FM Frequency: To LEED Or Not To LEED? It All Depends!

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the April 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Just a short time ago, I received the following letter in response to my FM Frequency column titled, “That’s What I Like About LEED”. Quite frankly, I was expecting this type of feedback and welcome the opportunity to explore the topic further.

Mr. Crane,

We are all very glad to see you coming around to recognizing the benefits of LEED. The next step is to get over your hang up with the certification process. “Complete high quality and cost effective green projects” do not happen without formal certifications. Sorry, but you should know this.

If it were true, you would not need to tell architects and owners that “strict adherence to ASHRAE Standard 90 and energy modeling should have always been standard practice for accurate life cycle cost analysis. ”It’s not that it can’t be done. It won’t be done. The same is true of third party commissioning and documentation. You don’t get what you expect, you get what you inspect. Do I really need to tell you this?

This is all to say that 1% to 2% incremental cost up front for LEED practices is a “no-brainer” for the thinking construction manager. Most of this cost is for third party verification, and that will pay for itself in reduced change orders alone.

Sustainable building performance, however, is the goal. Contractors and inspectors can ensure that the building components meet spec. LEED certification ensures that the building performs as designed on this lot, in this neighborhood, in this community. It is way more than commissioning (as you have noted) and no one is in a position to make this evaluation objectively except a professional third party.

Sustainable practices are what we will leave for our children. Sustainable practices are, by definition, our legacy. That is my interest in LEED.

A little background, however, so that you won’t think that I am some kind of recent convert, knee-jerk Greenophile or a USGBC officer. I graduated from college in 1970 and went to work in construction management. I later became a licensed PE (mechanical engineer) and have been a professional “energy engineer” since 1995.

Name withheld upon request

Before addressing your specific comments, I want to confirm that, for many years, I’ve been a vocal (and perhaps even outspoken) advocate for professional, knowledgeable, and responsible facilities design, construction, and management—particularly when considering utilities efficiency, indoor air quality, commissioning, and minimizing the environmental footprint of our facilities’ operations. A quick review of more than 65 FM Frequency articles can verify I’ve been preaching these sermons to the TFM choir long before the words “green,” “sustainable,” and “global warming” replaced “Six Sigma,” “Atkins Diet,” and “Y2K” as ubiquitous media terms.

I think we’re in agreement regarding “recognizing the benefits of LEED” and the value of excellent building performance. However, I would respectfully disagree with your contention that high quality and cost effective projects always require formal certifications. I wouldn’t take the opposite position and suggest formal certifications are never necessary, because I think they can (and do) add value—especially when there are green marketing implications when a facility might be sold, or when a project is managed by an inexperienced or remote facilities manager (fm). My official position on official certifications would be, “It depends!”

Suppose I were the CFO of your organization. I would challenge you (or your professional engineer/construction manager) for proposing an additional 2% (or even 1%) on our project’s budget for something that is basically a paperwork exercise. If the proposal were due to lack of expertise or sufficient time to manage the project properly, or if you had backing from marketing/sales and articulated why formal certification would create value for our stakeholders, clients, and staff perceptions, I would be much more inclined to grant additional funding (although, still reluctant).

But without those factors, if I took a hard line and pressed you to explain why we couldn’t properly build a project in accordance with the latest and greatest LEED standards without the cost of an official certification, how would you respond? If you suggested that formal certification would cost only 2% on a new $10 million facility, I would pointedly ask, “Wouldn’t we be ‘more green’ spending that $200,000 on additional technology, such as energy recovery, lighting controls, water re-use, more efficient mechanical equipment, better insulation, higher quality windows, and so on?”

Why would I ask these tough questions if I were a CFO? Because, based on my experience, I’m confident that professional, knowledgeable, and competent architects, engineers, and fms are quite capable of programming, designing, building, commissioning, and managing excellent facilities without formal recognition from the USBGC. There are plentyof impressive examples of awesome facilities around the world that pre-date LEED. Think about the brilliant Egyptian, Mayan, Greek,Gothic, and Roman architects and engineers who capably built and managed thousands of castles, coliseums, universities, amphitheaters, cathedrals, museums, temples, fortresses, and pyramids. Do you think Pharaoh engaged a LEED® Accredited Professional (AP) to build his tomb?

That said, far too many facilities are unfortunately not designed, built, or managed well. Most of us are familiar with grubby department stores, moldy hotel rooms, dusty doctor’s offices, rank airport bathrooms, smoke choked restaurants, leaky roofs, poorly lit parking decks, and office buildings that are always too hot or too cold.

But let me ask this: would a LEED Platinum rating on a shiny new building guarantee that it won’t fall into a similar state of disrepair someday? Of course not. Even certified facilities must have competent and properly funded facility management (FM) operations to maintain standards of excellence.

As I stated in January, LEED does a nice job packaging timeless and modern best practices that should improve our profession. I think the demand and need are obvious, especially in light of the astonishing traction and momentum USGBC and LEED have gained over the past few years.

According to the USGBC Web site, over 43,000 people have earned the LEED AP credential since 2001. That represents an incredible investment of time (and money) for technical workshops, reference materials, study groups, and exam fees. Hopefully, this investment will yield big dividends and raise the bar for all design, construction, and management professionals.

Here’s a final analogy that might help clarify my murky “It depends!” position. I’m a licensed mechanical engineer and recently earned the LEED AP credential (although I’ve never built a pyramid—yet!). Suppose you needed assistance diagnosing a problem with your HVAC system. I could visit your facility, inspect the equipment, study the plans/controls, interview you and your maintenance staff, and follow up with a written report summarizing my research/analysis with suggestions for resolving the problem. Would the contents of the report or merits of my suggestions have any more value if I signed the report with the initials “P.E., LEED® AP” after my name? It depends!

If my report were simply being used to solve the problem, you probably wouldn’t care if it were signed at all (especially if the report was done as a favor and wasn’t accompanied by a huge invoice).

But if the same report were required as an exhibit in your lawsuit against a general contractor, you would probably insist on my signature (with credentials), since we might end up in front of an arbitrator or jury. By the way, I would probably charge you a LOT more for dealing with attorneys than for simply solving problems! So you see, it all depends!

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.

Please note: The views stated in this month’s FM Frequency do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TFM or theother entities represented in the magazine. How do you feel about Crane’s interpretation of predictions made by experts?