This post expands on the last post in The Thead and goes into depth on some of the major sustainability certifications available today. Buildings, appliances, building materials and products can all achieve sustainability certifications from applicable authorities. All of these certifications have strict requirements and usually third party verifications to prove adherence to requirements. The certifications represent a third party verification of the building or product’s sustainability achievements. Could the requirements become even more stringent as the severity of climate and environmental issues continues to increase? Let’s hope so. For now, consumers can use the certifications as a guide to approaching building and buying while reducing their negative impact on the environment.
Most of the certifications we’ll explore in this post celebrate transparency as a main component of their structure. This transparency gives consumers the opportunity to access and understand the standards that buildings and the products in it are held to. It also helps consumers gain trust with the certifications. The certification agencies publicize their approaches and many of their technical requirements. So, if this post compels you, you can look into any one of the certifications on their respective websites to find out more.
Generally speaking, most certifying agencies have a version of a point system and a minimum amount of points or prerequisites that buildings and their components need to meet to gain levels of certification. Project teams can decide which certification fits their project typology and location the best. It is possible to pursue and gain more than one certification, but it is not common. There are costs and documentation requirements and well as performance verifications throughout the certification process.
Just like we discovered in my last post, there are many valid approaches to a sustainably designed building project. A common question is, can a building be environmentally friendly without gaining certification? Definitely. Even so, the many upsides of following and gaining certifying agencies’ requirements include the accompanying guidelines, resources and marketability. You will see in the following descriptions that each certifying agency’s applicability will vary project by project.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the sustainability certification that many people have heard of, even those working outside of the building industry. LEED focuses on the site design, building design, and construction processes. Building projects can earn levels of LEED certification based on the amount of requirements they meet and type of certification they are seeking. For instance, LEED project teams can pursue LEED certification for new buildings, renovations, and neighborhood developments.
WELL Building Standard
The WELL Building Standard is also well known and centers its requirements on building occupant health. From the conceptual phase of a project, its point system is based on providing healthy sites and built environments for its occupants. There are WELL certifications available for commercial and institutional buildings, both new and existing. Certifications for additional project types are coming soon.
Green Globes is a nationally-recognized certification that is used commonly on projects owned by the federal government. Its requirements are similar to those of LEED and promote sustainable design and construction decisions from the project’s beginning to its completion. It applies to renovations as well as new builds and has specific requirements for multifamily projects.
Living Building Challenge
The Living Building Challenge (LBC) bases its certification requirements on a holistic and regenerative approach to all building processes and components. As the name suggests, LBC champions buildings as a living contribution to their environment vs. typical buildings which can be detractors from their environments and natural resources.
Zero Energy (ZE) certification is provided by the same agency that oversees the Living Building Challenge, the Living Future Institute. ZE certified buildings create more energy than they demand via renewable energy sources. Certification is not based on energy modeling, but the actual performance of the energy systems is tested and verified.
Energy Star is a pretty recognizable label on products. It is also a certification that buildings can achieve. To gain Energy Star certification, buildings must be more energy efficient than 75% of buildings of a similar typology. The building is compared with similar buildings in the United States and performance tested and certified annually.
Indoor Air Quality
Indoor Air Quality is administered by UL (Underwriters’ Laboratory) and, as the name suggests, focuses on all factors that affect indoor air quality. The air conditioning, venitalition, and heating systems of a building are major factors in this certification, of course. In addition, pesticide and chemical use in building operations plays a major role in a building’s air quality. Addressing VOC (volatile organic compound) content in products and mold growth are major factors as well.
As a refresher, building codes are the set of “rules” that architects, designers, engineers, and contractors must abide by to permit and legally build a building. Codes are usually adopted on the international, national, or state level. The codes are updated every few years and their purpose is to provide safe and functional buildings. Today, building codes used in the United States typically result in sturdy, decent quality buildings. What is lacking in these codes is an emphasis on or requirement for high-performing buildings that are as efficient as possible.
Building codes can play an influential role in demanding higher performance and efficiency in buildings. Additionally, codes often vary state by state to encompass variations in climate, access to natural resources, etc. This is a positive aspect, because state and local codes can capitalize on localized sustainability strategies. For example, Nevada experiences water shortages and part of the solution to reducing water use is installing xeriscaping in outdoor areas instead of turfgrass lawns. Additionally, well insulated buildings with air tight building envelopes will reduce the amount of air leakage and result in buildings that require less energy to keep cool despite the hot Nevada sun.
There seems to be a general perception that consuming items that are sustainable, healthy, “green”, etc. will always be significantly more expensive than the alternative. My opinion is that this perception is a result of what is often a higher initial cost that results in less spending overall. For the average consumer, the cost of a locally made, sustainably sourced table, for example, will almost always be higher than a mass manufactured, imported table. The materials of the mass manufactured table are not labeled as sustainably sourced in this example, which may or may not have an impact on a consumer’s buying decision.
What we all must remember is that the quality, safety, and value of a locally made and sustainably sourced product will almost always beat the alternative. Its durability and inherent value (based on your investment in it) will prevent the need to repair or replace it for some time.
In terms of building projects, the same concept applies. If a building is created with locally sourced materials and is designed sustainably with high performance and energy efficiency as top priorities, the building will outlast standard built buildings. It will also be safer in terms of better indoor air quality and longevity of the building itself.
Sustainably built buildings and their components still have the perception of being more costly than standard buildings. A project team can compare case studies of project typologies to understand where cost differences show up in sustainable vs. standard buildings. Today, there are many sustainable building case studies in many typologies including multi-family, healthcare, education, residential, industrial, etc.
The cost of sustainability certification varies by project type and by certification. It also usually varies by project size. So, the cost of certification for a small, interior renovation project will usually be lower than the cost for a large, new commercial office building, for example.
In addition, the cost of sustainable building components such as photovoltaic panels and upgraded ventilation systems may have a higher initial cost than standard electricity sources and standard ventilation systems. The cost savings appear over the life of the product or system, as in these examples, which can reduce energy demands significantly. The result is lower operational costs for the life of the building. Based on a specific project, the initial cost and cost over the lifetime of a product or building can be calculated to illustrate the real cost of sustainable buildings.
Project teams establish project schedules based on many factors including project size and scope, weather conditions, funding cycles, etc. For many sustainability certifications, additional time should be allocated for project administration, testing, and performance verification. Sustainability certification processes work well within standard project schedules, but they do require additional planning and time by project team members. The time needed to accomplish the planning, documentation, and coordination will vary by project.
I have worked on projects in rural areas and have seen potential barriers to sustainable building practices based on location. Sometimes, construction workforces with high performance building knowledge are not located near rural building sites. In these cases, a workforce would need to be trained or housed near the site which are both additional project costs.
Several of the sustainability certifications I listed above award points for locally sourced building materials and products. In rural areas, the local material selection will usually be low. The rural location of the project may also result in little access to public transportation. Public transportation, bicycle access, and reduced parking are all components of a sustainable site. Rurally located buildings usually require building occupants to commute and park vehicles, but there are opportunities for carpooling.
I want to end by mentioning that almost all of these certifications are continually updating and improving their requirements and approach. You may notice that LEED and WELL are each currently transitioning to new versions. The heart of their requirements remain with improvements based on research and real applications. Industry professionals are usually the ones leading the conversations regarding updating the certification requirements. The certifications I explored in this post are generally the most commonly used. We can count on continuous improvements and new approaches to certifying buildings and the professionals that design them.
The posts regarding certifications are actually turning into a series. The topic is a fun one and is a good reminder of the many innovations and advances happening in our industry. I’ll explore the specific certifications in future posts. Stay tuned!
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