Although some might still refute the evidence, more scientists and climate experts are claiming that the global environment is on a collision course with potential disaster. But where to begin to mitigate environmental degradation? One place is with buildings, which have a fundamental impact on people’s lives and the health of the planet.

According to the United States Green Building Council (USBGC), Washington, D.C., buildings use one-third of the total energy generated in the United States, two-thirds of the electricity, one-eighth of the water; buildings also transform land that provides valuable ecological resources. The USGBC states, however, that green buildings save 30 to 50 percent in energy consumption, 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 40 percent of water and 70 percent of solid waste. In addition, green buildings add $20 billion to $160 billion in worker productivity due to improved thermal comfort and lighting and contribute to overall employee satisfaction.

“We spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors, and green buildings improve air, thermal and acoustic environments while contributing to an overall better quality of life,” said Ashley Katz, USGBC spokesperson.

Whether driven by personal concerns or by mandate, building owners are becoming increasingly interested in sustainable construction and in having their buildings certified under the USGBC Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. According to Dr. Thomas E. Glavinich, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas, the LEED system was developed to provide an objective, consistent and measurable method for determining the degree to which a new or renovated building is a green building.

The degree of green of a construction project, he wrote in a June 2006 article in ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, is determined by the number of points earned, documented and recognized by the USGBC through its rating system, which embodies the best practices in sustainable design, construction and building operation.

The ultimate goal of the LEED rating system is to transform the design and construction of buildings to be environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work, Katz said.

“By building green, everyone profits. Owners, in particular, benefit from an increased bottom line gained through energy savings, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and happier employees,” she said.

LEED certification rating system

As the nationally accepted benchmark for green, high-performance buildings, the voluntary, consensus-based LEED rating system gives building owners and operators the tools they need to have an immediate and measurable impact on their buildings’ performance. LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in the five key areas of human and environmental health, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. Architects, real estate professionals, facility managers, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, construction managers, electrical contractors, lenders and government officials all use LEED certification to help transform the built environment to being sustainable. State and local governments across the country are adopting LEED for public-owned and funded buildings, federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Energy and State have LEED initiatives, and LEED projects are in progress in 41 countries, including Canada, Brazil, Mexico and India. In New York alone, according to Fastcompany.com, policies that require or encourage LEED building are expected to affect $12 billion in new construction in the next few years.

The different levels of the LEED rating system are based on the number of points earned. It takes 26 to 32 points to be LEED certified, 33 to 38 points to be awarded Silver level certification, 39 to 51 points to reach Gold and 52 to 69 points to attain Platinum. The USGBC’s Web site provides the necessary tools for building professionals, including information on the LEED certification process, checklists and reference guides, lists of LEED-certified projects, a directory of LEED-accredited professionals, information on training workshops, and a calendar of green building industry conferences.

LEED is expected to grow despite some skeptical opinions. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), New York, LEED standards are available or in development for new commercial construction and major renovation projects, existing building operations, commercial interiors, core and shell projects, homes, and neighborhood development.

Still, skeptics sometimes argue that it is difficult or even impossible to build green without paying a big cost premium. However, a 2004 study by Davis Langdon Adamson, a construction cost-planning and management company, found that the first costs of constructing a sustainable building tend to match or only slightly exceed those of comparable nongreen buildings. The study, Costing Green: A Comprehensive Cost Database and Budgeting Methodology, measured the square-foot construction costs of 61 buildings seeking certification under the LEED rating system against those of buildings of similar type that did not aim for sustainability. Accounting for a range of construction factors, the study found that for many of the projects, pursuing LEED certification had little or no budgetary impact. But rather than just examining up-front costs, architects and procurement specialists are increasingly using life-cycle assessment analysis methods to evaluate and quantify the economic and environmental costs and benefits of materials and products over their lives.

Although LEED has been discussed across the industry for quite a while, in some markets such as Washington, D.C., the need to be environmentally responsible in building construction is no longer on the horizon. It is now a requirement for a company’s survival, according to Todd Finnegan, president of Walker Seal Cos. Inc., Fairfax, Va.

“LEED certification is designed to help building designers, constructors and owners achieve the goal of treading more lightly upon the planet through requirements, such as the use of recycled materials, photovoltaics, energy-efficient systems and zero-net metering,” he said.

Professional accreditation

LEED professional accreditation demonstrates that building professionals have the knowledge and skills to successfully guide a project through the LEED certification process. LEED Accredited Professionals (APs) achieve a thorough understanding of green building practices and principles and the LEED rating system through an exam process. The importance of accreditation is demonstrated by the fact that more than 40,000 people have become LEED APs since the USGBC launched the program in 2001.

“One reason that having a LEED AP on staff is a valuable and marketable credential for an electrical contractor is because they are eligible for projects on which owners are mandating the participation of one,” Katz said.

Originally, LEED APs were either owner’s representatives or key members of the design team. However, according to Glavinich, as more building projects sought LEED certification, it became evident that a successful, sustainable building project depended as much on construction as it did on design. As a result, owners and designers now require that general contractors and construction managers assign LEED APs to the project if they are seeking LEED certification. In turn, specialty and electrical contractors that have LEED APs on staff are being sought to join the construction team to analyze the estimated costs of multiple options of the building design.

“With the increased demand for green projects, owners and general contractors are demanding a more educated and experienced subcontractor. By having a LEED AP on staff, the electrical contractor can assist the design team in determining the viability of alternative power sources, lighting systems and controls, and can provide the construction team with better insights into the costs, processes and documentation for these projects,” said Waldo Pendleton, LEED AP and senior estimator for Berwick Electric Co., Colorado Springs, Colo.

There are no eligibility requirements for taking the LEED AP exam, although candidates should be familiar with green construction and the LEED rating system. USGBC contracts with Prometric to administer the LEED AP exam on demand at its test sites. It costs $400 for non-USGBC members and $300 for members. Study materials include the LEED Green Building Rating System, the LEED Reference Guide and various templates and other resources located in the Exam Content section of the LEED Web site (www.usgbc.org/LEED). In addition, candidates can supplement their study by attending LEED Technical Review workshops, which are full-day, faculty-led workshops held around the country throughout the year.

“As general contractors continue to develop LEED divisions, they will turn first to electrical contractors with LEED APs on staff,” Finnegan said.

The USGBC’s next step in LEED development is to make the process as user-friendly and streamlined as possible. With the LEED Version 3.0 set to launch in early 2009, the entire rating system will be combined into a single bookshelf system to allow not only the alignment of credits and green building strategies, but to incorporate life-cycle assessment into green building design and construction.

Along with saving energy and reducing the building’s environmental impact, LEED certification also sells buildings to high-end clients and governments; helps create and sell new products, materials and systems; and provides ECs that have the necessary expertise with new markets to explore.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.