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Green Goals "LEED" To Calls To Enhance Building Rating System

Planners urge Smart Growth principles in design evaluation

August 5, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Jim Dulzo

The Ford High School for the Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts, rising in downtown Detroit, uses recycled steel and will feature a "green" roof that saves energy and absorbs rainwater.

Although Michigan struggles with one of the highest sprawl rates in the country, it is succeeding handsomely with another crucial, more positive aspect of 21st century development: “Green” building construction. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry trade group, Michigan ranks eighth in the nation for the number of  energy efficient, environmentally friendly building projects it has on the drawing board. If the trend continues, Michigan could become a model state for green building activity.

The council lists 57 projects either completed or now being planned in Michigan that have or should soon earn USGBC green certification. The projects range from six stories of recycled steel housing a public high school in Detroit; to Ford Motor Company’s transformation of its huge, 1920s-vintage Rouge Plant into a green factory topped by a vegetated roof that saves energy and absorbs storm water; to the Surface Transportation Center in Grand Rapids that helps citizens “go greener” by riding buses, trains, and bicycles.

Many of the criteria that the council’s 69-point Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system considers when evaluating new structures or rehabilitated old ones are obvious. They include tighter insulation, more efficient lighting, alternative energy sources, recycling storage areas, use of non-toxic materials, and storm water management. Taken together, they can earn a building many points.

But Smart Growth considerations, such as building on brownfields instead of greenfields, locating projects near alternative transportation, and employing more compact design, while counted, can earn at most only nine points. This has spurred some environmental and Smart Growth organizations that enthusiastically support green building codes to begin working with green building advocates to take what they see as the next step: Crafting an expanded rating system that pays attention not only to how, but also to where buildings are constructed.

Adjusting the Point Spread
The experience of a veteran developer who specializes in urban rehabilitation projects suggests that the more innovative members of the development community are ready for such a move.

“It seems to us that much of the LEED point system is geared towards new construction projects with a lot of emphasis on green areas” that are currently undeveloped, said Dennis Sturtevant, a member of Dwelling Place, a non-profit affordable housing organization in Grand Rapids. “To secure a LEED certification is in some ways more challenging in a tight urban site than where you have more room.”

Mr. Sturtevant’s group and another community organization, Cherry Street Health Services, collaborated on a project that is both smart and LEED-certified. They converted a 1924 building in a high-density, low-income neighborhood from a car dealership into a first-floor dentists’ office serving 2,500 low-income patients annually, and a second-floor office for Dwelling Place, which has a 25-year history of revitalizing downtown Grand Rapids with housing and commercial redevelopment.

While LEED awards points for things that Smart Growth advocates hold dear, such as compact design, locations near alternative transportation, and brownfield redevelopment, a project’s point total can be held down by such obstacles as space limitations, the toxins often found in building that are undergoing rehabilitation, and outdated building and zoning codes. For example, Mr. Sturtevant said, it is often harder for urban sites to earn points for storm water management because they typically have so much concrete around them.

Location and Energy Consumption
In fact, under the current LEED rating system, a building can earn a top, “platinum” rating even though it is being constructed in a green field miles from any public transportation. In other words, a project can completely ignore location considerations and still gain high honors for being environmentally sustainable. 

Smart Growth advocates say there should be a fairer way of awarding points to urban or smart projects. They reason that locating such projects in places where people already live, work, shop, and play, and where roads, public transportation, and utilities such as sewer, water, and power lines are already constructed, automatically saves a great deal of energy, construction material, farmland, recreational areas, and wildlife habitats.

That, according to Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, should count for a lot: “I would think at least 50 percent and maybe even more,” he said.

Kevin Pierce of Farr Associates, a Chicago-based firm that designs green buildings and walkable neighborhoods with an eye toward historic preservation, suggests that location may actually be the single most important factor when it comes to saving energy, a goal at the heart of the green building movement. He says that the energy used to operate commercial buildings is actually less than the energy used by the vehicles people drive to get to them.

It follows that energy-efficient buildings, even those powered by solar panels or wind turbines, cannot by themselves compensate for the energy workers spend commuting to them when they are located well away from metropolitan centers. Only better locations and better access to public and alternative transportation can accomplish that.

Change Is Coming
Smart Growth advocates who support LEED agree. They point out that even the greenest of buildings contribute to sprawl if they are built on the fringe of a metropolitan area, where they eat up farmland and wildlife habitats. That is a particularly acute problem in Michigan where, between 1997 and 2002, sprawl consumed 360,929 acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the problem is also a serious one nationwide; sprawl devours farmland at a steady two acres per minute.

Several groups are now working to bring LEED and location together. The U.S. Green Building Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Congress for the New Urbanism are collaborating on a new set of standards, called Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design – Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), which, according to Mr. Benfield of the NRDC, a founding member of the committee, will represent a “new step from what’s been done in the past.”

Several members of the committee working on the LEED-ND standard said they hope the original green building standards and the new one will complement and inform one another. They say that it is too soon to say exactly what LEED-ND will encompass when it is complete, but it will likely address three major considerations: The way a development’s location fits into a larger region; the design of the development itself; and environmental management practices for such things as storm water and energy efficiency. 

“It will be a consensus-oriented process,” said Mr. Benfield. “My hope is that when we’re done it will stand out as a real incentive and reward for developers who want to do the right thing. Right now it’s harder to build Smart Growth than it is to build sprawl. What we want to do is help level the playing field by creating some incentives and rewards for building in a smart way.”

Carolyn Kelly, a student at the University of Chicago, is writing this summer as a Jeff Metcalf Fellow on the Michigan Land Use Institute's news desk. She can be reached at carolyn@mlui.org

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