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LEED for less

The importance of achieving class-leading LEED certification

Eugene Siterman
Eugene Siterman
Arkady Siterman
Arkady Siterman

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Developers are seeing the advantages of ‘being green’. LEED has been a ready partner in achieving goals that are both good for the environment and for the bottom line: decreased energy and water use, reduced emissions, and improved indoor environment.

In fact, some jurisdictions – such as the City of Los Angeles in the US — already require Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the US Green Building Council (USGBC) on projects that are 50,000 square feet or larger.

Moreover, ever-increasing energy prices may cause developers to consider conservation and energy-efficiency strategies, regardless if LEED certification is required. Nonetheless, LEED certification has become a desirable attribute for many prospective tenants, and developers have caught on that this is just one more way to make their projects stand out from the rest.

Increasingly, LEED denotes a premium product. Thus, many developers are seeking more-efficient design that still produces profitable projects.

For many builders and investors, the new reality provokes questions of costs and benefits. After all, green is a nice colour — but only when married to black, especially when it hits the bottom line. As a budget item, LEED certification compliance costs can be reduced, especially if value engineers are retained to review strategies.

The original ‘greenies’

Value engineers, especially if brought into the process early, can identify less-expensive ways to obtain LEED points while optimising energy and water consumption. Worth noting is that value engineers were effectively green before it was called green. Value engineers have long been concerned with optimising MEP and streamlining construction methods. Value engineers have always optimised system designs to reduce energy consumption and waste. Thus value engineers have deep skill sets that can help developers reduce costs and resources, resulting in getting more ‘green’ for less ‘green’.

Optimising building systems is the basis of value engineering. The first step in doing that is clearly understanding the building needs, and using the latest codes, rules, standards and regulations to achieve them. Value engineers keep abreast of the latest methodologies and use them to finetune MEP building systems. ‘Right-sized’ equipment and systems reduce waste and result in buildings that are more efficient in cost and resource consumption, leading to additional LEED points.

Point by point

Developing a strategy for obtaining points in the LEED certification process is a necessary step.

Each project may have a different strategy, including whether the goal is for a building that is LEED certified, or achieves Silver, Gold, or Platinum levels. A keen review of the LEED strategy should result in either gaining additional points (that is, a higher level) for the same budget, or meeting the point goal in the least expensive way.

One example of how to get more out of your LEED budget involves the ‘increased ventilation’ point.

To attain this point, breathing-zone outdoor air ventilation rates for all occupied spaces must increase by at least 30% above the minimum rates required by ASHRAE Standard 62.1. Accomplishing higher levels of ventilation, however, also increases energy consumption (cooling, heating and electrical power to fan motors). As well, increased ventilation leads to higher construction costs due to bigger ductwork and larger equipment required, which also reduces usable floor area.

To counter the increased energy used, the LEED documents state, for mechanically-ventilated spaces: “Use heat recovery, where appropriate, to minimise the additional energy.” Energy recovery systems that satisfy ASHRAE Standard 90.1 are a good-sized investment.

The value engineering solution potentially garners multiple points for similar efforts by substituting the ‘increased ventilation’ point with ‘optimised energy performance’ points (up to ten may be gained). An energy recovery system will decrease energy consumption and improve the overall energy model of the building. Depending on the percentage decreased, more than one point may be achieved for reduction of energy consumption. The same — or potentially more — points are achieved with one action.

This does not mean ignoring ventilation rates is okay. Keeping the rates at the minimum comfortable level maintains the LEED intent of “occupant comfort, well-being, and productivity” will be achieved. It is very important to note that this example is specific to a particular project, and not a rule of thumb for cost-saving solutions. Each project must be analysed as a whole. This example illustrates how a value engineer will look at strategies and bring solutions in a different way.

In addition to providing creative solutions, dedicated value engineers are constantly perusing industry innovations in a continuous search for better and less-costly techniques and equipment.

Since technologies and materials are improving constantly, what may have been an expensive point a year ago, might be less costly today.

Conclusion

The earlier that value engineers are brought into the process, the more substantially they can improve the results. According to the latest LEED version, MEP systems account for roughly 60% of LEED points, so bringing MEP value engineers in early is especially apt when pursuing LEED certification. With the right team in place, the ecological strategy will be in line with the project’s economic goals at the same time.

Whether driven by market or government forces, green building standards are here to stay. It is likely that the future will see a larger array of technologies, equipment and strategies for gaining LEED certification. Partnering with value engineers can help developers obtain LEED certification in the most efficient manner possible.

Eugene Siterman, LEED AP, is a principal at New York-based VE Solutions Group, which also has an office in Dubai. VE Solutions Group has a global reputation for optimising the design functionality and constructability of MEP systems. The value engineering firm has consulted on such premier projects as MGM Mirage CityCenter in Las Vegas, The Lucida in New York City and Trump International Hotel & Tower in Dubai.

Need to LEED

The increased emphasis on water and energy conservation in LEED V3 is critical to the UAE region, according to Eugene and Arkady Siterman from VE Solutions Group. “The US is known as the world’s most profligate consumer of energy, but it is sobering to note that the per capita energy consumption in Abu Dhabi is four times higher than the US,” points out Arkady. He adds that the ambitious conservation strategy contained in the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 is “largely based on LEED concepts.”

However, Eugene cautions that energy and water conservation in the UAE will have to be ‘incentivised’ through economics. “Economics is the biggest motivator. We all want a better, greener and healthier environment, but unless the economics is in place in order to motivate people, it will not happen.”

What this means is a “drastic increase” in the price of energy and water in the UAE. “People have to feel the impact of their consumption in their pockets; if it costs you nothing, why would you bother to save?” he questions.

In the construction industry, and the MEP sector in particular, this has resulted in an increasing focus on ‘green’ technology. However, ‘green’ technology is perceived to incur a cost premium, and hence developers have been largely reluctant to adopt such measures.

“It all depends on how you look at it. If you take technology by itself, it is costly. But if you leverage technology to reduce the cost of other components and systems, then it becomes cost-effective,” says Arkady.

Another problem is that those developers who have ignored ‘green’ measures in the past, but who have now woken up to the potential value of LEED certification, are under the impression that such certification is an ‘add-on’ feature to an existing project.

Eugene argues that ‘green’ measures need to be integrated into a project right from the start in order to realise the maximum benefit.

“The problem is that developers who would now like to do sustainable design still tend to take such technology for granted. An inefficient and badly designed project, even with ‘green’ measures applied, will still be inefficient and badly designed at the end of the day. In order to reduce water and energy use significantly, this has to be addressed right from the design stage in order to be effective,” says Arkady.

Eugene adds that in addition to changing the design process, a mindset change needs to occur as well. “There is no motivation for consultants to reduce the new equipment needed so as to optimise the design; equally there is no motivation for them to spend time fine-tuning systems for optimal efficiency. They do not get paid for that. It is not their priority to make it as cost-effective as possible. Hence you can have a design that is perfectly workable, but with a 10% to 15% inefficiency in its overall systems. Taken over the lifecycle of the building, that adds up to a significant amount. Now imagine if you multiply that figure by the total number of projects out there.”

The slowdown in the construction industry has had the beneficial side-effect of developers being more cognizant of overall build quality. “The reduction in cash flow has made people look at their resources more carefully and analyse their balance sheets a bit more. Real return on investment (ROI) is a hot topic right now, from the government to developers and banks.”

While this is a move in the right direction, Arkady laments “a general lack of direction, with everybody pushing their own agenda. The issue is to eliminate inefficiency in design. While it is relatively easy to convince someone to opt for solar, for example, it is a bit of a sensitive issue to tell them their overall design is inefficient.” This is also because of a lack of understanding of what integrated design entails.

“People do not know what it is. They tend to get hung up on whatever trends dominate the market at any given time. The right technology does not have to be solar, for example, which has limited application on high-rise towers. Technology also changes so quickly that designers frequently cannot get to grips with it,” comments Eugene.

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