Green Trends for 2012: LEED, Net-Zero Energy and the Living Building Challenge

Green building in all U.S. construction sectors will continue its rebound this year as the economy struggles to return to pre-recession levels. While the slowdown in commercial real estate projects and funding has definitely put a crimp in many green building projects, interest does remain high for green school construction.

Jerry Yudelson, principal at Yudelson Associates, a Tucson, Ariz.-based green building consulting company and the author of 12 books on green buildings, sustainable development and water conservation, says the latest green trend remains going through the process of becoming LEED certified.

“It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but K-12 has been lagging particularly in that area,” he says. “Higher education has pretty much been on board for quite some time. In the university arena, everyone wants to do LEED gold or platinum building going forward. And we’re finding that many universities are doing sustainability master plans that cover residential, foodservice, operations, transportation and more.”

For K-12 schools, green building has been slower, largely because it can take five or more years for a school to be built after the budget has been approved, he says. Many school districts are also in cost-cutting modes making it difficult for school architects to design good green projects without spending extra money.

“And, there’s always a retired contractor on the budget committee who is convinced the school is spending too much money,” Yudelson adds. “You should be building a school for a lifespan of 50 to 75 years that’s worth an extra investment.”

He also says that it wasn’t until a few years ago that the United States Green Building Council put together a green schools initiative that things started to move.

“The key has been leadership at the national level that has been pushed down to the local level. This was the extra boost that got people to realize that we are building these schools for the most vulnerable population — kids — in terms of asthma and air quality. So why can’t we put solar on the roof, measure our energy use and make it part of the energy instruction?”

The USGBC, a nonprofit trade organization that promotes sustainability in how buildings are designed, built and operated, developed the LEED green building rating systems nearly 20 years ago. In 2009, changes were made that were primarily foundational, such as rating system content alignment and adjustments to the professional credentials and certification process. For this year, LEED 2012 builds on LEED 2009 by continuing to improve the clarity, usability, functionality and interconnectedness of the ratings systems through future version development.

And when it comes to school construction, the USGBC reports that green schools can save an average of $100,000 per year on operating costs — enough to hire two new teachers, buy 200 new computers or purchase 5,000 textbooks. Green schools — on average — use 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water than conventionally constructed schools. If all new U.S. school construction and renovation went green today, the USGBC says the total energy savings alone would be $20 billion over the next decade.

As LEED continues to grow in popularity, so has the whole area of high performance schools. According to CalRecycle, a leading authority on recycling, waste reduction and product reuse in California, high performance schools join together the best design and building strategies while providing a healthy indoor environment; conserving energy, resources and water; functioning as a teaching tool; serving as a community resource for neighborhood functions; ensuring easy maintenance and operations; and creating a safe and secure educational atmosphere.

Net Zero Energy

Net zero energy schools is another area of school construction that is gaining momentum. A term used to describe a building with zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions on an annual basis, these buildings can be independent from the energy grid supply or energy can be harvested onsite, usually through technologies like solar and wind.

Yudelson says there are basically four kinds of net zero. “Type A is what most schools are doing. You make a really energy efficient building and then you top it off with, typically, solar panels on the rooftop. Because schools tend to be low rise — they have a lot of roof area relative to their floor area — you can do that. On an annual basis, as much energy is produced as is consumed.”

Type B, he says, is where you have a low energy building, but solar is placed elsewhere on the site — not on the building. Type C, meanwhile, is when energy from a green power source, perhaps a wind farm, is purchased for a low energy building.

“And Type D is more common in northern states and Europe,” Yudelson adds. “You might do all the heating with biomass boilers with wood pellets since wood is a zero carbon source. Which route a school chooses is really done on a case-by-case basis.”

Beyond LEED and Net Zero

For those interested in going beyond LEED and net zero-architects, engineers and building can challenge themselves with the Living Building Challenge, a philosophy, advocacy tool and certification program that promotes the most advanced measurement of sustainability. It can be applied to development at all scales, from buildings — both new construction and renovation — to infrastructure, landscapes and neighborhoods.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) was endorsed by the USGBC and the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) in 2006 and is not meant to compete with LEED, the Green Building Rating System, the USGBC or the CaGBC.

Initially launched by the Cascadia Building Council, a chapter of the USGBC and the CaGBC, the LBC comprises seven performance areas: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty, which are further divided into 20 imperatives, each focusing on a specific sphere of influence. It is a rigorous performance standard that aims to certify top-performing green buildings. Unlike other rating systems that rely on the selection of green building traits from a menu of choices, the LBC requires the attainment of all performance criteria.

In order to achieve the Living Building Challenge, designers must do without using materials on the Materials Red List, which includes chemicals and materials considered harmful to both humans and the environment. The list, which can be found on the International Living Building Institute’s website was, is intended to identify and eliminate the worst in class chemicals and materials from a human and ecological standpoint from the built environment. Projects can be certified as “living” if they prove to meet all program requirements after 12 months of continued operation and full occupancy.

“Most projects that we know of decide to pursue the Living Building Challenge certification very early in the design process — some even before the entire team is known,” says Eden Brukman, vice president of the ILBI, a nongovernmental organization with a mission to offer a global vision for lasting sustainability.

“We recommend that the project is registered as early as possible, so that it can benefit from a truly comprehensive and integrated design. In addition, the Institute offers a number of support mechanisms for projects as they get started.”

Brukman adds materials are probably the most complicated aspect of the LBC. “They depend on manufacturing, and some of the things we just don’t have currently. Manufacturers don’t want to make something people don’t want to buy.”

Even though the LBC is still so new and primarily shared via word of mouth, she fully expects to see more schools in the United States certified under the program.

“There are already about a dozen registered education projects in the U.S. in design or construction and additional projects in other countries, too. The Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Lab in Kamuela, Hawaii, is the first school to be certified “Living,” and the Bertschi School Science Wing in Seattle, Wash. is in the middle of their mandatory 12-month minimum operation before they are eligible for an audit. Additionally, we had quite a few student teams enter our Living City Design Competition last year — some with great success.”


By Lisa Kopochinski

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