LEED Volume Certification – WSJ

Brad Pease had a master’s degree in architecture and a specialty in designing energy-efficient buildings when executives at PNC Bank came to him with a daunting assignment.

They wanted to build 100 branches in the next several years. They wanted each building to be just like the others, assembled from a standard kit of parts.

Oh, and they wanted them all to be green. Not just green in theory, but certified green under Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design, or LEED, standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“The typical starting point for a green building is to look at the site: Where does the sun come from? Where does the wind come from? What type of vegetation is around?” says Mr. Pease, who leads the building-science team at Paladino & Co., a green-building consulting firm based in Seattle.

Trying to design one building plan that’s equally efficient in lots of different locations “pulls the rug out from under you,” Mr. Pease says.

But working with a team of other experts, Mr. Pease made it happen. PNC, a unit of

PNC Financial Services Group Inc.,

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has received LEED certification for 97 new or renovated branches nationwide. The buildings use an average of 35% less energy and 28% less water than nongreen branches.

And they have helped usher in a new way of thinking about building in bulk—sustainably.

Chain Reaction

This month, the U.S. Green Building Council is launching a “volume certification” program that allows national chains to submit plans for a prototype store, office, bank or restaurant for LEED certification. If the design, construction and building-management plan meet LEED standards, the council will waive the rigorous process of evaluating each new store as it is built. Instead, the council will conduct random audits to ensure that its standards are being met as certified prototypes go up in city after city, state after state.

A four-year pilot project that tested the volume concept drew tremendous interest. Nearly 40 companies and organizations took part, including

Bank of America Corp.

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Best Buy Co.

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, Cushman & Wakefield,

Starbucks Corp.

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Target Corp.

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Participants have certified 355 projects so far and have more than 1,000 in the pipeline, says Doug Gatlin, a vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based Green Building Council.

For every project, one key ingredient for success has been developing an “orientation neutral” design. PNC executives, for example, wanted each of their branches to have an atrium-like entrance with glass walls. But an entrance might face north, south, east or west, depending on the shape of each lot, traffic flow and available parking.

The architects knew that the direction an atrium faced would dramatically affect how much sunlight—and heat—would come into each building, affecting its energy use. So, they sketched out an alternative entrance: still an atrium, but one with two rooflines, one on top and the other halfway up the building.

Both protrude like awnings, blocking excessive heat from the glass wall beneath. But the undersides of the awnings are painted white to bounce daylight back into the building and minimize the need for interior lighting. Motorized blinds can be raised or lowered to modulate the intensity of the sun as well.

Such features, along with glazed glass, solar power and high-efficiency heating and air conditioning, helped PNC earn LEED certification for its branch prototype while maintaining a sleek look, so “you don’t look at the building and say, ‘It looks like a bunch of hippies built this,’ ” Mr. Pease says.

He worked on the PNC project with a team that includes the global architecture firm Gensler, CJL Engineering of Moon Township, Pa., and Clemens Construction Co., a contractor based in Philadelphia.

Home Front

While most prototype LEED approvals are happening in the retail and commercial markets, the concept is also on the radar screens of architects trying to mass-produce green homes.

Los Angeles architect

Linda Taalman,

for instance, set out to create a sleek, compact home that could be set down on almost any site without sacrificing efficiency. Her brainstorm: the itHouse, which is inspired by modular design. The home, which has about 1,000 square feet of living space, is built from a standard kit of parts. But those parts can be assembled in several different configurations. That means the floor plan can be tweaked to adapt to a specific site. So, for example, the wall with the most windows can be oriented in a direction that will let in daylight without roasting the home’s occupants. Optional roof overhangs add shade where appropriate.

It’s not a foolproof plan. The home is meant for temperate climates. “Buffalo, New York, would be difficult,” Ms. Taalman says. But it has worked in a dozen locations across California, including in the desert near Joshua Tree. Ms. Taalman is working on a house for the cool-but-not-freezing town of Hudson, N.Y. She’s also developing a two-story itHouse that will fit on smaller sites.

Ms. Taalman, a principal at Taalman Koch Architecture, says she hopes the itHouse experiment will help break down “the high degree of skepticism there is around the idea of mass-produced design.”

Mass-produced green design is especially scorned, she says, because the out-of-a-box concept tends to be “associated with trailer housing,” not cutting-edge efficiencies.

Granting LEED certification to lots of buildings based on a single set of plans has its risks. For instance, many companies rack up LEED points by requiring that their construction crews aggressively recycle materials and minimize waste. Yet in parts of the country, especially in some Midwestern cities, that’s not part of the construction culture, “so there’s a steep learning curve for contractors,” says Mark Frankel, technical director for the New Buildings Institute, a White Salmon, Wash., nonprofit that focuses on energy efficiency.

Also, much of a building’s carbon footprint comes from how it is used. So, chains must commit to training their employees in every new building on the best practices for maximizing energy efficiency.

But developers who have been through LEED certifications for individual projects say the benefits of group certifications should outweigh the hassles.

Savings Promise

Tim Osiecki, for instance, recently built his first LEED hotel, a Courtyard by Marriott at the Pittsburgh airport. As his team huddled over the plans, Mr. Osiecki says, he could practically see the expenses rising, minute by minute.

“You have civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, plumbers, architects, designers—an army of consultants. And they’re all billing you!” says Mr. Osiecki, executive vice president of Concord Hospitality Enterprises Co., a hotel management company based in Raleigh, N.C.

All told, LEED certification for the airport hotel cost Mr. Osiecki about $500,000: some $125,000 for consulting fees and several months of additional design time, plus $375,000 in hard costs for upgrades such as a heat-recovery system that captures warm air vented through bathroom exhaust fans.

For his next hotel, however, he’ll be able to use a green Courtyard prototype that Marriott won approval for during the Green Building Council’s pilot volume-certification project.

Construction costs might be 3% to 4% higher than for a regular Courtyard, but the hotel is designed to be 25% more efficient, so franchisees should make up the extra costs within a few years, says Karim Khalifa, a Marriott senior vice president.

Mr. Osiecki, for one, can’t wait. In fact, he’s pressing the other major hotel brands he works with to do the same. Coming up with the energy-efficient design on his own, he says, was a “lengthy, laborious process”—and getting it certified took even longer. “You definitely kill some brain cells,” he says.

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