Are Buildings Living Up to LEED Label?

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

On August 31, the New York Times ran a story entitled Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label by Mireya Navarro. The building referenced in the article was the Federal Building in downtown Youngstown, Ohio. When the building didn’t qualify for the Energy Star label granted by the Environmental Protection Agency based on its annual utility bills, it was suggested that buildings like these, which carry the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation, should have that certification taken away since, once they earn it, there’s no further incentive to continue to monitor and improve energy efficiency.  The problem is that the qualifications for LEED and the qualifications for Energy Star are two different animals.

 One could assume that articles like this are trying to throw stones at the LEED program but, in fact, there are many reasons why a building could be classified LEED but not perform at a level to qualify for Energy Star. For starters, LEED is rewarding building design for a wide variety of things like rain water management, redevelopment of brownfields, and proximity to public transportation. It hasn’t focused on details like tightness of the air duct system. Energy Star is principally focused on energy. I am not surprised to find out that some LEED accredited buildings are not living up to Energy Star standards because that was not the principal emphasis on the part of designers and builders.

 So much of energy consumption falls outside of the building design and falls under building operations.  There is only so much a designer can do to help manage the building operation. You can make the most efficient envelope possible, you can employ the best mechanical heating and air conditioning systems possible, but in the end, if the building operators leave the lights on at night and leave computers on all the time, there is nothing you can do. 

 This is one of the aspects I really admire in the Living Building Challenge. I am referring to the requirement for an educational component to make building owner/operators and occupants knowledgeable about best practices for energy efficiency.  They also invite the public into the building to provide education on how the building and it occupants are reducing our consumption of energy and dependency non-renewable resources.  A building designer can require infrared sensors be installed to automatically turn off lights but it is down to each of us in the end.  We all need to develop better habits that we can implement both in the home and in our work environment to conserve energy and this is where education is the key.

 It is important to remember that a program like LEED is adjusting itself to address these issues.  The entire Green Movement is an organic process and it has to learn and adapt or it dies.  The fact that LEED is now going to require a review of the energy bills over a five year period is a positive thing.  There are tools in the marketplace that can help you measure and compare the changes to your energy consumption as you make changes to your daily practices.  DOE-2 for example is an hourly, whole-building energy analysis program calculating energy performance and life-cycle cost of operation.  It is a great tool to measure you own energy efficiency.  No matter which method you choose to evaluate energy consumption, the important thing is to get started.

Smaller and Smarter for First-Time Home Buyers in Omaha, NE

I went to Omaha recently to meet with Scott Kinkaid, Vice President of Innovation, HearthStone Homes who is blazing a trail in home building and leaving some of the bigger, national builders in the dust.

Instead of following the pack and going from building starter homes to luxury homes, they decided to build smaller, energy efficient homes geared to first- time home buyers.  They chose to go in this direction right before the cash crunch, which really paid off considering the introduction of the tax credit for first-time-home buyers.  But they also wanted to insure home sales would continue at their brisk pace when the rebate ends later this year.

As part of his energy efficient home plan, Scott wants to guarantee the home buyer that the energy costs of these homes would not exceed $20/month.  He determined this would be a three-pronged approach:  Look at the building envelope for efficiency, evaluate the technology and educate the home buyer.  On the first issue, he talked to his insulation contractor who wasn’t certain what it would take to achieve these low monthly energy bills. The contractor, who purchased construction materials from several manufacturers, made a request to all of them to discuss this issue.  Only CertainTeed accepted.

I love a challenge, so I went out to Omaha to meet with Scott (By the way, if you go to Omaha during the College World Series, book your hotel room early!).  Within 24 hours, we had performed some computer simulations and while we didn’t hit the $20 target, we were able to suggest changes to their building models that would provide a builder-guaranteed “good” efficiency rate of $32/month, a “better” efficiency of $29/month, and a “best efficiency” rate of $22/month for heating/cooling.  My suggestions included increasing the insulation package, upgrading mechanical systems, adding cool roofing products, and tightening up the duct work.  Having these simulations and suggestions enabled him to look at what it would cost to make the adjustments and make a sound business decision to make it happen.

They were thrilled.  Now HearthStone will improve the energy efficiency for these homes by adjusting issues in the building envelope, increase Energy Star ratings through added technology in the home and will be able to pass savings onto new home buyers, providing the home buyers will learn to use the home efficiently to get the maximum utility savings.  Bottom line, this was a win-win for all parties.

HearthStone wanted to stand out in the marketplace and has done so quite nicely.  They are building about 800 ultra-energy efficient homes a year and is outpacing the big, national guys who usually lead the pack in middle America.

Lucas Hamilton is the Manager of Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation