Green Building FAQ’s

1.       What is green building?

It is a design approach that goes beyond conventional building design by integrating the following elements:  sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, indoor environmental quality and innovation.  It requires an integrated design process that considers the many disparate parts of a building project and examines the interaction between design, construction and operations to optimize the energy and environmental performance of the project.  The strength of this process is that all relevant issues are considered simultaneously in order to solve many problems with one solution.

2.       What is sustainability?

The standard definition was developed in 1987 by the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission:

Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

A new definition developed by a member of the Society for College and University Planning goes further:

Sustainability is about remaking the human presence in the natural world in a manner that will allow all current and future humans to be healthy; have strong, vibrant, secure and thriving communities and nations; have economic opportunity for all; and restore and maintain the integrity of our life-support system – the biosphere.

3.       How much does it cost?

From Davis Langdon’s “Cost of Green Revisited”:

…there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of the cost of green.  A majority of the buildings we studied were able to achieve their goals for LEED certification without any additional funding.  Others required additional funding, but only for specific sustainable features, such as the installation of a photovoltaic system.  Additionally, our analysis suggests that the cost per square foot for buildings seeking LEED certification falls into the existing range of costs for buildings of similar program type.  We can conclude that many projects can achieve sustainable design within their initial budget, or with very small supplemental funding.  This suggests that owners are finding ways to incorporate the elements important to the goals and values of the project, regardless of budget, by making choices and value decisions.

As with any other design decision, green features can also have various cost implications.  Just as some clients might choose granite cladding over EIFS, so too some clients might choose to collect rainwater for landscaping vs. a traditional irrigation system.  We give our clients these options.

4.       How long will it take to pay back an initial investment in green features?

There is no one answer to this question either.  Factors to consider include: life of the building, energy or water savings, maintenance and operating costs.  For many clients, the life of their building is 50 years or more (think schools or military facilities), so payback becomes less of an issue when lower operating costs and energy savings can be had annually.  If true integrated design occurs, and a single design decision can solve multiple problems, upfront costs will be reduced.

5.       What is LEED?

LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  It is a green building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council – a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.  It was created to encourage and accelerate adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.  In the newest version of LEED (v4), there are 10 categories:  Integrated Process, Location & Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Performance, Innovation, and Regional Priority.  It is based on a point system, with a minimum of 40 points needed to become Certified, up to a maximum of 110 points for Platinum.

6.       What’s the difference between a green building and a LEED certified building?

In many cases, there is no difference.  Also from the Langdon study:

There are low cost and high cost green buildings.  There are low cost and high cost non-green buildings.  There is such a wide variation in cost per square foot between buildings on a regular basis, even without taking sustainable design into account, that this certainly contributed to the lack of statistically significant differences between the LEED-seeking and non-LEED buildings.

7.       How important is it to get a building LEED Certified?  Is it worth the money? 

First, LEED certification provides independent, third party verification that a building project meets the highest green building performance measures.  It is the only such measure of sustainability.  The surest way for our clients to claim that the buildings we design are green is through LEED certification.  Second, many states and municipalities require either LEED certification for new buildings, or that projects are at least designed according to LEED standards.  Using LEED now keeps us ahead of the curve.  Third, there are great marketing opportunities upon certification through the USGBC website and print materials.

Registration and certification fees charged by the USGBC are minimal relative to construction costs.  Soft costs required for documentation are minimal to moderate (we already employ many of the methods needed to achieve LEED credits).

8.   Do the recent increases in energy costs make green design more desirable?

Yes.  A large portion of the LEED rating system centers on energy efficiency.  Many manufacturers are rising to the challenge of bringing more energy efficient equipment to the market; however, design decisions have a significant effect on the amount of energy used in a building.  Options range from siting the building properly to take advantage of the sun, to net metering with photovoltaic panels.

9.   Why is indoor air quality better in a green building?

Since we spend 80-90% of our time indoors, one of the critical aspects of green building is the indoor environment.  The EPA states that indoor pollutants can be 2-5 times higher than outdoor levels.  They recommend that VOC levels occur between 200-500 mg/m3.  Higher levels can cause eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; fatigue and dizziness; among other symptoms.  Traditionally, new buildings will have levels of 600-1000+ that eventually drop off over time.  The State of Washington determined that 96% of all VOCs found in the interior air are product-specific.  In other words, they could trace an individual VOC to a specific product.  In schools, the issue is centering on the fact that asthma rates have doubled in the past 20 years – 1 in 12 students are afflicted.

LEED deals with indoor air quality in a number of different ways:  low/no VOC products, increased ventilation, and monitoring systems, all of which require little, if any, additional funds.  The result is a building without that “new car” smell, and VOC levels within acceptable levels on opening day.

10.   Shouldn’t I be worried about adopting risky materials or technologies?

No.  Neither LEED Certification nor green building requires that a client, design firm, or contractor take on adverse risk.  Innovation can occur through creative thinking, new uses of existing technology, or the introduction of existing technology into a new market.  The integrative design aspect of sustainability brings all stakeholders – client, designer, manufacturer, contractor – to the table during the decision making process to discuss any concerns.

11.   What type of green activities happen during the construction phase and what can contractors do to help implement green design?

Contractors play an important role in the success of green buildings, and getting their buy-in during the design process can help the entire team.  Areas where they play the largest role include pollution/stormwater/erosion-prevention during construction, protecting habitat during construction, recycling, donating or salvaging nearly all construction waste, adhering to an indoor air quality plan during construction and just prior to occupancy, coordinating with an outside commissioning agent, and purchasing regionally manufactured materials with high recycled content and low VOCs.