What does green building mean for Minnesota?

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In the ever-evolving lexicon of the public good, one of the popular new acronyms is LEED. Increasingly, new restaurants in Minneapolis, schools from Rochester to Zimmerman, and corporate headquarters in St. Paul are being described as “LEED buildings.” Which raises the questions: what exactly is LEED, and what does it mean for moving Minnesota forward?

What is LEED?

LEED – the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System – was introduced by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1998. It is the first widely-used third-party verification program to assess building construction, renovation, and maintenance in terms of energy conservation and environmental sustainability in the United States.

Many different types of building can qualify for LEED Certification. The USGBC has developed and continues to revise different sets of standards for various types of facilities, including residences, schools, and commercial spaces. Structures receive points based on how they perform in five categories: sustainable site development, water savings; energy efficiency; materials selection; and indoor environmental quality. Based on the number of points earned in those categories, a structure can be classified as LEED Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

LEED standards are developed through a consensus process including representatives of member organizations. USGBC has over 15,000 members nationwide, including the Departments of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Minnesota, local governments, private companies from architectural and construction as well as energy and utility sectors, and nonprofit organizations.

It should be noted that while LEED is the most common third-party rating system, it is not the only one. The Green Globes system, introduced by the Green Building Initiative in 2005, has a different process and weighs different factors slightly differently, but the ratings of buildings when using both different systems tends to be very similar.

Economic Advantages, Or Why Building Green Isn’t Just for Hippies Anymore

While the ranking system is flexible enough that project statistics can vary widely, one common characteristic of LEED certified buildings is a dramatic drop in energy and water consumption compared to traditional buildings. A Minneapolis restaurant uses half the gas and electricity of most restaurant its size; one Minnesota school said it saves $50,000 a year in energy costs. Great River Energy’s new headquarters is anticipated to cut water consumption to only 10% of that used by comparably-sized buildings.

The major complication with the spread of such development is the rise in construction costs. Last month, the Rochester School Board debated whether to approve geothermal heating and cooling for a new school, with an initial cost of $971,000. However, while these individual expenses are daunting, the overall cost of projects as a whole is not that much different than standard construction projects. Surveys of actual LEED projects indicate that, on average, total construction costs increase between 0.5% and 2%. If standards are incorporated early enough in the planning process, and recycled materials are used in construction, building green can actually save money. By salvaging existing local materials, the restaurant mentioned above cut its start-up cost to half those typical to a restaurant its size.

The relative cost of investing in energy-saving technology diminishes as the price of oil and natural gas skyrocket, and the payoff can come much sooner. In California, a hotel developer said that he can recapture the total investment within a decade. “Then, for the next 30 years, you’re home free.”

Sustainable Building is on the Rise in Minnesota

While the program was introduced a decade ago, the number of projects seeking LEED certification, and higher levels of certification, is on the rise. Last month alone, the Rochester School Board debated and approved certain aspects of the plan for a new school which will have the highest LEED certification in the state and Great River Energy officials announced they will seek Platinum certification for the new headquarters – only three dozen buildings worldwide have attained it so far. The DECC, which received funding in last months’ bonding bill, will be the first LEED-certified arena in the world.

On the national level, USGBC reports that its membership has grown ten-fold in the last decade. In Minnesota, the numbers are even starker: membership is up almost 15-fold in the last five years alone. 160 of the 263 Minnesota members have joined since 2007. As the number of LEED-certified architects and construction agencies increases every year, it further drives down the cost of meeting the requirements for certification.

In addition to the public sector and large corporations, investment managers are also starting to pay attention to the importance of “greening” their portfolios, citing more comprehensive equations of value. Sustainable practices increase the longevity of buildings, provide a public relations boost, and increase desirability in the long-term, in addition to lowering bills.

Moving Minnesota Forward

The advantages to building green are not based solely on environmental ethics, but also economic investment and improved public health. In coming years, the advantages to investing in green building will continue to grow.

In the last two years, there has been some important legislation here in Minnesota to improve conservation standards for buildings. The “Next Generation Energy Act of 2007” set a state goal of certifying 100 commercial buildings using Green Globes or LEED standards by December 31, 2010. Minneapolis passed a resolution in 2006 requiring all city-financed municipal projects achieve LEED certification, with LEED Silver requirements for major projects over 5,000 square feet.

But we should not be content to just meet these minimal goals. Third-party verifiers such as LEED and Green Globes provide valuable benchmarks on how we can invest in our community while meeting the challenges posed by aging buildings and a growing population. The lesson repeated by construction experts and investors is that the earlier conservation standards are incorporated into the design process, the lower the added cost and the greater the benefit. In order to keep Minnesota moving forward, we should start to factor in the benefits of sustainable buildings, so we can lead.