The Crossroads of Environmental Science, Engineering and Construction Management: A Discussion on LEED

LEED certification appears often on Sustainable Chicago, like in the unveiling of a zoning map that pinpoints examples of green building design in Chicago. LEED standards directly relate to contemporary building processes. Today, green construction expert Noelle Hirsch writes about the potential benefits and drawbacks of turning LEED certification into an industry standard. Noelle’s articles frequently appear at www.constructionmanagement.net, an online resource for construction managers and students.


By Noelle Hirsch

For many building and construction managers, LEED expectations may seem to have become an industry standard overnight. Since its development by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 2000, LEED certification has quickly become a baseline in the construction world. Though many reports have confirmed the success of energy efficiency programs in creating real savings, many still wonder if the costly LEED certification is the most effective method for maximizing energy.

The success of LEED has largely been contingent on numerous studies illustrating impressive potential savings in energy sustainability. In 2010, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) placed specially-trained MBA students at 47 major companies, including Bloomberg, eBay, and McDonald’s, to seek out opportunities for energy savings. The EDF Climate Corps participants uncovered energy efficiency opportunities representing net operating savings of over $350 million that also lead to over 400,000 metric tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy conservation experts have found that some of the greatest savings can be found simply by improving insulation and windows, as well as utilizing low-pressure sinks and toilets. At Terrific Tenements, an 88-unit, two-building apartment complex in Manhattan, the installation of new boilers and heating controls reduced fuel costs by 50%, leading to savings of between $355 and $551 annually per apartment. Companies like IBM offer low-cost software and sensor packages to manage and improve a building’s energy performance. The sensors are designed to be placed on air ducts, boilers, chillers, computer rooms, lights, thermostats, water pipes and other critical infrastructure, and then provide energy use data in real-time to buildings managers.

The USGBC’s LEED program has been a leader in sustainable building. But LEED has been criticized for only measuring the potential energy savings of a building, failing to measure the energy performance or energy needs to keep a building running. The success of LEED certification has also led to its use as a promotional tool used by building managers to justify raising prices for their property. “Such market-driven motives wouldn’t matter—if LEED in fact measured energy performance,” said the New York Times urban design writer, Alec Appelbaum, in 2010., “But it can’t: some certified buildings end up using much more energy than evaluators predicted, because buildings are more popular than expected or busy at different times than developers forecast.”

Yet, despite the criticism, LEED remains an industry standard, and USGBC has been developing tools to counter claims of their critics. In order to help home and business owners to maximize energy savings in their homes, the USGBC has partnered with WegoWise, a company that provides building energy analytics. The WegoWise system allows developers and owners to monitor energy and water usage, and business owners that utilize it will likely be eligible for LEED credits.

While LEED has been a major innovator in green building, perhaps its greatest legacy will be as the organization that ushered in a new age of green building. In today’s market, many building managers already consider LEED certification to only be a first step. Energy efficiency building has been embraced by federal and local governments, private industries and even residential homeowners due to its proven track record of environmental sustainability and financial savings. For builders looking to succeed in the uncertain 21st century marketplace, the efficient construction management promoted through LEED is one of the few safe investments out there.

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