How Older Buildings Can Go Green by Taking the LEED

Jennifer V. Hughes in Green Ideas


Brand-new green buildings with fancy, environmentally friendly features make headlines all the time. But the vast majority of the city's housing stock is not new. How can they catch up, to make their buildings more appealing and help the the environment at the same time? That's where the program "LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance" can come in.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design, is a ratings system of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Mostly, it focuses on steps developers can take to make new construction greener — buildings earn credits that range from "certified," for the lowest amount of green innovation, to "platinum," the highest, for things like reducing construction pollution and improving indoor environmental quality. But since 2005, there's also been a LEED program to make environmentally friendly improvements at existing buildings.

That existing-building (EB) program is being revamped, says Lauren Riggs, the USGBC's coordinator for market development, since it practically required owners to rebuild. "We needed to make it more feasible for operators of existing buildings," she says. A new reference guide, which provides existing property-owners with information on what they can do to get buildings LEED-certified, should be completed by summer.

Buildings that want to participate can make improvements in six categories: Sustainable Sites; Water Efficiency; Energy and Atmosphere; Materials and Resources; Indoor Environmental Air Quality; and Innovation in Operations (a catchall that can include anything not covered in the regulations).

The first step in the LEED process is to have an "energy-management commissioning" performed, i.e., an overview of the building's mechanics, machinery and heating and cooling elements to see how efficiently they run and how to make them more efficient. LEED bases its approval on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. "We require that they meet a minimum score of 69, which is about 19 or 20 percent more efficient than the average building in the U.S.," Riggs says.

Most of the subjects have items that are required, such as a minimum water-efficiency standard. But under each heading are also optional ways to earn points. For example, buildings can get points for installing solar panels or purchasing solar-power credits. Other ways of gaining credits include having environmentally friendly policies in place. If the building implements a policy stating it will only use green contractors, it can earn a point toward a LEED designation.

New York City buildings have one advantage in that they earn points for being near mass transit: If 75 percent of the residents use subways or buses to commute, the building earns four points toward LEED certification. The USGBC doesn't police buildings to ensure that residents are doing so, says Riggs, or that, say, the superintendent is buying low-mercury lamps. It's more about having a policy in place, she says, and documenting it.

Going Greenbacks

How much does it cost to get a LEED EB designation? That's tricky to project since the factors for each building — size, condition, type of heating and cooling systems, dedication of staff and residents toward greening — vary widely, says Murray Levi, vice president and director of architecture and sustainability for LiRo Architects + Planners. Paying a LEED-certified consultant isn't required, says Riggs, but will help in "going through the documentation process." Condos or co-ops that hire a consultant are awarded one point.


Michael Gubbins is vice president of residential management for the Albanese Organization, an actively pro-green developer whose many new constructions include lower Manhattan's Solaire (see at right), which was LEED-certified when constructed, and the six-year-old Vanguard Chelsea, seeking LEED EB now. He estimates the cost of the process as about six percent of a building's operating expense — but, he adds, because the changes made under LEED make a building more energy-efficient, Gubbins estimates a return on investment in less than a year.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA) also provides some assistance. First, it has a low-interest loan program for energy-efficiency upgrades. Secondly, it will pay half the cost of three elements of EB's energy and water efficiency and indoor air quality. Craig Kneeland, NYSERDA senior project manager, says the incentives cover both consulting fees to examine the building in those three areas as well as actual repairs or upgrades.

About 40 EB projects are pending in New York City; Riggs does not believe any are co-ops and condos. Russell Unger, executive director of the New York chapter of the USGBC, says condos and co-ops add a layer of complexity to the process. "You have to take into account the use of your whole building," Unger says. For example, if it comes to reducing water usage by a certain percentage, most residents would have to pledge to comply.

According to the USGBC, LEED commercial buildings command higher rents. Levi says he believes that would translate in the co-op and condo world into higher real estate value. Gubbins adds that the energy improvements made will always wind up saving money.

But more than that, Levi says, going to a LEED certification is "really about the way we lead our lives. It's this wonderful system that has a whole road map for operations and management. It's all about saying, ‘Is there a better way to do this?'"

Adapted from Habitat June 2008. For the complete article and more, join our Archive >>

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

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