For this post, the main questions to answer are, why should a building project pursue sustainability certification and what are the available certifications? If you are picturing a building with a gold star sticker or one holding a trophy, this post should clear up what it means for a building to gain sustainability certification. There are many ways for a building project to approach design and construction sustainably. Multiple certification agencies have developed structured tiers that building designs and their construction methods can achieve to gain certification. The certification agencies, including LEED and Living Building Challenge, generally focus on reducing the negative environmental footprint of building projects.
There are so many components, factors, and decisions that are a part of a building project. So, how are they tracked and eventually deemed sustainable or not sustainable? The building and sustainability experts at these certification agencies dove head first into the step-by-step process that is required for a building project to be completed successfully. They understand that current building standards required by many states and jurisdictions can be improved with the environment and the building occupants’ wellness in mind.
While there are multiple certifications available for a building and its components to earn, most projects will choose one to focus on. This post will give you a general idea of the most popular certifications and why certifications are important. I am excited to focus more on the individual certifications in future posts.
Advantages of Achieving a Sustainable Building Certification
One factor that is fairly common amongst the different certifications is the concept of integrative design. Integrative design can be defined in many ways. My definition is a conscious effort to involve the building owner, facilities manager, architect, interior designer, engineers and contractor from the beginning of the project when possible. When each project stakeholder is on-board with the project’s direction from the beginning, the chance for a successful project completion goes way up. The integrative approach has the potential to keep the project on budget and on schedule, since all stakeholders will understand the project’s goals and strategies to achieve them. This approach also incentivizes project stakeholders to act as one team, since levels of accountability and communication are usually higher. The concept of integrative design can be applied in many fields, and it is especially important in building projects.
Energy efficiency is one of the major factors in any sustainability certification. It is one of the most important ways to reduce a building’s demand for energy sources, which are often fossil fuels. Energy efficiency is a multi-faceted concept and can be improved with both large and small design components. At the beginning of a project, site design and the building’s orientation on the site can reduce the amount of energy necessary to keep the building powered, heated, and cooled. The amount of wind, shade, and sun that hits a building’s exterior each day affects its energy demand. Similarly, the building envelope can be designed in a way that prevents air or moisture leakage which also increases efficiency.
A concept that goes hand in hand with energy efficiency is usually cost savings for the building owner. If a building requires a lower amount of energy to operate, the owner spends less on energy bills every day, week, month and year that the building operates. Those cost savings can seem invisible but, if calculated, can demonstrate the immense impact that efficiency measures can create. The money that was not spent on energy can be redirected into the budgets of companies that own efficient buildings. Think about the opportunities that open up for companies. They could increase marketing or employee benefits budgets for example and attract new clients and talent. Cost can also be a perceived barrier to certification which I will delve into more in future posts.
Uphold Corporate Responsibility Goals/Strategies
Along those lines, companies that own sustainability certified buildings can use the building itself as a demonstration of their commitment to sustainability. That commitment can be further expressed through supporting employee well-being, community involvement, and other measures that make the world a better place. An increasing number of companies have corporate responsibility goals and market their goals and benchmarks. These efforts and the transparency that accompanies them show clients and customers that sustainability is a part of being a good business. Showing corporate responsibility efforts can attract and retain new customers as well as new employees.
So, what certifications are available for a building? The answer is there are multiple to choose from. A building project team can choose a certification based on applicability, location, and project typology. Most certifications have a range of requirements and options that building designs attempt to meet or exceed. There is usually a minimum requirement that allows for certification, then additional elements a building design can achieve to gain higher levels of certification. Site visits and third party verification are used to review major requirements. Here I’ll outline several building certifications used widely in the US and expand on them more in future posts.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the sustainability certification that most people have heard of. Many architects and designers are LEED accredited professionals, and I look forward to the day when many more architects and designers have a sustainability focus. LEED focuses on the site design, building design, and construction. Other certification platforms focus on additional and more specific components of the building design process.
WELL Building Standard
The WELL Building Standard is similar to LEED, but it focuses heavily on the health and well-being of the building occupants. Delos, the organization that launched WELL understands the positive impact that built environments can potentially have on their occupants.
Living Building Challenge
The Living Building Challenge is compelling in that it views built environments as ecosystems that should be self sustaining. Projects that meet the Living Building Challenge’s requirements do not tax existing water and energy systems, but rather operate as a part of the natural environment. The building and its operations should positively affect the environment and community in which it is built.
You can see that there are several certification approaches a team can use to design and construct more sustainable buildings. Each of these approaches is a great way to shift the current standard building practices to those that are more energy efficient and less wasteful. My next post will go over the certifications in more detail, since they are each nuanced. The building themselves can earn certifications as can building materials, equipment and finishes. The certifications and their international influence gives me hope for the future of sustainable buildings.