October 01, 2002
Appeared in Consulting-Specifying Engineer
Designing and maintaining a sustainable "green" building depends on an integrated effort from the entire building team. But at the heart of any sustainable scheme are engineers, because their engineered systems are the fibers that bind all elements into an integrated whole.
With this supposition, CSE recently polled its readers to discover what driving—and inhibiting—factors are b ehind this growing movement. One truth is self-evident: Despite a number of obstacles that exist in selling clients on sustainability, top engineering firms are unanimously committed to the concept and are actively greening their designs.
Furthermore, this commitment to sustainability is growing outside the A/E community. Our respondents indicate that key patrons—government and schools—are helping sustain the i nitiative, as well as a greater awareness on the part of the general public, who are voicing environmental concerns. But the single most significant protagonist these days, say our readers, is the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
LEEDing the way
"The biggest factor driving sustainable/green design at the moment is the LEED Green Building Rating System," explains Elizabeth Zipf, a spokesperson for Philadelphia A/E Kling.
The LEED system—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Members of the USGBC developed LEED and contribute to its continuing development, but it's not just for designers.
"We are finding not only design professionals, but also building owners, operation and maintenance staffs and product manufacturers embracing the LEED system as a design guide because of its 'whole building' approach to sustainable/green design," Zipf adds.
Without question, says Jeff Hampton, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based Carter & Burgess, the LEED program is literally constructing the infrastructure that will allow the green movement to bloom. "The USGBC and other sponsored research are helping put solid numbers behind the assumed costs and benefits," Hampton says.
Beside generating quantifiable criteria for building owners and constructors, the LEED program reaches even deeper into specific markets by offering green strategies, not just for new construction projects (Version 2.0), but also for existing buildings and even commercial interiors.
The new construction program is the "old man" of this fledgling organization, having been on the market for two years. But in that short period, slightly more than 20 projects have earned LEED certification, and registration for certification has grown to more than 450 projects. USGBC officials point out that it is a total of approximately 70 million sq. ft. of constructed area—nearly 3% of new commercial construction projects annually.
The extreme popularity and rapid growth of the program has taught the council much about its certification process—not all of it is good news. In fact, many owners and builders regard the current documentation requirements to be too burdensome and expensive.
"The LEED building certification program is intended to encourage rigorous efforts to design sustainability in order to meet minimum certification requirements," explains Lisa Haller, a spokesperson for Minneapolis A/E Ellerbe Becket. "A result of this certification's high level of [standard] is it isn't pursued at all. We believe a lower certification level would give building owners and design teams a lower target to meet, with less impact on firs t cost."
In fact, Haller notes, it's the firm's philosophy that it would rather have 10 projects go through the whole certification process, but receive a lower certification, than have eight of those 10 owners drop out of the LEED program because of sustainable design costs.
USGBC is trying to respond to these concerns, and it recently released LEED Version 2.1, which the council hopes will greatly streamline the documentation process.
But even if owners and designers decide not to seek LEED certification for their projects, the program is still ultimately helping the green cause, according to Jerry Yudelson, a P.E. with Interface Engineering, Milwaukie, Ore., as the LEED standards may serve as a benchmark. "It may be true they [building owners] may not want to do the paperwork for certification, but they are using LEED as a template," says Yudelson, who sits on USGBC's steering committee.
He's particularly excited about two LEED certification pilot projects—LEED-EB for existing buildings and LEED-CI for commercial interiors—which he believes will open the program to a much wider range of projects. In fact, he says there are 65 buildings that have been chosen for participation in the one-year pilot to test the LEED-EB standard.
These healthy numbers clearly indicate sustainable design has passed the "novelty" phase to serious consideration as a central part of activity for most major engineering firms. But while designers may be committed, the next challenge is to educate clients about the benefits of green design.
In fact, there appears to be a consensus among the top M/E firms that green education in general—not just for owners, but also construction industry professionals themselves—is the key. "The entire design and construction industry is undergoing a major educational process as it tries to understand and develop truly effective methods for creating sustainable facilities," says Randal Swiech, P.E., a senior vice president with SmithGroup, Detroit.
John Hennessy, P.E., CEO of the Syska Hennessy Group, New York, offers a cogent view of the situation: "Sustainable design and sustainable projects are assisted and hindered by the same forces that have assisted and hindered other trends that have been in the best interest of society as a whole."
The issues that move it forward, he explains, are the desire to do the right thing and people's desire to move the state of the art forward.
The things that hinder progress, he says, are people's unfamiliarity with the concept, technologies and costs of design, construction and operation.
"There are several factors that will help speed the adoption of sustainable/green design going forward and [one certainly is] education. With improved education regarding the nature of sustainable projects, and their true costs and operational requirements, people will see it is not that difficult to create sustainable buildings and will therefore adopt a more sustainable approach," the CEO says.
Carter & Burgess certainly believes many owners and developers want to do the right thing: "Certain developers and owners have marketing strategies that call for green/sustainable design to earn good will for customers, clients, communities and the public at large," Hampton notes.
Still, they are inhibited by age-old concerns of "the ever-present battle between initial cost, life-cycle cost and environmental impact cost," says Kathleen Bast, a spokesperson for the Cleveland-based Austin Co., an integrated services firm.
In fact, among the responses to CSE's annual survey of M/E/P firms, this issue was one of the most-cited stumbling blocks to expanding the implementation of sustainable design: how to educate owners to look past higher initial costs to reduced life-cycle costs for green buildings. "The biggest factor inhibiting green design is the perception that it costs more and results in unattractive buildings. Although the owner pays a small premium in design costs—and at times, first cost—the added burdens are offset by substantially reduced incremental costs," says Illene Avallone, of Rochester, N.Y.-based Sear-Brown. "Nevertheless, the perception that green design is expensive is pervasive among developers and will take time to overcome. In addition, the perception that green design is unattractive is also being slowly erased by the growing body of work that shows otherwise."
One firm that has taken an active approach to changing its clients' way of thinking is TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando. A member of the USGBC, TLC boasts the first P.E. in Florida to achieve individual LEED certification. "We have given over a dozen educational programs on the topic to help inform our clients," says a company spokesperson. "Inhibiting green design is the perception that 'green' costs more and doesn't have an economically attractive payback, the perception that green buildings are ugly and that only certain buildings can be green. But the biggest thing inhibiting green design is owner shortsightedness, which manifests itself in first-cost issues. The factors driving it are pretty clear—lower operating costs, increased life of the systems, occupant comfort—but it takes an owner who is willing to specifically push to have his building be green."
But counter-strategies exist, suggests Robert Gracilieri, P.E., Shooshanian Engineering, Boston. "Our short view of payback is that we expect that unless there is a three-year straight and simple payback on any suggested system, it is not included and value engineered out," Gracilieri says. "But if we change and look at buildings in whole, more with a 30-year window, sustainable design will catch on."
Getting owners, design professionals and contractors to understand how to weigh first cost against life-cycle costs is not the only educational issue in promoting green buildings. It will also take time and effort to consider and explain the product alternatives involved with green building equipment and systems.
"One of the greatest factors inhibiting sustainable/green design is the lack of acceptable market-wide environmental labeling systems for building products," explains Kling's Zipf. "The time required of design professionals to compare building product options, based on environmental factors, can be overwhelming and even cost prohibitive."
Furthermore, USGBC's Yudelson points out it's also as critical to educate a facility's operating staff, making commissioning an even more important goal.
While the near-term challenge of promoting sustainable design is certainly a rough-and-tumble affair, Douglas Mass, P.E., of New York's Cosentini Associates, says it's a 15-round fight. "When the economy is booming, companies have the luxury of planning well into the future and considering the long-term gains of sustainable design," he reminds. "They are willing to front the higher initial construction cost and wait for the payoff of energy savings over the coming years."
And despite the current downturn in the U.S. economy, the enthusiasm for sustainable buildings has not dampened, perhaps because the fear of rising energy costs always looms so large.
It's certainly one trend to be tracked. Another concerns the nature of the building process itself. Many design professionals see a clear connection between a highly integrated approach to building design and the possibilities for green buildings. "Green design will flourish with a design team and owner that creates the built product as an interactive, holistic team process," says Lorraine Gallo of Paulus Sokolowski and Sartor, Warren, N.J. "This will create great examples of how green design and sustainability can enhance the built environment and our natural habitats."
What's clear is that sustainable design calls for careful and coordinated efforts. Perhaps Raj Gupta, principal of ESD Inc., Chicago, sums it up best: "Consultants, building owners, developers and contractors are all on a learning curve with respect to new design strategies that support green design. Good sustainable design seems to be somewhat more site-specific than conventional design. For this reason, more time and attention is required for analysis of the best combination of strategies for a particular project, and for identification of sustainable building materials, suppliers and manufacturers."