LEED-Cost, LEED-Performance

The State of LEED: Cost and Performance

After more than two decades of LEED projects, the building industry has changed. Mechanical and electrical systems are more efficient, building envelopes and associated materials are higher performing, healthier interior finishes are readily available. In spite of this, building performance results can be erratic and the perception remains with some that LEED is expensive and not worth the cost. These are misconceptions.

LEED is expensive

Previously, businesses used to roll together a bundle of costs related to LEED including fees, the additional documentation effort, energy modeling, and commissioning. Additionally, you had to consider the cost of constructing a building that met LEED credit requirements to achieve the desired certification level. In the early days (2004-2010?) these were real costs associated with pursuing a LEED certification and they could accumulate. Still, the general wisdom of the time was that a LEED Silver certification might incur a cost premium of 5%, more or less.

These days, both LEED and the energy code provide options to comply through a prescriptive pathway or show energy performance through an energy model. The energy code also calls for a commissioning plan and execution of that plan. These costs can no longer be attributed to LEED as they are now code requirements. The “added” cost of LEED has been reduced considerably and, with the employment of an experienced professional team, the added cost of LEED compliance should be minimal. Even at non-member rates, the registration, review, and certification fees can be as low as $4,920.00 for projects up to 50,000 SF. Administration of the LEED process by the architect or a consultant is an added expense and can be significant for smaller projects. For larger projects, the cost, as a percent of the total project budget, can be very small. However, whatever the cost, there is value in this exercise.

LEED Buildings May Not Perform as Modeled. 

Energy cost savings is the most easily understood cost-benefit of high-performance building design. As a result, this is one of the most studied and criticized aspects of the LEED rating system. We have already discussed the relationship between the LEED energy requirements and the energy code. Here we discuss LEED and building performance. 

There are numerous cited examples of LEED buildings that underperform on an energy basis. Sometimes this is the result of a miscalculation in the energy model used to predict hours of operation and occupancy. One early example of a building’s use being misaligned with its modeled use is the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. Though not a LEED project, the Lewis Center was an early example of a green building. It drew much attention and was visited by large numbers of people wanting to see it and to host events there.  The building was utilized significantly more than was anticipated or modeled. As a result, it used much more energy than what was predicted. A critical review of the assumptions compared with the experienced operations and occupancy should enable a building owner to identify potential reasons for any design vs. actual discrepancies. In this case an adjustment in expectations is in order when changes in the building use and occupancy has occurred.

Operations Affect Building Performance

Another reason a building may not be performing as designed is that it is not being operated as designed. A recent project of ours was discovered to have completely reestablished set points for heating and air conditioning from the design parameters. Even though the building had been commissioned and facility staff trained, operations were compromised within the first year of occupancy. This happens. LEED attempts to address this by requiring fundamental commissioning, the creation of the operations manual and staff training. Still, operational adjustments and errors occur. This is a justification for and the reason why the Enhanced Commissioning credit exists. 

Inconsistencies in design vs. performance and poor operational oversight can arise just as easily in projects seeking to meet or exceed code minimums. A critical review of all buildings would reveal that cases of buildings underperforming are not unique to LEED. What LEED has enabled owners to do through its insistence on the creation of a Basis of Design document and fundamental and enhanced commissioning is to identify these discrepancies so they may be addressed in a timely fashion. This is a cost savings understood and recognized by property owners and managers who embrace the LEED rating system. When viewed critically, LEED consistently proves to be a valuable industry tool.

Is LEED Still Relevant?

This is Part-Three in a four-part series on LEED. In our next blog in this series, we’ll be covering LEED vs “LEED-like” and why LEED remains a great option for all buildings.

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