Taking a Look at LEED

CSE: EwingCole has done or is doing a number of LEED projects, including jobs for NASA and a new lab facility for pharmaceutical manufacturer Aventis. How does the whole LEED process start? Do you approach the client or vice versa? Kowalski: With Aventis, we actually brought up the idea. In this case, they found it appealing from a PR standpoint.

By Jim Crockett, Editor-in-Chief October 1, 2004

CSE: EwingCole has done or is doing a number of LEED projects, including jobs for NASA and a new lab facility for pharmaceutical manufacturer Aventis. How does the whole LEED process start? Do you approach the client or vice versa?

Kowalski: With Aventis, we actually brought up the idea. In this case, they found it appealing from a PR standpoint. They were having some issues with the local community and thought this was a way to be a better neighbor and get some good publicity out of it. But they are also getting good operational benefits as a result.

Joesten: With NASA, on the other hand, it was a mandate, and they, in fact, required silver certification.

Kowalski: Besides the government, institutions of higher education are another type of owner actively looking for green buildings; many incoming students are looking at that as a reason to come to a particular school.

CSE: For those not so committed to LEED from the beginning, can you work it into a program later?

Joesten: LEED needs to be discussed from day one. It’s really better to work from the get-go getting everybody involved.

Kowalski: It’s really hard to backtrack. The LEED language is very difficult and USGBC is very picky, so your documentation must be worded very carefully. To try to go back would be very difficult. In fact, someone has to watch the technical requirements all the time, or you’ll really get lost. That said, the new templating system is very helpful.

CSE: That raises a criticism I’ve heard quite frequently about LEED: In many instances, it becomes a game of trying to achieve X points for X certification. But just because you achieve X points, it doesn’t mean that you have a good sustainable building or even high-performance building for that matter.

Kowalski: If you’re point chasing, you’re really missing the whole point of LEED. And unfortunately, that’s the con of having a checklist system. I personally feel such point chasers can’t achieve something like a platinum building. But you have to remember that LEED is essentially still a design tool, not a standard.

CSE: From a mechanical systems perspective, does having a couple of LEED projects under your belt make it easier to do the next job, or is each LEED building a unique experience?

Joesten: Both. There’s opportunity to get a lot of credits simply by beating minimum energy requirements. That said, successful LEED projects are really about adopting a holistic approach and involving the whole team. For example, the architect’s building envelope plan is as important as any energy solutions from me alone.

CSE: What are some prime energy solutions?

Joesten: It’s really about optimization and optimizing controls. That’s really where you get your credits. In other words, things like waste-heat recovery, pre-heating or cooling, or not always running your systems at constant volume. Of course, that means you have to have the controls know-how.

CSE: Are you seeing equipment that’s “green” or at least optimized to be so?

Joesten: Manufacturers are starting to catch up, but it [achieving sustainability] is still on the engineer’s shoulders, because he or she knows how they want things to work, and that must be conveyed clearly.

But on the subject of green help, ASHRAE’s Green Guide is very good. There are a lot of good, general layout schemes and a lot of tips.

Kowalski: Another great resource is the Labs 21 program ( www.labs21century.gov ). It’s a non-profit group that’s specifically focused on making labs more environmentally sensitive. They have their own LEED-like system that provides you with a lot of help for tweaking credits for lab projects. They’re basically a free consultant. But we also support the program. It’s kind of like Energy Star.

CSE: Back to the subject of the architect’s involvement, do integrated A/Es have an advantage?

Joesten: LEED is still a challenge even in an integrated firm, because you’re not always working with the same team members.

Kowalski: For the record, we have 35 LEED-certified professionals, so that helps, as does the fact that these people are excited about doing these kinds of projects. But a lot still depends on the individual project manager.

CSE: On the subject of a holistic approach, who are the other key players?

Kowalski: Contractors. But one of the biggest hurdles is getting a contractor involved in the LEED process. And to really do so means you need to get the owner equally involved. Sometimes clients are very impressive and big backers. But they also need to be straight up and let you know what they want or don’t want so we can define what we can or can’t achieve.

Joesten: There’s also a big disparity among contractors as to who really has an understanding of LEED and sustainable design. This is especially true for installing specialty systems such as geothermal heat pumps. You have to have contractors with experience who know what they’re doing.

Kowalski: The contractor selection process is critical, and here again, you must have that dedication from your client, because when you get into a heated discussion with your contractor—and it’s going to happen—will your client back you? I’ll give you an example of the worst-case scenario. We had a client that did a 180. When we got into a budget crunch, the client wanted to make changes—changes that we pointed out in big red letters would affect the project’s ability to make LEED certification. The client, however, didn’t care, and in effect, nixed the whole LEED effort. In fact, that client came back later and wanted to cut another 10,000 sq. ft. of program space.

CSE: That begs the question of whether to work for such clients. Do you ever turn a client away because they have no interest in sustainable design?

Kowalski: It’s a catch-22. Even if you make a stand and say “no,” they’re just going to go down the street and find someone else, and they’re still not getting educated at all about green design. So I feel that even if it is a struggle, and only a little green is actually implemented, you’re still educating the client.

CSE: How about from the contractor’s perspective? At the last GreenBuild conference, I sat in on a session where a contractor talked about the difficulties and lack of incentive to make LEED requirements work—for example, construction recycling. He pointed out that a project earns the same amount of credits for recycling as it would for putting a bicycle rack in front of the building. In the meantime, he had to convince his subs not to put materials in a dumpster just a few feet away, but instead, haul the material all the way to the front of the building. In all, he said the reward wasn’t worth the effort.

Kowalski: You have to do things to help the subs, like create smaller bins for the different recycling so you’re not traveling such great distances. But in the big picture, I liken the LEED process to what everyone had to go through with ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. It’s really just a learning curve that everyone will have to get up to speed on. If you don’t, you’ll be left behind.

The other thing you have to take into account is that LEED is still evolving. The first version was an all-volunteer effort. And the people that put that together never dreamed it would be what it is today. It’s getting better, and issues like the recycling/bike-rack credit disparity will be resolved.

CSE: What’s the biggest challenge facing LEED right now?

Kowalski: Establishing credibility. What really hurts the program are unscrupulous people who claim to be LEED certified, but are not. But how do you really tell? How do you keep it pure?

Joesten: I think it’s also the challenge of getting people to not only think more creatively, but also keeping them from not falling back into their old ways.