Report Disputes Extra Cost of Building Green

Do sustainable buildings cost more to construct? A report compiled by Lisa Fay Matthiessen and Peter Morris of cost-management firm Davis Langdon concludes that building green can have minimal affect—if any—on construction costs if sustainability goals are discussed and integrated early in the design process.In “Costing Green: A Comprehensive Cost Database and Budgeting Methodology,” Matthiessen […]

Do sustainable buildings cost more to construct? A report compiled by Lisa Fay Matthiessen and Peter Morris of cost-management firm Davis Langdon concludes that building green can have minimal affect—if any—on construction costs if sustainability goals are discussed and integrated early in the design process.

In “Costing Green: A Comprehensive Cost Database and Budgeting Methodology,” Matthiessen and Morris dissect the U.S Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines for New Construction (LEED-NC), version 2.1, indicating which areas of the rating system architects most frequently target, the cost of pursuing each of the system’s points, and why some projects do not meet the system’s certification standards. In the report, the pair also detail other factors that influence construction costs, such as a building’s type, size, and location, and compare the budgets for LEED- and non-LEED-certified projects.

Recently, Metropolis’s Laurie Manfra spoke with Matthiessen about the report’s findings, the LEED system’s various quirks, and the two new LEED rating systems—for healthcare design and laboratory facilities—which Matthiesen is helping to develop. The conversation follows below.

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Why did you decide to do this study?
We’ve found that more and more of our clients are interested in sustainable design. They have been asking us, how much does it cost to reach a certain level of LEED? We needed to do a study to determine what was happening, because when we looked at different projects going through the LEED certification process, costs seemed to vary widely. We wanted to get the real facts.

How did you select the 93 non-LEED buildings that you cost-compared with LEED buildings?
We have 600 plus buildings entered in detail in our database. We looked at the LEED buildings we have and then broke them down by building type, and found we had sufficient data on three program types—labs, libraries, and office buildings. Then we went back to the 600 and found buildings that were similar in program type and location to the LEED buildings we had on file.

Based on the study, what advice do you have for architects who are both thinking about applying for LEED and are already in the process?
Build those green expectations, those sustainable design targets, into the project as early as possible, preferably during programming. If you wait until later, you will have a much more limited choice of measures to implement, and they will add cost to the project.

Now that the study is complete, what is your opinion of the LEED program? Is it improving the way buildings are designed?
I think LEED has educated those of us in the design and construction industry, including owners, as to what sustainable design is really about. I think the value of LEED is partially in the awakening that it’s caused. It’s also in the fact that LEED tries to measure something that can be very difficult to measure: It breaks sustainable design down into discernable categories.

But it’s also fair to say that this first public version of LEED does have glitches. LEED is going to change. It’s going to get better and better.

What LEED studies are you planning for the future?
We want to expand the study to include more building types, and we want to take a closer look at the cost implications of individual LEED points.

What characteristics do some of the most successful LEED projects share?
We found successful projects—ones that achieve a high LEED score and stay within their original budgets—are ones where the design team sits down with the owner right at the beginning to talk about sustainable design and clarify goals. [That way] everyone on the team has some input.

The most successful projects have a very integrated process. The projects where it’s not working as well is where some member of the design team takes on [the LEED elements], but is doing it separately from the rest of the team.

I noticed in the report that very few architects try for the LEED building reuse points. What do you think needs to happen before we see a change?
I think it will be very interesting to see if LEED version 3.0 addresses this. It may just be that it’s hard to keep the existing structure and keep all the other points. So in other words, there may be projects out there that are doing really great green stuff, but they’re not going for LEED because it’s too hard. It seems to me that renovation projects would be the first thing you’d want in terms of sustainability. And somehow, that conversation doesn’t seem to be going on.

I think the next place to go with all of this is to look at existing buildings, because with LEED New Construction we’re only talking about a very small percentage of the building industry. And what we really need to talk about are buildings that are already up and running.

Another credit that architects struggled with was the light pollution credit. Is this one of the points that you feel may need revising?
My impression—and this is just my impression—is that there are a couple of things happening here. One is that there does seem to be some discrepancy in how lighting designers interpret the credits, and there seems to be a fair amount of documentation they need to submit.

The other thing is there can be a conflict with the perceived security and safety issues. I know I’ve seen projects where the architects thought they were getting this point, but then there was a decision made by either the owner or the local code official that nixed the point on the basis that lower light levels are bad in terms of security. This actually isn’t the case: Uniform light is far more important than a high-intensity level. But when the word liability comes along, most owners understandably don’t want to go there.

I don’t know if that point is going to change. But I do have the impression that the standard is not as clearly cited as it could be.

In the beginning of the report, you list the different building types in your knowledge base. Hospitals, which you include in the list, are notoriously difficult when it comes to LEED certification. What is LEED doing to address this problem and to set achievable goals?
We have a number of hospital projects that we’re looking at, and there is one LEED-certified hospital that I know of [the Boulder Community Foothills Hospital in Boulder, Colorado].

A new version of LEED is being developed called the Application Guide to Healthcare. It gets into a couple of issues vital to hospital design, specifically how to measure process loads for energy and water. It also deals more with operations and programs, such as how you handle waste, indoor environmental quality, housekeeping approaches, and what you’re doing to make sure your patients are healthy.

At the end of the comparative budget section, you conclude that there is so much variation in building costs that it’s basically impossible to determine whether pursuing LEED certification actually increases the cost. Why then do you think this preconception that it costs more exists?
Well, although LEED has done an incredible job of making sustainable design mainstream, it has also contributed to the notion that it is somehow a separate thing. So what we get sometimes is clients saying, “I want a lab building in downtown Omaha. And oh, by the way, make it a LEED building.”

Clients and design teams tend to think that LEED is something that you add to the building, and therefore the cost is something you add to the budget. We still haven’t gotten used to the idea that LEED is just trying to measure something that we are doing in every aspect of the design.

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