Sustainability for Existing Buildings Not Ready for LEED Certification

See how LEED can help you even when you don't go through the certification process (yet)

by Michael Arny and Mary Reames — We frequently hear people say, “Our building can’t meet the requirements for LEED certification.” When we hear this, we rephrase it as “Our building can’t meet all the requirements for LEED certification right now.” From our perspective, all buildings can use LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) as a framework and road map for advancing sustainability, tracking achievements, and making progress toward eventual certification. This changes the focus from if a building can be certified to when it will be ready for certification. Here are some thoughts on approaching certification in an incremental fashion:

  1. Are you sure your building can’t be certified yet? Many LEED consultants like Leonardo Academy offer an assessment service, a gap analysis that studies the feasibility and affordability of achieving certification with the ultimate goal of determining the building’s readiness to undertake the certification process. Often, building owners who assume their building won’t meet the requirements to be certified under LEED-EB without significant upgrades or renovation are pleasantly surprised to find that they are mistaken. If a full assessment isn’t practical, the building staff can use the LEED-EB rating system as a checklist to find out what can be accomplished now and what would take some effort. While there are a number of prerequisites a building must meet, LEED-EB is sufficiently flexible to allow for focusing on the strengths of a building, such as its location or the ability to institute sustainable purchasing and waste reduction program, even when the building might not be as efficient in other areas, such as energy or water efficiency. So building owners shouldn’t be so quick to discount the potential for certification.
  2. Use LEED-EB as a guide to making upgrades. If, after an assessment, a building owner decides that LEED certification is out of reach right now, the owner should keep the LEED-EB criteria in mind when undertaking any necessary upgrades and improvements to the building. For instance, if the plumbing fixtures need upgrading, using EPA WaterSense certified fixtures or other water-efficient fixtures can increase the likelihood of earning certification down the road. This is especially true for any updates to the HVAC system or any changes that could improve energy efficiency. To earn certification at any level under LEED-EB, a building must meet certain minimum requirements in outdoor air delivery and in energy efficiency; if a building cannot meet these requirements at present, any necessary system updates can become opportunities to bring the building in line with the LEED prerequisites.
  3. Let LEED-EB be your to-do list. Certification may not be achievable now, but what about five years from now? Many items that could be costly to take care of can be factored into the capital plan; the building owner can chip away at the requirements over a period of time and apply for certification when those capital items have been completed. For instance, a building owner might know that the building has three main impediments to certification: energy use is too high to meet the required ENERGY STAR score, the cooling system uses CFCs, and the HVAC system does not bring in sufficient outside air. If the building owner wants to pursue certification, all three of those items must be dealt with. But if the owner is willing to postpone—rather than give up on—certification, these problems can be remedied over the course of several years. In Year 1, the chiller could be converted to use HFCs; in Years 2 and 3, energy efficiency measures could be undertaken; and in Years 4 and 5, the HVAC system could be upgraded. At the end of Year 5, the building would be ready for certification.
  4. LEED-EB is a guide to best practices. Many of the requirements of LEED-EB make sense from a financial—not just a sustainability—perspective. Adopting those practices will help building owners achieve high-performance building operations. Commissioning, for example, is a way to uncover building performance problems while they are small—and before they hurt the bottom line. Metering water and energy use can tell the building operators where the biggest losses are occurring. Undertaking an annual I-BEAM audit and using MERV-13 air filters can improve the indoor environment and make tenants and employees happier and more productive. Implementing these best practices, even without pursuing certification, just makes sense.
  5. Do what you can. Many LEED-EB requirements can be met by almost any building, because they don’t concern building structure but instead are all about building operation and maintenance practices. For instance, almost any facility can institute a green purchasing policy, under which 60% of all ongoing consumables (e.g. office supplies) and 40% of all durable goods (e.g. electronics and furniture) meet certain sustainability requirements. Additionally, many cleaning services offer green cleaning options, and many pest control companies offer integrated pest management services. Implementing all of these policies—green purchasing, green cleaning, and integrated pest management—would earn points under LEED-EB, but they also are excellent achievements on their own. Likewise, a building that does not yet meet the LEED-EB energy prerequisite and can implement energy efficiency measures to gradually work up the ENERGY STAR point scale.
  6. Track and report. Many LEED-EB credits require ongoing tracking of sustainability performance, such as landscaping, water and energy use, purchasing, waste reduction, green cleaning, and integrated pest management. Once a building has implemented sustainability policies for these activities, tracking should become part of the standard operating procedures. This will not only make the application process easier when that time comes, but it will also form the basis for an annual sustainability report. Sustainability reports are valuable tools for landlords seeking tenants as well as CEOs communicating with boards and stockholders.
  7. Celebrate your success! Building owners and managers should feel proud of their sustainability achievements and should let the public know about them. Placing photos, informational signs, and the building’s current ENERGY STAR score in prominent places—on the wall in the lobby, for example—are great ways to tell visitors about the sustainable features of the building they are in.

    So if your building isn’t ready for LEED-EB certification right now, don’t give up. Remember, the question is when, not if. Let LEED-EB guide your decision making, and you can achieve high performance and improved sustainability in your building operations and, before you know it, you’ll be ready for certification. For more information on how LEED-EB can benefit your building even before certification, contact Leonardo Academy today!

    Leonardo Academy is a nonprofit organization that develops sustainability solutions through consultation and certification services in the LEED Green Building Rating System and the Cleaner & Greener sustainable event program. Leonardo Academy also provides sustainability and continuing education training, including training for the LEED Green Associate credential for individuals who support green buildings in their profession, such as building owners and facility managers.

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