Special Report: Common Assumptions, New Solutions

April 1, 2006
By Brigitte Preston and Deborah Fuller, LEED AP
An examination of cost variables in a LEED for Commercial Interiors project.

The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environ-mental Design (LEED) certification program for Commercial Interiors (CI) has evolved quickly since its launch over a year ago. Some view the new program as merely the stepchild of green architecture, unable to affect the environmental impact of a totally green building. Yet LEED-CI is one of the most far-reaching and accessible steps toward the integration of environmentally progressive work environments in the United States. In coming years, thousands of organizations must decide whether or not to "go green." If LEED-CI proves to be financially rewarding for companies by reducing energy costs and generating productivity gains, with its emphasis on a well designed work environment, its impact could forever change the way industry approaches design.

A growing body of evidence supports the productivity-enhancing benefits of LEED-CI environments. LEED-CI precepts are environmentally progressive and benefit the health of employees. LEED-CI requires better ventilation and reduced exposure to volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), provides more individualized control over temperature and increases workforce-wide access to daylight. Researchers including William Fisk, P.E., senior staff scientist and head of the Indoor Environment Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have conducted numerous studies calculating that improved building ventilation systems alone would reduce workforce respiratory illness by 9 percent to 20 percent—greatly decreasing employee absenteeism and minimizing the productivity that is lost as a result. Other case studies from major corporations, including Lockheed-Martin Corp., found absenteeism dropped 15 percent in new, day-lit green buildings.

With data and ROI still being defined, additional costs and assumptions about LEED-CI's costs are often the biggest obstacles for companies. With only a year in practice, LEED-CI hard-cost estimates vary greatly. Many assumptions call for an added cost of up to 35 percent due in part to heavy consultation fees and expensive ventilation equipment. In actuality, with a progressive design team that works with clients through the site selection process, additional real costs are closer to 10 percent to 15 percent—and, can be lower.

The Right Team Matters
Before site evaluation begins and estimates can be defined in a LEED-CI project, clients must establish their priority designation. In addition to having a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) on board, the project team will need an experienced engineer to assist in the evaluation of potential sites. Also, a general contractor with LEED experience should be hired early on to help address the expense of key elements. The building owner, architect, real estate broker and engineering consultants round out the team.

Site selection is critical to LEED-CI; not all buildings can realistically be modified, and not all buildings can meet the prerequisites required or designation requirements within a budget. LEED-CI has a strong materials component compared to other LEED designations, but designers cannot rely strictly on materials for points toward designation—they need a workable building. Buildings must be evaluated and analyzed for their ability to generate points or support the designation. If the building has a pre-existing LEED certification, a LEED-CI project automatically secures three valuable points under the Site Selection category. The LEED points that can be gained by the current state of the building, or with landlord participation, are important considerations.

When a potential site is identified, the design team needs the following to begin the evaluation process:

  • CAD drawings or existing blue prints to evaluate several site related issues. 
  • Information regarding the actual building performance, HVAC, roof, outdoor air delivery, etc.
  • Determine if the landlord is interested in helping with Innovation and Design credits, which might include incorporating green house- keeping techniques within the entire building or planting native plants that require no irrigation.  Enlisting the landlord's support can attain more points and, if necessary, be tied to lease negotiations. 
Going for the Gold
There are several upfront expenses related to reaching LEED-CI certification. The ROI must be evaluated based on other cost-savings and life cycle benefits related to the length of the tenant lease. Meters, lighting and carbon dioxide sensors are all added costs in a typical LEED-CI space. A meter, used for submetering the energy used in a tenant space, runs close to $1,800. A company may need more than one depending on the size of their facility. An energy efficient lighting system may be 20 percent more expensive than less efficient systems but coupled with a submetering strategy, the decrease in energy costs can pay the difference in four to five years.

The higher the designation, the more potential for additional challenges and expenses to be incurred. To reach gold or platinum LEED-CI designation, the design team must capture most of the Energy and Atmosphere and Indoor Environmental Quality credits.  There are always some credits that simply cannot be achieved due to building limitations but, to the highest degree possible, they must be attained to reach a gold or platinum designation.

At each turn, the design team should weigh the benefit versus cost with the client. One example is the points that can be earned in the Water Efficiency category. This is more difficult to achieve in a tenant lease space where a company occupies an entire floor because it's not always cost efficient to upgrade the existing restroom fixtures unless the building is older. If the tenant does not occupy the entire floor, and the restrooms are considered floor common space, then the only fixtures that require updating are those within the work environment. To obtain the second Water Efficiency credit, tenants must install waterless urinals and many building codes will not permit this technology yet.

Other upfront costs that support a LEED-CI designation create less tangible, but proven ROI for companies. CO2 sensors, which regulate ventilation, help to ensure workers have clean air to breathe and prevent headaches, drowsiness and compromised concentration that occurs from poor air quality. Underfloor air systems enable higher individual control of temperature, providing a more comfortable environment.

Consultant fees are also key to the equation and are based on the size and complexity of the project. The percentage of impact fees on a particular project really depends on the selected designation goal and overall finish-out levels. Fees are partially driven by the intense documentation required by the project engineer, general contractor and LEED coordinator. Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing (MEP) fees are generally 8 percent to 10 percent higher for a LEED-CI project than a standard project. Commissioning fees generally run an additional 3 percent of the MEP fees, whereas Enhanced Commissioning might run as much as 2 percent to 3 percent of the overall construction costs. LEED consulting fees will run approximately $.30 to $.65 per sq. ft., depending on the scale of the project and which certification the tenant is trying to achieve.

There are also pieces of the puzzle that do not necessarily require heavy upfront costs to meet LEED's objectives. For example, new concepts in lighting, including high-output sources, light-reflective materials and daylight harvesting design strategies, keep the lights on at a much lower cost and higher rates of efficiency. Sensor technologies can trigger HVAC and lighting systems when someone is present and switch off automatically when they exit. Light shelves will also help bring more daylight into the space and reduce the need for supplemental lighting, thus possibly reducing the quantity of lights needed. Space planning strategies that provide all employees access to daylight and views will also contribute to possible credits without added cost.

New Design Lense for Leed
To be effective at designing for LEED-CI, architects and designers need a new, fresh design approach. Trends including modular design, work force wellness and energy efficiency, converge to create work environments that leverage the benefits of numerous best practices. Every element of a LEED space takes on new importance. Designers must minimize excess and focus on functionality and supporting occupant comfort.

Materials are a critical component to earning points in LEED-CI. From reusing or refurbishing demolished elements, to limiting the amount of shipping required, a material strategy should be defined to optimize points. The design research team and general contractors should collaborate on strategies for working with local sources and manufacturers. General and sub contractors should collaborate and be rewarded for their ability to think creatively in terms of new approaches to fabrication or recycling and developing other solutions that meet LEED-CI objectives.

Using materials in their original and raw state supports the objectives of LEED-CI. Choosing solid materials without the need for laminates, utilizing wheat board, MDF and compressed wheat fiber core doors, while leveraging exposed building materials as components of the design strategy, minimizes excess. Using standard product sizes also minimizes waste. Incorporating recycled materials, salvaged elements and refurbishing existing components can also contribute to meeting material goals. When it comes to materials, higher costs are often associated with recycled materials or renewable materials. In time, as supply and demand for these products increase, the costs associated with these items will hopefully decrease.

Lessons Learned
As designers, LEED-CI fundamentally requires us to shift our approach to both the process and end product. A cohesive, enthusiastic team with a common goal of creating a world-class LEED-CI environment is what drives success in a project. Strong project management, research, vision and a collaborative relationship with the general contractor are also necessary. LEED-CI requires more than a strong design concept; it requires constant evaluation of every choice for its functionality, cost-effectiveness and purpose within the space.LEED-CI is so new that there is little information to address all the challenges faced during the course of a project. Thus, the team needs to look for the unusual, try the untested and unproven options. There is an opportunity to redefine design for the many companies seeking to be environmentally responsible and invest in sustainable workplaces.
  • Brigitte Preston is design principal and Deborah Fuller, LEED AP, is senior designer at lauckgroup, a leading interiors and architecture firm based in Dallas and Austin. Both Preston and Fuller have more than two decades of experience and are recognized as leading experts in workplace design. Projects recently completed by the firm include Whole Foods Market, Green Mountain Energy, and Jenkens & Gilchrist, Austin.

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