However, LEED is only the starting point. Many other rating systems supplement LEED and bring us closer to our goal of decarbonization. They also improve indoor air quality (IAQ), which promotes health and productivity for building occupants. Below are four rating systems all A/E/C engineers and design professionals should add to their knowledge base:

  1. RESET, administered by GIGA, an international organization headquartered in Québec, is the world’s first sensor-based and performance-driven data program and certification for the built environment. RESET comprises five stand-alone standards: Materials, Air, Water, Energy and Circularity, with Air being the furthest developed out of the five. We are using the RESET Air standard on a project and find it to be useful and informative: It goes far beyond a prescriptive checklist and requires ongoing, real-time monitoring of air quality. The sensors tell you whether you’ve achieved the right levels of IAQ metrics and you can get there however you like: You can add more fresh air, install filtration, open windows, etc. — the project or building management team determines the strategy. We are looking forward to applying the standard to other projects.
  2. Living Building Challenge, offered by the International Living Future Institute, is also valuable to engineers because it requires proof of real operating performance and is the most stringent of the current standards. Living Building objectives include achievement of net-positive energy and water usage and specification of the healthiest and most local building materials. To obtain certification, applicants must provide actual utility bills and meter readings for a year rather than relying upon projected calculations from modeling tools. Syska recently engineered the maintenance and operations (M&O) complex at Palomar Community College in San Marcos, California, which is pursuing a component of this certification. To meet the stringent standard, we employed several methods of energy conservation, including all-electric systems, natural ventilation, passive daylighting, rooftop photovoltaic arrays, variant refrigerant flow mechanical systems that operate efficiently during peak heating and cooling conditions, dimmable LED lighting, water-efficient plumbing systems, a rainwater harvesting system that provides seasonal irrigation and battery storage.
    It was a challenge to design these features within a limited budget, but well worth the effort: Palomar is now primed to be the first community college in the world to achieve the Living Building Petal Certification. We hope the M&O complex serves as a model for other educational institutions around the globe.
  3. Passive House, administered by the International Passive House Association, “Comprises a set of design principles used to attain a quantifiable and rigorous level of energy efficiency within a specific quantifiable comfort level.” Passive House buildings inspire engineers to rethink the conventional approach to heating and air conditioning because they require very little energy to achieve a comfortable temperature year-round and focus mainly on envelope performance and air tightness. Despite the name, it’s not just residences that can achieve Passive House certification; owners of many high-rise commercial developments over the past few years have attempted to achieve or achieved the certification. We collaborate with architects on conceptual- and schematic-level studies to harmonize the envelope and HVAC systems from the onset and apply Passive House principles to the design.
  4. The WELL Building standard offered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), measures the quality of air, water, lighting and acoustics and helps companies reduce indoor pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds, combustion byproducts and airborne particulate matter. WELL also requires healthy food and exercise programs to be offered to occupants to promote a holistic approach to wellness.
The Palomar Community College's Operations & Maintenance Complex. Courtesy: Javer Laos Photography, Syska Hennessy

The Palomar Community College’s Operations & Maintenance Complex. Courtesy: Javier Laos Photography, Syska Hennessy

Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of the IWBI, recently wrote: “At scale, human health and planetary health are inextricably linked. What our buildings exhale, we inhale.” As her comments suggest, WELL’s focus on the health of building occupants also supports efforts to combat climate change.

While LEED is well-known outside the A/E/C industry, the WELL and Passive House standards are catching up in terms of recognition; awareness of RESET and Living Building Challenge is also rising. It’s up to us as design professionals to further increase awareness by familiarizing clients with all four of these rating standards in addition to LEED.

Courtesy: Syska Hennessy Group

Courtesy: Syska Hennessy Group

Once clients understand how the standards promote environmental conservation and what returns on investment they can expect, they’ll be more open to pursuing certification and improving the performance of and wellness offered by their buildings. Our expert guidance is valuable indeed — it can help to slow the effects of climate change and preserve our planet for future generations. That’s a worthy — and most urgent — goal.

Author Bio: George Miroshnikov, LEED AP BD+C, BEMP, CEM, CPHD, WELL AP, RESET AP, Fitwel Ambassador, Syska Hennessy Group, is a passionate senior sustainability specialist focused on decarbonization and sustainable development of the built environment. Justin Di Palo, PE, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, LBC Ambassador, EcoDistricts AP, Syska Hennessy Group, is a passion-driven high-performance engineer focused on delivering highly sustainable and decarbonized building and campus projects in all major market sectors.