Sustainable Design and the First-cost Debate

May 10, 2006

By Chelsea Houy

Any revolutionary movement involves risk, expense, and ultimately a fundamental change in thinking. In the process, methodologies or techniques that once yielded a desired result, or best practice, are replaced by techniques that produce an even better result.

The sustainable building movement is a revolution that began in the U.S. about 15 years ago and in the last 5 years has begun to change the way buildings are designed. It is not uncommon to hear the phrase “sustainable design” and “best practice” spoken in the same breath.

As with any revolution, change has not come without resistance or objections, and one of the most common is that of cost.

As most movements go - modernism, minimalism -sustainable design is in its infancy. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, commonly referred to as LEED, is a building rating system designed by the U.S. Green Building Council to accelerate the development and implementation of green building practices.

Achieving LEED-certified status (there are four award levels) can involve more research and planning on the part of the designer, compared to the typical first-class design, sometimes resulting in more professional time and expense. But how should those extra first costs be allocated - i.e. who should pay? This is one of the current debates surrounding sustainable design.

“How much of any cost increase should be part of that standard fee that the designer charges [at] no extra increase to the owner, and how much is worthy of a ‘beyond good practice’ fee?” asks David Gottfried, president of WorldBuild, an Oakland, CA-based sustainable development consulting firm. He is also a founder of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Gottfried says architects should absorb some sustainable design costs because they have a responsibility to design healthy and energy- and resource-efficient buildings. They should do the product and systems research and planning required of sustainable design, including conducting team greening charettes and undertaking an integrative design process, at no extra fee to the client, he says. “Why should there be an extra cost when these items should have been included in the first place?” asks Gottfried.

One item open for debate is who pays for the LEED documentation and coordination with USGBC for the third-party review. To date, this work has generally been performed by outside LEED consultants. However, with the introduction of LEED-NC version 2.2 and LEED Online, as well as the other USGBC streamlining measures, the cost and ease of managing the process are much improved.

Gottfried hopes that these improvements will allow more design teams and owners to manage the LEED process at a substantially lower cost. “We are just beginning a revolutionary process, and the past is not an indication of the future,” Gottfried remarks.

Once architects learn sustainable best practices and the nuances of LEED, research, documentation, and coordination time decrease. As sustainable technologies evolve and become more commonplace, costs for those products will decline as well.

Through the research and planning for sustainable design, architects advance themselves, improve their knowledge base, and gain valuable experience that is imperative to their practice. For this reason also, Gottfried says, the additional design costs should not always be added first costs; in fact, by including them in the base fee, an important new green client and project may result. Better homework, better research, and more technical analysis improve the architect’s knowledge and the well-being of building occupants.

Gottfried doesn’t think architects need to absorb all costs associated by green building, however. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some extra costs if you’re doing a LEED gold or platinum building that requires way beyond even good practice - at what point should there be an extra fee?”

Building design is beginning a revolutionary trend. Who pays for what will be decided as knowledge and products evolve. A certainty, however, is that buildings will continue to become more efficient, healthier structures - good for the planet and the people who live on it - and also provide a higher return on investment.

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