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A higher standard

In the seven years since the Board of Trustees adopted the current LEED standard to target a level silver certification on all new construction and renovation projects, the University has registered 27 projects with U.S. Green Building Council for certification. Despite the seemingly large number of registered projects, Duke is not yet getting the full benefit of its LEED commitment.

While “generally” resulting in better buildings from a maintenance and utilities perspective, John Noonan, associate vice president for facilities, informed me in an e-mail that “as we audited past LEED projects, we found a lot of emphasis placed on scoring points, and perhaps less so on focusing the points in areas that impact energy.” Specifically, according to a 2009 study of 20 LEED registered projects on campus, conducted by Nicholas School Masters student Amy Dao, Duke was only awarded an average 28 percent of the total number of energy points, while getting over 50 percent of the available LEED points in all other categories.

While the energy points are generally considered the hardest to get, since the focus of the University’s current sustainability efforts are in reducing the carbon footprint, the energy subcommittee of the University’s Campus Sustainability Committee has been working on a LEED+ policy that specifically addresses this shortfall with respect to the energy consumption of the new and renovated buildings on campus. The policy aims to identify “specific LEED points that must be achieved for every project and other points that we strongly encourage,” Noonan told me in his e-mail.

Without addressing cost, this is an approach that addresses the decentralized Duke model of building construction which typically employs a different set of stakeholders and participants on every project. It does, however, put a bind on the LEED process, which is designed to facilitate whole system thinking and optimization.

Regardless, the new requirements are still in development, and therefore not being applied to current building projects underway on campus, like the K4 dorm. Noonan reassured me that the design team on K4 has “worked to optimize energy efficiency.” He also pointed out that the energy models predict K4 will use 20 percent less energy than other air-conditioned dorms on campus.

If the new policies would affect an even better outcome, K4 will have been a missed opportunity.

Policies requiring increased measurement and verification are also somewhere in the future, although the benefits are clearly recognized: “Sub-metering water, lighting, heating and cooling separately will provide us data to compare to the pre-construction design model and evaluate which systems are delivering as predicted,” Noonan wrote.

Another approach is to raise the standard of Duke’s LEED target certification level and expand the use of the other LEED systems which address other aspects of the building Graph 1
Graph 2life cycle including operational optimization and interior renovations.

Two schools are setting a clear standard in their achievement of high level LEED certifications. Harvard has 70 registered projects, 26 of which are certified, with 15 of those Gold certified. The University of Florida has 27 registered projects, 6 gold certified and 10 certified. In 2009 UF also raised its minimum LEED standard to gold, from silver.

Duke could do the same and achieve the same outcome as specific energy or monitoring requirements. While the current University focus is on energy and our carbon footprint, pursuing LEED means working toward energy objectives as well as other sustainability goals including water conservation and indoor environment quality.

Invariably, a proposal to raise the building standard raises the question of cost, and cost is a tricky thing to get a handle on when it comes to green building. I spoke with Joel McKeller, a LEED AP who also writes the blog “Real Life LEED.” McKeller told me the cost of LEED comes from several places including the certification process, added time for design and increased construction costs. He also told me that individual design firms will have a cost premium number they like to share with clients considering a LEED approach, but firms are generally unwilling to share that information publicly.

USGBC and several other studies have cited cost premiums between 0 and 6 percent for the range of certification levels, with platinum certifications generally being the most expensive. On an $80-100 million building, that seems like a reasonable investment, especially considering the long-term payback, which is often harder to appreciate at a program level or without careful consideration, but can be easily justified on a University wide basis.

More important than a higher or specific LEED standard, McKeller insisted, was going through the LEED process and letting the points fall where they may. While recent studies have indicated the need for more investment and inclusion in the LEED design and construction process by all relevant parties, I’m not ready to agree that the process is all we need.

Still clawing my way out from under the pile of information that is LEED and building efficiency options, I’m inclined to think we’re on the right track setting priorities for targeting energy points, but Duke should also consider a higher LEED standard for new projects and existing buildings.

On some level it’s a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is kind of argument: If we want to lead, let’s lead. Since we’re in an economic recession, now is the perfect time to seriously consider the trade-offs, and lay out standards for the future of the Duke campus, even if that means reconsidering the plan and revisiting all the options.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Friday. This is the conclusion of a two-part series on Duke’s LEED commitment.

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