Conversation Starter Part 1: Beyond LEED

Posted on: December 27th, 2012 by Preservation Leadership Forum Staff

At the National Preservation Conference in Spokane, each day kicked off with a Conversation Starter—a 90-minute session designed to frame the sessions and discussions that followed. Each Conversation Starter ended with a question-and-answer period. Audience members had plenty of questions and comments, and at the end of the Conversation Starters, some questions still remained unanswered. We’ve asked the two speakers from the “Beyond LEED Conversation Starter, Patrice Frey (PF), director of Sustainability at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Beth Heider (BH), chair of USGBC, to respond to some of the remaining questions from their session.

Question: Given how challenging it can be to win the historic preservation argument (emphasis on historic) and that the vast majority of existing buildings are not, and likely never will be, designated as historic, would it help or hinder our movement to expand our efforts to all existing buildings?

PF:  This is a great question. I suspect that as preservationists, we’re always going to care about some buildings more than others—those with historic or cultural value. Through our work with the Preservation Green Lab, however, we often find that in the process of trying to protect the buildings we care about the most, it’s necessary to create research and policy solutions that touch on all manner of existing buildings.  And frankly, as a practical matter, it’s a lot easier to generate support for research and policy work when we can demonstrate that it will help us understand or create positive outcomes for many buildings—not just the relatively few that are designated as historic.

For example, some years ago we discovered that energy codes were creating challenges for rehabbing historic buildings—sometimes resulting in underutilization of these resources or even demolition. Yet the best solution, in our estimation, wasn’t to develop a policy fix that just suited historic buildings. Instead, we set to work with the City of Seattle, the New Buildings Institute, and others to develop an innovative new code process that would work better for many existing buildings. This allows us to broaden our coalition of support, which is always important when working toward any sort of policy changes.

Question: The United States measures its economic health through housing starts as measured in the Gross Domestic Product. Do you see the marketplace changing enough to value rehab and infrastructure repair over new construction?

PF: I suspect that in the longer term, as resources become more scarce—especially many of the minerals that are used in today’s building materials—we may begin to value rehabilitation more, because the cost of new construction will become relatively more expensive. A carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system would also help to better align market incentives toward building reuse, because such a system would reward lower carbon choices (such as reuse instead of new construction).

In the meantime, however, we have to get creative. Our new “Partnership for Building Reuse” with the Urban Land Institute seeks to get a better handle on the impediments to building reuse—whether they are policy based, financial or even cultural. Once we get a more comprehensive sense of these barriers, we’ll be better able to identify new—or even existing—tools that will help tip the scale in favor of building reuse. For example, here in Chicago we’ve discovered that many building demolitions happen in special designated areas called Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts; we’re investigating this more to understand whether the way TIFs are structured in Chicago actually incentivizes demolition, and how we might design a remedy.

Question: How do you propose to make LEED designations more relevant without increasing the cost of attaining a designation because of the paperwork. A lot of cost goes into proving you’ve hit the goals versus putting that money into doing the project well—which is actually better for the world.

BH: This question sets up a false choice between pursuing LEED certification and doing a project well. Every project must make value judgments about how to allocate resources. For many projects, LEED inspires and supports good design and operation by requiring practices like energy modeling and commissioning, or quality control. Both have an upfront cost but set a building on course to perform better and save money over time. For many projects, the commitment to LEED helps drive innovation in the design and construction industry. The obvious example of this is the availability of low-VOC paint. Because of market demand, driven in large part by projects pursuing LEED certification, the paint industry now delivers low-VOC products at the same cost as older, noxious formulations. USGBC, GBCI, and the volunteer community that supports LEED are constantly working to improve both LEED’s technical rigor and user experience. We are looking for ways to reduce certification costs while requiring sufficient demonstration of achievement worthy of certification. In addition, in 2012 USGBC overhauled its membership structure to encourage broad participation. Join, comment, and vote on LEED version 4. Become part of the dialogue!

Question: Does the USGBC and/or LEED continue to have discussions on the issue of sick building syndrome—where buildings are too airtight causing health issues? For example, historic buildings allow for fresh air through operational windows providing a healthy indoor environment.  

BH: Yes. This is reflected in the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) credits. Notably, the 2013-15 Strategic Plan adds a goal around green building and human health and wellness and USGBC is convening a summit in late January 2013 to explore the best path forward in meeting this goal.

Question: Do you know if LEED version 4 will require one year’s worth of utility data before it is certified? In 2007 my organization built a 75-unit affordable housing project that is LEED Silver, but it is one of our biggest energy hogs.

BH: To answer the first question—no, the Building/Interior Design and Construction rating systems do not require demonstrated operational performance requirements before having certification awarded. However, the Existing Buildings rating system uses building data to award the appropriate level of certification. This is true for LEED version 4 as well as current versions of LEED.

As for the poor performing building, LEED Silver certification doesn’t guarantee that the building is operated and maintained to perform as designed or that the occupants are aware of or concerned with their impact on energy performance. Without seeing the LEED score card, I can’t guess whether the design team pursued the minimum number of energy points or chose to pursue other areas of performance. For your project, I would suggest that you consider LEED EBOM (LEED for Existing Buildings Operation and Maintenance) which supports and recognizes operational performance and that you investigate where the project is being an energy hog. You might find that occupant education and awareness, or modifications to building maintenance and operations will take your LEED building out of the hog category.

The prerequisites in LEED (both current versions and LEED version 4) ensure that a project considers each area of the scorecard, such as energy and water efficiency and indoor air quality, but the flexibility of LEED allows projects to pursue the credits that meet the needs of that particular project. If a project does not pursue many—or any—of the credits related to energy, it would not be a surprise that it does not perform well from an energy perspective. If the project did earn a number of energy related points, I would (besides recommending EBOM) encourage the project to review the assumptions made in the energy model and compare them to the occupant behavior and actual energy uses in the building.

Question: In LEED version 4 do you feel that five points is enough of an incentive for developer/owners to select historic/abandoned buildings? Knowing the weighted system, could more credit be given to those who take the greater risks, i.e., historic rehabs, brownfields, etc.?

BH: It seeks to recognize the commitment and challenges faced by existing buildings that pursue LEED goals. LEED weights points to encourage market transformation—it is not cost or risk-weighted. Time will tell the impact of this new language on developer/owner’s decisions.

In addition, there are many other areas of the scorecard where renovation of a building is rewarded. For example, major renovation projects may meet a lower energy efficiency threshold for the same amount of points as new construction to take embodied energy savings into account. Major renovation projects, depending on location, may also be candidates for easily earning credits like High Priority Site, Development Density and Diverse Uses, Sensitive Land Protection, and Access to Quality Transit.

 

National Preservation Conference, Sustainability