Vol. II: LEEDing the Way to a GreenTech Job?

In my first post of this series I described the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System, and how individuals looking for a clean tech career should consider LEED AP certification to broaden and document their understanding of sustainability issues, and to stand out among otherwise equally-qualified candidates.

LEED provides sustainable design guidelines and a point-based rating system for various compliance levels including Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. With demand soaring for LEED-based solutions, a growing market opportunity clearly exists for individuals who can help design, build, commission and operate resource-efficient facilities and communities. Only you can determine if LEED AP certification is in your best interest or relevant for a clean tech career. But I can attest to thinking more broadly about RE, EE, environmental and worker productivity issues having started this journey.

For example, as a commercial property owner I’m now much more aware of the responsibility I have to manage stormwater runoff from my roof as it can add significant and unnecessary cost to the municipal water treatment process; and now I’m thinking of ways to capture and reuse stormwater to minimize potable water use in the building. If you think about it, do you really need drinking-quality water to flush toilets or irrigate landscape?

Points can be earned for each element, with 21-26 total points needed for ‘LEED Certified’ status, and 42-57 points for a Platinum rating. Of the LEED facility categories, I have chosen to take the Commercial Interiors certification exam, which addresses the following elements:

  • Sustainable Sites 
  • Energy & Atmosphere
  • Water Efficiency
  • Materials & Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Innovation in Design 

Today, let me focus on the first of these elements – Sustainable Sites.

Location is everything

In retail as in real estate, location is everything – and it’s no different when trying to achieve LEED certification. Up to 7 total points can be earned for Sustainable Site elements (plus 1-3 bonus points for “other quantifiable environmental performance characteristics”, which must come from having a really clever architect and creative project manager prepare the extensive submission paperwork).

The highest possible individual point score awarded is, ironically, for simply locating your project in an existing LEED-certified building (3 points). With only about 1,800 buildings currently LEED-certified, and another 7,400 estimated to be registered for certification in 2008, it’s unlikely a company will find an existing LEED-certified building with sufficient space available to meet its needs.

If a LEED-certified building is not available, a project can earn up to 3 points through a combination of the following:

  1. redeveloping a Brownfield site,
  2. reducing stormwater runoff by 50% or more (roof gardens and ‘pervious’ parking lots are common methods used, asphalt parking lots are the worst with nearly 100% stormwater runoff and a huge heat island effect as well),
  3. filtering stormwater runoff (via bioswales or constructed wetlands),
  4. reducing the heat island effect (heat radiated from your roof, building or parking lot)
  5. reducing light pollution (uplighting is a real no-no; therefore, the Luxor hotel casino in Las Vegas must be the worst example of uplighting ever as it can even be seen from space),
  6. reducing or eliminating potable water used for irrigation (note – you may find yourself calculating your ‘landscape coefficient’ and thinking about ‘evapotranspiration’ as a result),
  7. reducing potable water use by at least 20% (two common approaches are dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals — not as gross as they sound),
  8. generating at least 5% of the building’s total energy use through on-site renewable energy systems (sadly, you get ½ point for generating 5%, and 1 point for generating 10% or more of your energy needs; if you generate 100% of your energy needs you still only get 1 point)

One point can also be earned for high ‘development density’ by selecting a location within ½ mile of at least 10 basic services (bank, church, convenience store, etc.). Another three points can be earned by being close to public transportation, providing bicycle storage and changing rooms, and by aggressively discouraging single-occupancy vehicle use (e.g., providing no more than the bare minimum number of parking spaces per local zoning ordinances).

A great (not perfect) process

Many folks find fault with the current LEED rating system, primarily because they feel that LEED does not weigh RE/EE heavily enough. While I agree that energy issues can and should play a more prominent role in the rating system, I think most criticism of LEED misses the point. LEED was not designed to achieve energy independence – it was designed to guide the development and retrofit of high-performing buildings, with energy just one element of the overall sustainability equation. Furthermore, the LEED process continues to evolve rapidly. It was just overhauled for 2009 and is likely to continue to change to meet our collective understanding of, and need for, high-performing and sustainable buildings and communities.

What I appreciate the most about the LEED AP certification process is the holistic, systems-level perspective it provides. Renewable energy generation, waste/trash, water use, environmental impact, indoor air quality, worker productivity…. all of these elements are integrated and balanced in a LEED-certified project. An appreciation for this inter-relationship can make you a more knowledgeable and marketable CleanTechie.

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