Buildings, Benchmarks and Beyond

April 1, 2004
Penny Bonda, FASID

Though well-known for its white winters, Minnesota is actually quite green—and it's proving the point with progressive legislation requiring that sustainable building guidelines be applied to all state-funded projects.

Minnesota is a fascinating place. The Land of 10,000 Lakes and the Mall of America is, for many months of the year, inhospitably frozen. However, Minneapolis' famed skyway system connecting 52 blocks (nearly five miles) of downtown makes it possible to live, eat, work and shop without going outside. It is home to some of the world's largest and most prestigious corporations—3M, General Mills, Cargill Dow and Target, to name a few while Scotch tape, Wheaties, Bisquick, HMOs, the bundt pan, Aveda beauty products and the Jolly Green Giant all hail from Minnesota. Its university ranks third among the nation's public research institutions. Surprisingly, Minneapolis has more golfers per capita than any other city in the country and, despite its white winter landscape, Minnesota is very green. The state has a long history of sustainable achievements, beginning back in the early '70s when the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture designed and constructed Ouroboros House in Rosemount, a self-sufficient home with passive solar systems, integrated composting waste systems and a green roof. Activity continued into the '80s with the establishment of the Regional Daylighting Center as a resource to the design and construction community, and the Minnesota Building Research Center (MNBRC), established at the University of Minnesota to coordinate building research. Xcel Energy's Energy Design Assistance program was initiated through MNBRC, which to date has addressed over 200 projects and reduced air pollution by over 200,000 tons per year while saving building owners more than $20 million annually.Listening only to industry buzz, one would think that the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program is the single green building rating system in use today, but to do so is to ignore important work that has been going on throughout the 1990s and continuing through today, somewhat behind the scenes, in Minnesota. In 1995, the state's Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA) published its Guide to Resource Efficient Design and Construction, a precursor to the development by regional environmental leaders of the Hennepin County Sustainable Design Guidelines. Renamed the Minnesota Sustainable Design Guide, it served as a regional set of guidelines for public buildings and was adopted by several public agencies.Then, in 2001 the State of Minnesota passed legislation requiring sustainable building guidelines to be applied to all state-funded projects. The project became known as B3 or Buildings, Benchmarks and Beyond. The statute, in effect since January 1, 2004, mandates that all building projects that receive funding from bond proceeds must adhere to the guidelines. According to Kath Ouska, an assistant commissioner with the Department of Administration, Senators Steve Kelley and Jim Metzen, authors of the bill, were working on energy-related legislation to not only save energy costs, but to better understand how buildings and their occupants use energy." Some of the questions being asked," said Ouska, "addressed whether a cultural change needed to be made or was it actually the equipment that's at issue. We always used to say when requesting money for buildings that if one is the cost to build the building and 10 is the cost to operate it over its lifetime, then 100 is the cost of the employees within the building. We needed to make productivity—along with the design of the building—a top priority and make operating costs energy efficient over the years." Getting from the passage of the bill to its implementation required the work of many consultants and contributors from both the state or owner side and the private sector. Leading the efforts were three men who took on the role of project managers: John Carmody, director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research at the University of Minnesota; Rick Carter, AIA, vice president at LHB Architects & Engineers in Minneapolis; and David Eijadi, AIA, a principal at The Weidt Group. All have been heavily involved in green building initiatives throughout Minnesota's long history of successful sustainable design. Interiors & Sources recently sat down for a talk with them about B3 and their roles in its development.How did the three of you come to be involved with B3?CARTER: There was an RFP from the state to create the consultant team for B3. They were looking for at least one team to do project management and to work on the guidelines and possibly a second to do the benchmarking. David and John were already talking about collaborating on the guidelines and the benchmarking and I became the project manager.EIJADI: We decided that all of our talents and those of our firms were really needed. John had already worked on the earlier guidelines, is the author of many books, and has been involved in this business for close to 30 years. We knew that he'd be a great person for writing the guidelines. Rick is extremely good with public agencies, which, as anybody who works with them knows, takes a particular skill to navigate the waters. He does excellent work. My specific interest, as part of The Weidt Group, had to do with the benchmarking and with the energy portion of the guidelines because energy design assistance is a very large part of our business. So, we created a proposal, responded to the RFP and were selected.How would you define B3?EIJADI: The legislation from which B3 evolved had two parts. One was to develop benchmarking for existing buildings so that the state could ultimately invest its money in those buildings that would benefit most from energy and environmental improvement. The other part set guidelines for new buildings with the idea that those guidelines would eventually feed data into the benchmarking so that we would have a long-term closing of the loop in terms of whether certain strategies were beneficial or not.The thing about benchmarking is that it is really a screening process. We have roughly a population of let's say 8,000 to 10,000 public buildings; if we spend money fixing up those buildings without having sorted out the ones that really need it, we would probably spend two to three times more than necessary to get the same level of beneficial economic and environmental impacts. The benchmarking part of B3 is going to save the state a lot of money in the long run. What was the initial spark that prompted the state to set mandates?EIJADI: I think looking for a spark or a smoking gun is probably not the right analogy. Minnesota is a state with a quarter of a century of environmental initiatives having to do with energy, clean water, waste management and the like. I think this is literally an outgrowth of a community consciousness. We have probably two dozen major architectural firms in the metro area who have participated on one level or another in either the earlier guideline effort or with our firm through Energy Design Assistance. If you're looking for a heroic figure with a banner, there isn't one. This really is a community effort.CARMODY: It's interesting to note that because a lot of good things have happened here over a long period of time, LEED didn't penetrate here quite as quickly as it did in other places. Of course, in the last couple of years we've started a local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, and LEED is a wonderful way to get people engaged who want to build better buildings. We're just trying to do things that are complementary. How would you compare LEED with the Minnesota Sustainable Building Guidelines?CARMODY: I'll give you my interpretation. LEED has great market visibility. Clients want to deal with it because it's symbolic of doing something, and it's an off-the-shelf standard that effectively uses a point system to reach specific criteria. And it's obviously a huge success. What the state asked us to do was a little different. We've all had experience with LEED and we recognize its great strengths, but there are shortcomings. There are issues about regional priorities, for example, certain things that really matter in Minnesota that don't necessarily surface in LEED. You can get a high rating in LEED without necessarily achieving an extremely high energy performance. Here, the state wants to mandate a certain level of energy performance. It's also about people's perceived priorities. LEED is flexible in that it offers a menu of points to be earned to reach a certain certification level. The Minnesota Sustainable Building Guidelines simply mandate most of the sustainable practices and encourage the rest. This simplifies the process in some ways. We try to work with different goals and overlay them in a way that, in effect, creates a set of standards and a process that the state agencies can follow. They can also go after a LEED silver or gold or platinum rating if they want to. From the beginning, the state has said it wants accountability. We don't just want to say, "We've got a LEED silver building." We want to be able to say that it cost this, that it saved us this much on a life cycle basis and that it had this kind of impact on the people in the building and on their productivity. If we look at how broadly the legislation was written, it's essentially asking for a comprehensive life cycle assessment of a building and a method to track that over time.What process did you use to develop the guidelines?CARTER: Because of the state's emphasis on connecting real costs and real cost benefits to the guidelines, we brought in a consultant, Art Pearce, who's done a lot of financial modeling for the state. If the state was going to go out and determine whether or not to build or lease a building or build it here versus build it there, Art will run financial models on which to make decisions. So we saw that whatever we came out with at the back-end of this process was going to have to fit into that kind of exercise. Our Holy Grail is, if you do all this, what does it really mean? Art went through an amazing process of assessing the cost impacts on a building, in terms of the net present value, based on the outcome to the project itself. For example, if I'm going to spend this amount more on energy efficiency, it's going to save me this amount and, therefore, that's the cost impact on the project. He studied the potential cost impact of the people in the building—if we're going to build a $90 million building and if you can reduce absenteeism by five percent or increase productivity by one percent, what does that mean to us in dollars? He also looked at the cost benefit to what we refer to as the community which, in this case, is the state. Even though avoiding the need for additional infrastructure might not have an economic benefit to a particular project, it has an economic benefit to the state and, after all, that's our client. He ran these models in a hypothetical way and boiled down a number of things that he referred to as environmental outcomes, things that couldn't necessarily be tracked, at least today, in direct dollars to the project, but became kind of a litmus test for us in terms of deciding whether something should be required by the guidelines or not.What are some of the other unique aspects of the guidelines?CARTER: LEED focuses on the process beginning at about schematic design and we know that there's a lot of work that happens in pre-design, in terms of setting the course for a building. We learned that in Minnesota pre-design is so well developed that it's required on most major projects. Many projects are funded and a lot of decisions have been made before you even start pre-design, in what they call agency planning. What we're after, as much as anything, is to be able to provide some kind of tools for making the big decisions during this phase—the building is going to be located there, it's going to be about that big, and there are going to be these kinds of uses. We're really trying to move upstream in the decision-making process.EIJADI: By entering into this dialogue with the state we've given them some tools to consider sustainable design way back before they even talk to their first consultant. I think one of the most innovative aspects of the guidelines is how it deals with that issue. We're trying to help create a system here that makes it easier for everyone to make comparative judgments about real outcomes.It sounds as though you are trying to integrate all of the different parts of the planning, design, construction and operation of the building within your guidelines. Is that a fair assessment?EIJADI: What we're trying to do here is take a step in the direction of full accounting by beginning to require that people report certain metrics about their buildings so that we can eventually turn those into environmental and economic measures. We are talking about having folks acquire data on things like the environmental impact of a land choice, one choice versus another. Let's say you have a rural site on which you can build a one-story building, so you accumulate all the site and the environmental impacts for that one-story building at a conceptual design level. Your alternative is an urban site with a three-story building. When you know where your employees come from, you can calculate transportation, water and pollution differences. You can put all of those through an economic set of measures and make an integrated decision. Right now, LEED is trying to get to an integrated design team process. We're talking about going beyond that to get to an integrated level of comparative analysis that cuts across disciplines and looks at economical, environmental and human impacts together. We're only taking a first step, so we will wind up with some things in our guidelines that are still prescriptive.CARTER: There's another piece within the guidelines that we haven't talked about called Planning for Conservation. Historically, we've tried to build as much as we possibly can with whatever budget we have, but if we just simply tried to figure out a way to build less, that would be the single best thing we could do. The problem is that the system discourages it. There's no incentive for an architect or a general contractor to go to the owner and say, "Do you need to build the building at all? Maybe you only need a building half as big." We've actually built a process into the guidelines for evaluating this question so that people will stop and think about it. And, to me, that's probably the single most important thing. Specifically, what goals are the guidelines designed to achieve?CARMODY: I would say it's probably 80 percent the same as LEED. In fact, we've tried to make it so people don't have to go through two separate exercises. If you're looking for differences, it would be in our performance management section where we've grouped things like commissioning and construction and energy management, which cut across the whole process. We've tried to streamline documentation as much as possible because that's where you get the most resistance. We're working to customize it even more with the different key state agencies so that they see this as their process, not as something being imposed from the outside. Two-thirds of our guidelines are required so there's little debating about whether to go after something or not. Many of the site and water guidelines are similar to LEED credits, but they defer back to Minnesota standards with relation to storm water and other such issues. The energy part, once you pull out all the management, gets nice and simple. But the key thing in the legislation is that all buildings must be at least 30 percent below code, so that would, essentially, take what's an option in LEED and turn it into a big prerequisite. EIJADI: Another difference is our guideline on atmospheric protection. Rather than adopting the ozone depletion credit as it is with LEED, we have a different standard for refrigerants, which is based on three atmospheric indicators as opposed to just ozone depletion. CARMODY: The indoor environmental quality section is in two parts. The first several guidelines are about indoor air quality. We had a number of experts look at this and our standards are stronger than in ASHRAE. We require that ventilation be calculated based on the real emissions of some of the VOCs that are likely to be in the space, as well as maintaining a limit on CO2. The last half of the indoor environmental quality guidelines makes linkages to productivity, which was an area of great concern to Wes Chapman, the original project manager for the state. There was actually quite a bit of mention of this in the legislation, and Wes felt it was important that we push to emphasize these issues. We deal with things not found in LEED. Many of them are recommended rather than required, but I think it shows that there's real concern about the employees, their health, their safety, and there's some kind of recognition, even though people have a hard time coming up with absolute proof, that there is a huge payoff. We also get into the question of where does sustainability end and just good interior designing begin? Is ergonomics a sustainability issue or is that just an interior design issue?In the materials section, we're interested in using tools that have or are being developed so that material decisions are made in the context of a life cycle assessment benchmark. We're not quite there yet because we don't have the necessary data for all the materials. In the meantime, as placeholders, we have some prescriptive criteria that eventually will change into life cycle assessment criteria. Where are you in the benchmarking portion of B3?EIJADI: The word benchmarking is a little bit of a misnomer. This is really a data collection on existing buildings to assess how well individual buildings are performing compared to a norm. There are a number of tools out there and in phase one, we looked at what they were, what kind of data they collected, what kind of queries they allowed and what type of data they manipulated.We piloted some data gathering techniques and we're just now beginning to start the real gathering of data on buildings, which will happen in a two-tier process. One of the biggest mistakes people make in data gathering is to try and get at everything all at once. Tier one data is a very thin level of fact that we want to gather about the buildings that will allow us to filter down maybe 30 percent of the buildings to tier two. Then we then go and gather a lot more specific information and from that may come 10 or 20 percent of the buildings that are the right candidates for investment. We refer to this, by the way, as our good list of bad buildings. We're going to repeat this process, cyclically, over the next two and a half years. We're targeting about 200 buildings this year. CARMODY: There's also tier three, which is a more detailed data collection that links back to the guidelines. Hopefully, by the time we get to the end we'll have had at least a few B3 buildings that have been built, and with their energy, air quality data and performance data we can determine which guidelines were really useful and which didn't make a difference.Will B3 be adopted by the private sector in Minnesota?CARMODY: I would say anybody can pick this up and use it. The reality is that a lot of buildings that aren't required to use it will because they'll want a consistent standard in Minnesota. We are doing some work with private corporations and they're not necessarily interested in adopting anything wholesale, but in taking the elements from different things that make sense to them.CARTER: We were invited just two or three months ago, by the Twin Cities IFMA chapter, to present B3. So, there's certainly a strong interest.CARMODY: One of the other crossovers is likely to be that the state will continue to lease some buildings. Even though the financing for the buildings may not come out of bond money, the state doesn't really like to have more than one set of standards, so we would expect B3 may make its way into the private sector because they will be providing some of those buildings that the state will be leasing.Any final thoughts?CARMODY: Essentially, Minnesota is trying in its own way to transform the building industry to be more sustainable. The green building movement is still at an early point in the learning curve in many respects, and diverse approaches from different regions can contribute to innovative solutions. We see the ability to measure real sustainability outcomes and track our progress over time as the key to continuous learning and improvement.EIJADI: Advances in culture—and architecture is an instrument of culture—begin with an idea or an ideal we come to believe in and then work toward it. Sustainable design represents a particularly difficult shift in culture because it has pitched such a large banner; it covers ideals which sometimes conflict when they intersect. Where there is conflict, there is often confusion, doubt and sometimes cynicism. We want to help remove the apparent conflicts in and bolster the value of sustainable design by moving in the direction of measurable outcomes and rewards at a project level, a community level, a state level and for the greater environment. We believe that better tools and more facts will lead to better and more sustainable decisions. Or, to quote Aristotle, "With regard to excellence, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it."

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