To LEED or not to LEED?

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Experts offer advice for deciding how far down the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification path to go.

When pastors hear the term “green construction,” they might equate it with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

The LEED Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. It’s a point-based system that’s becoming the national standard for sustainable design and quality control. LEED certification is available in three levels: silver, gold and platinum.

While other green building certifications exist, LEED — issued by U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) — is the leader. According to Kimberly Lewis, senior vice president of alliances, conferences events for USGBC, 53 U.S. churches are LEED-certified; another 200 are registered.

Lewis says pastors at LEED-certified churches aren’t focusing on environmental stewardship alone. “They’re also keeping in mind congregational health and, perhaps most important, cross-generational engagement,” she explains. “LEED certification demonstrates a commitment to truly living out the principles of green — something younger generations strongly identify with.

Immanuel Bible Church Interior Image of Atrium Windows“Many times, these churches are also committed to the cost/value of stewardship,” Lewis continues. “Different levels of certification allow churches to look at the rating system and zero in on the areas they’re most passionate about — water reuse or air quality, for example — and align their LEED-level targets with those goals.”

To keep project costs commensurate with traditional construction, Lewis urges early implementation. “The perceived ‘higher-cost’ issues associated with LEED are, at this point, really a result of not planning it early enough in the design process.”

This is true even in design-build projects, Lewis adds. “Sustainability consultants are starting to get involved very early on. So, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than traditional construction.”

Full LEED ahead!
John Banting, sustainable construction manager at Hedrick Brothers Construction in West Palm Beach, FL, remembers when “green” was a trendy term no one truly understood.

“Many project owners got burned this way, so green got an undeserved ‘bad rap’ as a result,” he recalls. “But, building green is really about building intelligently — to save energy, water and more. And, the cost differences don’t have to be astronomical if you plan it early in the building process.”

Whereas the cost to pursue LEED certification was 10 percent to 15 percent higher than traditional construction in the early days of LEED, Banting says it’s “fractions of fractions” today. “It all depends on what level of LEED certification a church wants to pursue,” he says.

One architect who agrees with Banting is Timothy Black, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD + C, who designed LEED-certified (silver) First UMC in Orlando, FL. Black contends that the higher initial cost to achieve silver-, gold- or platinum-level LEED certification can be made up quickly, in short payback periods, due to the efficient systems it enables. Over a LEED building’s life, he estimates it saves between 30 percent and 50 percent in operating costs versus traditional buildings.

Breaking the equation down even more, Black references the Building Owners and Managers Association, which estimates the annual operating cost for a commercial building at a nominal $6.50 per square foot. Utilities (electricity, natural gas, and water), repairs and maintenance account for 58 percent of that figure.

“With strategic planning and design, it’s possible to reduce life cycle costs associated with that 58 percent,” Black says. “For each design choice, a lifecycle cost analysis is used to tabulate the present value of all expected costs. Escalation in energy cost can also be accounted for. Competing choices are then easily compared and ranked.”

Further, Black points out that special loan programs are available for LEED-certified projects, and some government authorities offer tax incentives, grants, and fast-track permitting. “So, sustainable buildings — especially LEED-certified ones — are becoming a marketable trademark of forward-thinking organizations.”

Banting agrees: “To truly differentiate your church, a LEED-certified building is the optimal way of raising the bar. A LEED-certified building verifies that the church did what it said it would do in terms of truly green construction.”

USGBC’s Lewis echoes Banting’s sentiment, and points out that procurement and supply chain risks are eliminated for green-minded churches when they pursue LEED certification. Doing so ensures all building components — from paint to HVAC systems — adhere to a church’s commitment to being the best possible environmental steward.

Less than LEED
LEED certification is certainly an option for church facilities — one that has gained popularity in worship environments in recent years. However, architectural experts agree that lesser degrees of green design can be incorporated, yet still speak to the spirit of environmental stewardship.

CDH Partners’ Timothy Black knows well how design choices can drive sustainable outcomes. He cites building orientation as an example of built-in energy efficiency. “Placement of building fenestration can help to avoid west-facing glass and favor north-facing glass,” he explains. “With less solar heat load to contend with, HVAC construction cost is lowered. And, improved indoor visual and thermal comfort is a welcome side effect.”

Jim Sherrer, AIA, president at Design Development Architects in Raleigh, NC, agrees with Black. “For instance, a ‘compass’-style building uses more glass on the south side than on the north side, making it particularly energy-efficient.”

When deciding how far down the LEED path to go, architectural experts agree many building codes are already green these days. Although all states have their own building codes, Sherrer says most use International Code Council (ICC) as a baseline. “ICC has an energy code that’s going into effect that includes specifications for extra insulation, as well as for energy-efficient lighting and ventilation,” he explains. “This energy code is probably 50 percent green.”

Jerry L. Halcomb, FAIA NCARB, consultant and architect at Dallas-based Studio H Consultants, PLLC, cites a few additional examples:
the efficiency of the building envelope, daylight harvesting and rain-water recovery.

According to Hedrick Brothers’ Banting, some of these “baked-in” green code requirements include mechanical systems and building performance. “In other words, a building needs to perform above a certain baseline in terms of energy efficiency.”DesignDevelopmentArchitects

Yet, in pursuit of environmental and financial stewardship, many pastors opt to implement above-and-beyond-code green (but short-of-LEED) elements into their new facilities. In Sherrer’s experience, these often take the form of day lighting — especially in lobbies and children’s areas — as well as LED lighting. While he acknowledges LED systems are more expensive upfront, “they pay for themselves, over time, in energy savings.”

As with the pursuit of full LEED certification, Banting emphasizes the fact that environmentally friendly design elements — even if they’re not LEED-focused — are implemented most successfully early on. “For example, [choosing] a light-colored, highly reflective roof and more energy-efficient insulation, or ‘low-E’ glazing/glass, means you can install smaller-scale mechanical >>
equipment,” he says. “That keeps upfront construction costs in the same range as what a church was planning to spend anyway.”

For his part, Design Development Architects’ Jim Sherrer points out that a LEED building must be commissioned. “In other words, it has to be verified that the building does what the church said it would do,” he says.

According to Sherrer, LEED commissioning costs about $.75 per square foot. “But, it isn’t going to give you any more square footage,” he points out. “So, it’s an ROI issue for many churches.”

True to form, Sherrer’s firm has completed 145 church projects in 26 years, none of them LEED-certified. “We’ve gone down the LEED checklist [with some clients], but none have pursued it fully,” he says. “The commissioning element has made it too expensive.”

Halcomb has his own estimate for LEED commissioning based on total project cost. “I’m sure it varies from project to project, and would be hard to judge without having two identical projects to compare,” he says. “But, I’d say the cost to [LEED] commission ranges between 1 percent to 5 percent of the total budget.”

Unlike Sherrer, Halcomb’s team has designed a LEED-certified church. Even so, he contends that most pastors he’s worked with over the years don’t automatically equate “green construction” with LEED certification.

“But, I do think they assume that ‘green’ products or methods were used in that project, such as recycled materials,” Halcomb says.

(Photos courtesy of SAGE Electrochromics, Inc./Copyright Jeffrey Sauers Photography)

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