Monday, October 25, 2010

To LEED or not to LEED

With all the recent talk about LEED Silver and LEED Gold (and LEED Red, which is what one Vancouver Sun reader suggested should be awarded to the Olympic Village!), I thought I would post a story I wrote for the August Issue of Municipal World, a national magazine targetted to Municipal Officials and Politicians.

In June 2008, Vancouver City Council approved a policy that could have significant impact on planning and development policies in many municipalities across Canada. Unfortunately, most of the Councillors who voted in favour of the policy did not have any real understanding of what they were doing. Furthermore, this decision could be setting us on the wrong course as we try to improve the environmental performance of buildings and communities. Let me explain.

The Council Policy proposed that:

All rezonings for buildings that meet the minimum requirements to participate in the LEED™ for New Construction (NC) program, be required to establish designs that would achieve a minimum equivalent of LEED™ Silver, with a minimum of 3 optimize energy performance points, 1 water efficiency point and 1 storm water point. Buildings that are not eligible to participate in LEED™ NC due to form of development shall achieve BuiltGreen BC Gold™ with a score of Energuide 80, or an equivalent achievement in green design.

The policy applied to any new applications for rezoning or Heritage Density Bonuses received after May 13, 2008. Staff were instructed to undertake consultation and education with the development industry, and report back to Council with recommendations to increase the requirement to LEED™ Gold and BuiltGreen BC Platinum on January 1st, 2010.

Confused? You are not alone.

To better understand what this is about, the following is a brief description of LEED, (which for some bizarre reason is often called LEEDS by those not in the planning and development business).

LEED was developed by the US Green Building Council that comprised a variety of professionals involved in the design and construction communities. It is an abbreviation for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Essentially, it is an independent rating system for green buildings that began in 1998. In subsequent years LEED grew from a standard for new construction to a comprehensive system of six standards covering all aspects of the development and construction process, including renovations and entire new communities.

LEED was created to establish a common standard of measurement for green buildings, stimulate competition in their design and construction, and recognize environmental leadership in the building industry. It was also hoped to raise consumer awareness. It does this by awarding buildings a ‘Certified’, Silver, Gold, or Platinum status for buildings and communities.

The rating systems address seven major areas: Location and Planning; Sustainable Sites; Water Efficiency; Energy and Atmosphere; Materials and Resources; Indoor Environmental Quality; and Innovation and Design Process.

While LEED was developed in the United States, in recent years a Canadian version has been created and there is now a Canada Green Building Council overseeing the implementation of the program.

An important aspect of LEED is that buildings are certified by independent parties who have been accredited by the Green Building Councils. However, it is especially important to note that buildings can only be certified after they have been completed, occupied, and ‘commissioned’. It is also worth noting that the certification process can take time, and result in considerable cost as the ‘certifier’ liaises with the design and construction team, and the Canada Green Building Council.

The problem with the Vancouver Council decision is that LEED was never intended to be a zoning tool. In other words, it was never contemplated that City Councils might require LEED certification as a condition of rezoning, especially when additional density was granted. As noted one would not know if the building could be certified until well after it had been completed and occupied.

This begs the question. What happens if the building is not certified? Do the people on the top floors have to move out?

To be fair to the Vancouver officials, they tried to address this practicality by suggesting that buildings would have to be ‘LEED equivalent’. However, a new Council has now been elected and many of the officials who were involved in developing the earlier policy have moved on. The new Mayor wants Vancouver to become the Greenest City in the World and he has instructed staff to further raise the bar. Rather than require LEED equivalency, the Council is now requiring LEED Certification. Furthermore, since Vancouver recently held the Olympics, there is a desire to immediately strive for GOLD, rather than SILVER. I mean after all, who wants to come second? (ED Note: Since writing this story in May, I am told that Vancouver has agreed to change its requirement to LEED equivalency.)

In addition to the problems of deciding what to do if the certification is not achieved, and the processing costs related to certification, there are also design and construction costs associated with achieving the desired level of certification. And there is another problem; what if some of the innovative design and construction features required to obtain the rezoning do not perform as expected?

Architects and engineers in some cities are becoming increasingly familiar with green building design and construction practices. However, this is not always the case in many communities. Furthermore, there are additional costs that are not yet truly known. A case in point is Vancouver’s Olympic Village housing which went significantly over budget, in large part, because the city wanted this to be an environmental showcase. Many features were built into these housing units that had never been tried before.

Not every project is going to be an international showcase. However every project is going to incur additional costs which need to be paid for. In the case of most commercial buildings, the person incurring the additional costs will likely realize savings in the annual operating costs to offset the capital outlay.

However, in the case of housing, especially housing for sale, the developer must recover the additional costs in the sales price. While some believe the additional cost is nominal, this is not necessarily true. From my own experience with a LEED project at Simon Fraser University, I discovered that there are often unforeseen costs that must be accounted for. For example, our engineers specified something called a heat recovery ventilation system. The idea was to capture the heat from the back of refrigerators and use it to heat the fresh air that was brought into the building. This seemed like a very innovative and clever idea, especially for a building on university owned lands.

The problem was that all the piping had to go in the corridor ceiling, thus reducing the floor to ceiling height to an unacceptable standard. Another option was to place the piping on the roof, but I worried about potential leaking from all the holes that would have to be made. In the end, the decision was made to raise the ceiling height for the top floor. Of course, when we tallied up the costs of trying to achieve LEED certification, everyone agreed that the extra piping was a cost, but not the raising of the ceiling. This illustrates the problem of properly determining the additional costs of achieving LEED certification.

I hesitate to set out what it costs to achieve the various LEED ratings. Sometimes it may only be a 2% or 5% increase, but in other cases, it can be much more. More importantly, there is no guarantee that an appropriately designed building will be certified. If the contractor has not used the specified glues, the required indoor air quality standard may not be achieved, through no fault of the owner or design team. Similarly, as we all know, heating and ventilation systems do not always work as designed.

While some of these problems can be fixed, others cannot. This becomes a major problem when a density bonus resulting in a much larger building has been granted in return for achieving LEED certification.

For this reason, I would caution any municipality that is thinking of following Vancouver’s policy of requiring LEED certification in return for a density bonus. Instead, consider imposing lower LEED requirements for all buildings, but only with a full understanding of the costs and challenges that can arise.

There is no doubt that achieving greener buildings and communities is a desirable goal. Furthermore, LEED is becoming the independent certification system in Canada for certain classes of buildings. However, in order to be more widely applied, there is a need to overhaul the certification process; it is simply too cumbersome and expensive in many cases, and achieving Gold and Platinum standards can in many instances add significantly to the cost of housing. Also, we should not ignore the concerns of some professionals that we may be moving too quickly, without a full appreciation of the unforeseen consequences of certain design and construction requirements.

To better understand this concern, just Google “leaky condos”!


bert said...

Thank you for your write up and explanation about LEED building especially achieving a LEED certification compared to LEED equivalency.I agree that it added cost to developments to achieve this but it has to be passed on to the consumers too. Another thing I want to point out is about the green roof. Apparently, we haven't survived the leaky condos and now, we are adding more problem than solving it. Apparently, these green roofs can only hold the water for number of hours of continuous rain and after that, it will work like a regular flat roof. If somehow if it will leak, it will be very difficult to find where the sources are coming from. A few Insurance companies will not cover your green roof especially on wood frame buildings. There should be more studies needed on these issues.

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