Spokane Journal of Business

The Need For LEED

Demand for sustainable certification wanes

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-—LeAnn Bjerken

The popularity of LEED certification programs has diminished in recent years as building and energy codes have strengthened, some Spokane-area engineers and architects say.

LEED, short for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a certification program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, a membership-based nonprofit that promotes sustainability in building construction and design.

To receive LEED certification, a building project must satisfy various prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification.

Randall LaPlante, engineer and co-owner of LSB Consulting Engineers PLLC, says the company hasn’t worked on any LEED certified projects in the last five years.

“We still have three LEED accredited professionals on staff, but we’ve definitely noticed a decreased focus on LEED projects,” he says.

LaPlante attributes most of the decline to the strength of the Washington state energy code, which requires new buildings to meet high standards for energy, water, indoor environmental quality, and waste diversion.

“The state’s energy code is very thorough,” he says. “So it may be a case of more clients choosing to design according to the state sustainability standard, rather than pursue the added cost and documentation required for a LEED certification.”

Washington state requires all state agencies, institutions of higher education, and other entities receiving state funding to meet at least the LEED silver standard in design, construction, and maintenance. Additionally, public K-12 school construction projects receiving state assistance must be built either to the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol or to LEED silver certification.

The USGBC ranked Washington ninth on its list of Top 10 States for LEED projects certified in 2016. Washington was listed as having completed 105 projects, extrapolating out to 2.25 square feet of certified space per resident. That’s down from the previous year’s rankings, which listed Washington in fourth place, with 101 projects representing 2.6 square feet of certified space per resident.

The USBGC website lists 33 Spokane or Spokane Valley-based projects on which LEED certification has been achieved since 2009. The site lists another six projects here for which builders and designers are working toward certification. Those include: Spokane Lexus dealership, at 1030 W. Third, the Group Health South Hill Medical Center, at 4102 S. Regal, The Newtech Skills Center, at 4141 N. Regal, the Gonzaga University Tennis and Golf Center, at 1202 N. Superior, the Whitworth Athletics Leadership Center, at 300 W. Hawthorne, and the Avista Corp. Master Project, at 1411 E. Mission. 

Randy Vanhoff, architect and principal of Spokane-based ZBA Architecture, says his firm too has noticed a decrease in demand for LEED certified projects in recent years.

“There appears to be less of a focus on LEED projects now, compared to 10 years ago, certainly,” he says. “Our work is pretty evenly split between commercial and housing, but the majority of LEED certifications we do now are for housing projects.”

Vanhoff says ZBA has completed a total of 20 LEED certified projects since 2003, 15 of which were multifamily residential or senior housing projects.

“Our only current LEED certified housing projects are the 6th Street Seniors and the Chestnut Apartments, both located in Sandpoint, Idaho,” he says. “Those two projects are still under construction, but we haven’t seen any new LEED construction starts for the past two years.”

Vanhoff says ZBA also has previously worked on several commercial LEED certified projects here, including the Saranac Building, the Spokane County Regional Plan Center, and the Spokane County Regional Water Reclamation Facility.

Vanhoff agrees that one of the big factors in the decline of LEED certifications is the Washington energy code, which is now in concert with most LEED components.

“Clients building here already know the building is required to meet pretty high energy standards, so it’s possible they would then see less value in pursuing a LEED certification,” he says.

He says another part of the decrease in LEED projects may simply be due to the development of more specific industry standards and certifications over time.

“In starting the LEED program, the USGBC did a good job of generating awareness of green building practices,” he says. “Now there are a wide variety of similar standards and certifications that can be achieved depending on the industry and type of project.” 

Julie Happy, spokeswoman for the city of Spokane’s neighborhood and business services, says that unlike Seattle and other West Coast cities that mandate or support LEED certifications, Spokane doesn’t provide incentives for green building or LEED certifications.

However, she says the Spokane City Council did make changes to its sustainable public building ordinance in November 2016, updating it to require the city to seek and obtain LEED Silver certification for new city-funded public buildings that have more than 5,000 square feet.

“We also do give points to projects that meet green building standards when they apply through our Projects of Citywide Significance program,” she says. “Those points help determine the amount of financial incentive to provide to a given project.”

Matt Ophardt, technical services operations manager with the Spokane office of Seattle-based McKinstry Co., says the construction and energy-efficiency contractor works on a variety of projects including public, higher education, commercial, and private projects, and is currently involved in several that are pursuing LEED certifications.

“McKinstry’s work has more to do with energy efficiency,” he says. “We have found that the existing Washington state energy code is pretty efficient at this point, so few are trying to exceed it.”

Ophardt says most of the LEED certifications McKinstry works on are private projects, for clients who wish to make a kind of statement by achieving the certification. 

“These are usually clients who are concerned with walking the talk, if you will, on designing, building, and operating efficiently,” he says.

Ophardt says there’s a misconception that a LEED certification equates to an energy-efficient building, when in fact a LEED rating for new construction is only a measure of how sustainable/green the project was designed and built to be.

“We haven’t found that LEED is necessarily less popular than other building standards,” he says. “But it’s important to note that most LEED projects are construction LEED ratings, which only measure design and build, not daily operations.”

He adds, “Just earning a LEED rating for new construction does not always guarantee a significant energy impact. This could be leading some to a perceived negative image around LEED in our region.”

Ophardt says the LEED program does offer a supplemental rating for existing buildings called LEED Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, which more accurately measures how efficiently a building is operating.

“A great recent project example of a building achieving this rating is the Avista corporate headquarters building, which earned the LEED EBOM gold rating in 2017,” he says.

Ophardt says some of the perceived decline in LEED certifications may also be due to the fact that most of the current new commercial construction in the area is related to K-12 schools, which most often follows the WSSP sustainability rating protocol, rather than LEED. 

On the residential side, Joel White, executive officer of the Spokane Home Builders Association, says the organization has noticed a decline in the number of LEED certified and green-build housing projects in the area.

“We’re still looking to educate buyers about sustainable building practices and efficiency features for homes, but we no longer have a green-build program,” he says. 

White says he’d agree that part of the reason for the decline is due to the fact that state energy codes have been revised to meet or exceed the standards that originally were required by programs like LEED.

“New building codes are adopted every three years, and because those codes mandate more efficiency, homes built today are already better quality than ever before,” he says.

White also agrees that the costs associated with LEED projects, including time and documentation needed for certification, could be a factor in homebuyers’ declining interest in pursuing certifications. 

“The market can only bear so many additional costs, so builders today build to the standards that home buyers would like or be willing to pay for,” he says. “Some buyers will pay more for energy efficiency or sustainable practices, but there are others who’d rather put those costs toward other features.”

He adds that without buyer demand, builders also aren’t as interested in promoting those programs and incentives.

“In the Spokane market, there’s a shortfall of homes, so buyers are being more aggressive in purchasing what is available,” he says. “We also have the added challenge of varying income levels, with most buyers looking to purchase the best value home they can find.”

Vanhoff says most housing projects are now being designed using energy-modeling software to determine efficiency and ensure required standards are met, and all state-funded housing projects must meet the Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard.

“Ultimately, it’s up to developers to submit applications for project funding, which are scored based on need and other criteria,” he says. 

Looking ahead, Vanhoff says he’s fairly confident ZBA will continue to see more LEED certified affordable housing projects.

“It’s difficult to predict when the available incentives and funding for state and federal projects change so often,” he says. “But as long as there’s incentive on the affordable housing side, I think it’s safe to say we’ll see more of those projects.” 

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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