Environmental Impact

Nov. 1, 2003
Some basic concepts about LEED certification and sustainable design.

Increasingly, the education community is embracing the principles of sustainable design as a means of conserving the earth's resources for tomorrow while enjoying the financial and quality-of-life benefits of high-performance buildings today. Many schools are taking a step further, seeking certification under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System developed by the members of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It is a voluntary national standard for developing sustainable, high-performance buildings. LEED certification signifies that a building has met this standard.

Although every project can benefit from applying the principles of sustainable design, some are strong candidates for LEED certification.

A flexible rating system

The LEED System awards up to 69 points in five categories with defined criteria:

  • Sustainable site

    The thrust of the sustainable-site category is to encourage a close look at how the school chooses and develops its site to minimize long-term environmental impact.

  • Water efficiency

    This category encourages efficient use of water in site landscaping and indoors, including reducing potable water for purposes that do not require it.

  • Energy and atmosphere

    Up to 10 points — the largest single LEED credit — are available for optimizing the energy efficiency of the building.

  • Materials and resources

    This category examines the selection of resources, where and how they are obtained, and how construction waste is handled.

  • Indoor air quality

    This category encourages strategies to maintain the health of building users, including the use of non-toxic materials.

A sixth category is innovations, which are reviewed case by case.

To be considered for certification, a planned project first must be registered with the USGBC, and it must meet seven prerequisites in the five categories. There are four certification levels: certification, 26 points; silver, 33 points; gold, 39 points; and platinum, 52 points.

The LEED system is flexible. A project need not score points in every category. During the planning phase, school officials and the design team identify which categories and points make the most sense for the project in terms of the owner's goals and capabilities. For example, a project may be heavily weighted in one or two categories, or it may score evenly among them all. One of the best aspects of a LEED-certified building is the direct financial payback of many of these strategies in lower operations and maintenance costs. To optimize the opportunity for success, however, the process must be started early in the planning phase, preferably before site selection.

Evaluating potential

An institution with certain key characteristics is more likely to benefit from sustainable design. These qualities include adequate budget capacity; a commitment to energy conservation and environmental stewardship; and a master plan that is LEED-compatible. A design team that has experience with sustainable-design strategies and one or more LEED-certified professionals, is more likely to develop a project with strong potential for LEED certification.

For example, accommodating certain sustainable-design principles as outlined in the LEED system may increase the capital cost of the building, but reduce its long-term operations and maintenance costs. In particular, increased initial costs may be associated with advanced energy-management systems. Moreover, if a project is state-funded, the state's department of education needs to be amenable to paying for these innovations.

Most important, a team approach embracing an integrated building system philosophy often results in synergies that balance cost premiums in one system with cost savings in another — synergies that would not be realized without going through the analysis inherent in the LEED certification process.

Cost premiums also can be minimized through a strategic selection of appropriate LEED credits, careful planning, and skillful execution of the drawings and specifications. Experience shows that there is no premium for meeting certain LEED goals. For example, low volatile organic compound (VOC)-emitting paints and adhesives are becoming standard in specs because prices have become competitive with older types of products.

The proposed project also must be LEED-compatible in terms of site, building orientation and ability to incorporate energy-conservation schemes. In particular, the ability to orient the building on an east-west solar axis enables cost-effective control of the effects of northern and southern light on the building.

Sustainable design is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Not every project qualifies for silver, gold or platinum LEED certification, but sustainable design is well worth the long-term financial and quality-of-life benefits. In fact, it is worth pursuing as many of the concepts as possible to the extent that they are feasible, even if the building will not qualify for basic certification. Sustainable-design strategies will result in a building that is more energy- and water-efficient, less wasteful of resources and leads to improved indoor air quality, at reduced environmental impact.

Nasis, AIA, is managing principal, higher education studio, Moseley Architects, Richmond, Va. Tola, PE, is assistant vice president, facilities & construction, for Old Dominion University.

Finding a professional

Selecting a firm with LEED planning, design and certification experience is as essential to identifying a strong candidate for certification as it is to developing and documenting a sustainable design, construction and commissioning process.

For example, at the programming phase, the firm should lead both in-house and owner design charrettes designed to determine if it can earn the minimum 26 points required for LEED certification. First the firm's designers and engineers should assess the project's potential to score points under each of the LEED categories, with the goal of identifying at least 35 likely points — 20 “yeses” and 15 “maybes.” Then the design team should sit down with the owner for its input, concluding the owner charrette with at least 30 likely points. This leaves flexibility to meet the 26-point minimum required for certification.

First LEED-registered higher-ed project in Virginia

Energy conservation was the prime initiative behind the new four-story, 83,000-square-foot Engineering and Computational Sciences (ECS) building at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. Following commissioning, an application and documentation will be submitted to USGBC for certification. In addition to energy-conservation benefits, the ECS building will be used as a “classroom” to develop the in-house maintenance staff's capabilities for new energy-conserving technologies. Those will be applied in future renovation and construction projects. The administration also hopes this building will gain campuswide support for its day-to-day energy-conservation initiatives.

The ECS project is designed to fulfill key LEED principles in each of the five certification categories, as well as design innovation:

  • Sustainable site

    Provisions for bicycle-storage areas and alternative fuel recharging stations; no new parking areas; nearby public transportation; rainwater collected on the roofs channeled through on-site “rain gardens” — a combination of plantings and rock material — which clean stormwater before it leaves the site.

  • Water efficiency

    Water-efficient landscaping using native, drought-resistant plants and water-efficient (primarily drip) irrigation; a 20 percent reduction in water use in the building through efficient, metered plumbing fixtures.

  • Energy and atmosphere

    Optimized energy performance by 20 percent, compared with a new building, through high-efficiency mechanical systems, which use heat recovery devices, distributed air handlers, and carbon-dioxide monitoring; increased insulation; external sun-shading for south and west elevations; maximum daylighting; low-E glazing on south, west and east elevations.

  • Materials and resources

    Construction waste-management plan to salvage or recycle 50 percent of construction debris; salvaged, certified, recycled and rapidly renewable materials.

  • Indoor environmental quality

    Construction indoor-air-quality management plan to keep potential contaminants out of the HVAC system; materials selected for low-VOC emissions; university building smoke-free policy.

In addition, the design team included a LEED-certified professional, which qualifies the project for a point under design innovation. Inclusion of an independent commissioning agent on the design team qualifies it for a point under best-practices commissioning.

The $12 million project was completed under budget. The university anticipated a small percentage premium because it was aiming to be LEED-certified. The administration believes the project came in under budget because of a good set of drawings and clear definition of LEED-certifiable components, which made it easy for contractors to bid the new technologies. The university integrated these components into the base whenever possible, knowing that the long-term M&O savings will provide significant paybacks.

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