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LEED Certification: What Does it Mean?

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You are planning to build a new building for your company and are considering a LEED certification, but do you know what that means? Perhaps you’ve heard of LEED and know that it translates to going “green” – a building that is energy efficient and “good” for the environment.

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You’d be surprised to find out that LEED actually encompasses much more than that; it is about the overall effects of the structure on the environment, but it also entails the working lifestyle of employees as a whole.

Demand for Clarification
In 1998, the US Green Building Council (USGBC), an independent, non-profit organization, recognized that without guidelines to regulate what it means for a building to be “green,” anyone could claim that a building was environmentallyfriendly or sustainable. In response to this need, the USGBC established LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The first LEED building went up in 2000 and since then, there have been more than 10,000 LEED certified buildings erected worldwide.

A Points System
LEED rating is based on a points system; the more points you earn, the higher your rating. There are four levels of LEED certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum. Points are meant to encourage new commercial buildings to be designed and operated to optimally use building location, minimize non-renewable energy use, reduce water consumption and offer healthy settings in which to work and live.

All Its Cracked Up to Be?
With so many LEED buildings erected in a considerably short time, the incentive to build this way exists, but what are the ultimate effects on the environment, and equally as important, the bottom line for the company?

It may seem obvious that installing low-water flow systems; using recycled materials, low- VOC emitting carpets and paints; and installing better ventilation and day-lighting would be good for the environment. Fewer chemicals, cleaner air to breath and natural lighting may make for happier, more productive employees. However, not only is the concept of LEED relatively new therefore providing limited data on the effects of LEED certification, but, it is also difficult to objectively measure the feeling an employee gets from working in this kind of environments.

“LEED is a certification program that focuses primarily on new, commercial building projects, though there is also LEED rating systems for existing buildings and commercial interiors.”

The LEED certification process has received much criticism from architects, building contractors, environmental activists and others involved in the building and design process. A big complaint is that the point system allows for too many loopholes, making it ineffective at truly achieving green credibility. Some skeptics argue that the USGBC stands to gain a huge source of revenue via LEED certification, while in reality, many of these buildings are not very “green” at all, and in fact use huge amounts of energy.

Despite the criticisms, LEED is considered to be a successful work in progress. Taking these criticisms into consideration, the USGBC continuously works to streamline and modify the LEED certification process; the program is revised on a regular 2-year cycle. Though there are some who do look for loopholes to achieve LEED certification for not-so-“green” projects, most take the LEED guidelines seriously in order to truly make an impact on the environment – the global environment, as well as the work environment for their employees.

According to the USGBC, there are nine key areas measured by LEED:
• Sustainable Sites
• Water Efficiency
• Energy and Atmosphere
• Materials and Resources
• Indoor Environmental Quality
• Location and Linkages
• Awareness and Education
• Innovation in Design
• Regional Priority

The initial design phase of the building is the most important part of LEED certification. However, a lot of the benefits from going LEED also depends on how the building is used and maintained once it’s built and occupied. If it’s done right, “going LEED” can make a significant impact globally in the long run. And, it’s not just about being environmentally friendly; it’s about bringing the employee into the environment, as well. It’s a mindset.

For more information on LEED certification, you can go to www.usgbc.org.

Curaçao Business magazine interviewed Chris van Grieken, President of ARG Group and owner of the only LEED certified building on the island, which is in fact, Platinum certified, about his take on becoming LEED certified and what he thinks being LEED certified means for his business and the environment.

What steps did you take to become LEED certified?

CvG: There are no LEED consultants in Curaçao, so I hired a consultant firm in the US and they guided me through the whole process. They flew to Curacao and before we even started with drawings, we discussed what needed to be done to maximize LEED points and incorporate efficiency. Our idea was to expand and renovate, and at the same time incorporate the LEED idea.

“Everything on the USBGC website is free, so if you are interested in LEED certification, you can use it as a guideline.”

What did you do, specifically, to earn points towards a LEED certification?

CvG: There are certain requirements that you must fulfill in order to be LEED certified and there are “extras” that get you points, but are optional. So, besides the required items, there are a whole bunch of aspects we added to the building that we would not have done if we weren’t going for LEED certification. Installing solar panels is one of them; we would have never done that because at the time no one was installing solar panels. We also wanted to use all low-VOC or no-VOC paints, meaning paints that don’t smell. While it’s normal to find these paints now, six years ago it was impossible. I found that people here have products that can help with obtaining LEED certification, but don’t even realize what they can do with their products, though that is changing now.

Besides just efficiency, LEED certification wants to promote a green lifestyle. So, we have a bike rack and even a shower in the office. This promotes the idea for employees to bike or walk to work. Then they can freshen up before starting their workday. These are things that give a company points towards its LEED certification that you would have never thought of if you were to go into a normal building process.

Another interesting aspect where we earned an incredible amount of points is comparing the average building’s energy usage and efficiency in Curaçao to those of this building. Basically, we doubled the size of our building and halved our energy consumption.

How did we do that? Every single aspect was thought out: air conditioning choices, computer choices, lighting choices, refrigerator choices – every single thing. Thought and research went every component of the building. Normally, people don’t do that when they are building. They think about comfort first. We have to think about both comfort and efficiency, and not just one or the other.

How can we bring LEED to Curaçao?

CvG: Everything on the USBGC website is free, so if you are interested in LEED certification, you can use it as a guideline. I personally really wanted the certification and for a short period of time, I felt like I brought LEED to Curaçao. The new Aqualectra building (utilities company) was supposed to be LEED certified, CTEX (the data center) was going to be LEED certified, and the new hospital was supposed to be LEED certified. I had hoped that I brought LEED to Curaçao and that if people became aware of it, they too would start using it. I find that the hype has trickled down again. There was never a second LEED building built, and I think if a big building had managed to obtain the certification; it would have gotten the ball rolling.

One of the things the US government did in support of LEED certification is ensuring that any new government building is LEED certified. This is something the local government can think about doing. If we do make it a requirement, we don’t need to hire a consultant from the Netherlands or the US, because a new industry can be created here. There’s no work for a LEED consultant on the island right now because there’s no demand for it, but once you make these requirements, the whole ballgame changes – you create a whole new industry.

What benefits do you see to your bottom line from making your building “green?”

CvG: The complete experience you get from a LEED office cannot be expressed in dollars and cents. LEED goes beyond energy measurements; it also incorporates a wellness lifestyle for an employee, which increases productivity in different ways. For example, we buy groceries for our office employees, but it has to be healthy and reasonable – no sodas, sweets, etc. The employees stay in for lunch, eat a healthy lunch in the break room and get back to work. It’s a win-win situation – they get a free, healthy lunch and we keep up our productivity. This keeps people productive, not only because they stay in the office, but it also ensures that they eat a healthy meal so they have the energy in the afternoon to keep working, rather than being bogged down after a heavy, high-fat meal. I’m looking at the whole picture. Healthy employees mean less sick days. So, it’s not just about efficiency, but also about long-term productivity of your staff, which also affects your bottom line.

People have the tendency to focus on what it’s going to cost me now, rather than what it’s going to cost me over the lifespan of the building.

Do you have anything else to add?

CvG: What’s very important that I want to get across is that LEED has nothing to do with energy cost. Everyone talks about solar panels and how expensive electricity is, but it’s about the whole spectrum. I can decide to cover my room in solar panels, but if I have an old air conditioning, no insulation, an old refrigerator, or the most inefficient equipment and that use a whole lot of electricity, I still did nothing for the environment. The cleanest electricity in the world is the electricity you don’t use.

LEED looks at how much of the building materials is recycled or locally supplied. Van Grieken did the following:
• The driveway is made of 95% recycled material: recycled sand, stone and glass from the Curaçao recycling center, rain water and concrete (not recycled) to make it stick.
• The roof of the new part of the building is made from an old freezer building from the US Consulate – a naturally insulated product and 100% recycled material.

Van Grieken also incorporated the environment in his building design:
• A roof garden, which gives insulation value and allows what nature intended to grow in that spot, before the area was developed, to re-grow.
• An air circulating system that brings in fresh air.
• Natural daylight – tubular skylights that bring in natural light and also a view of the outside from every location in the office.

References:
http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2013/04/10/building-certification-what-does-leed-really-mean/
http://pressroom.pella.com/fast_facts/113/whatdoes-leed-certified-mean
http://greenliving.about.com/od/architecturedesign/g/What-Is-LEED-Green-Building-Certification.htm
http://greenliving.about.com/od/architecturedesign/a/LEED-Green-Building-Certification.htm