The Red and Blue...and Platinum - LEED Buildings at Penn

January 12, 2017

LEED [Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] is a well-known standard for certifying green buildings, but what does it really mean when buildings are LEED Certified? Why has Penn adopted it? We talked to Dan Garofalo, Sustainability Director, and David Hollenberg, the University Architect to find some answers. Below is an edited excerpt of our discussion.

Why is LEED Certification such a popular building rating system?

Dan Garofalo:  LEED is popular because it is overseen by an independent non-profit, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), and its standards are created by a volunteer community of leading designers, contractors, and building professionals.  The standards are therefore both comprehensive and consensus-based, and I’m not aware of any other building rating system that has been so thoroughly vetted.  Having these independent building professionals involved also allows the USGBC make the case that its standards are unbiased – and don’t favor one part of the building industry or series of products over another.  In part because of these reasons, LEED has now become the standard for the US government, many cities and states, the military, and many universities.  In turn, because of this support from these major players in the construction field, LEED certification brings a little more authority and legitimacy to claims of environmental performance.

Has LEED made much of an impact in improving building energy performance?

Dan: Yes it has, especially in LEED version 4, which places greater emphasis on energy performance.  At Penn, it’s up to the individual project teams to decide which LEED points to pursue, but all LEED projects registered after October 2016 will have to meet the LEED V4 standards.  At Penn, we already require that new buildings exceed the existing code-enforced energy performance standard by 30%, and LEED is another tool to make sure that we continue to improve in this regard.  President Amy Gutmann has, after all, committed Penn to carbon neutrality by 2042, and we expect that new buildings will be increasingly better performers in order to meet that ambitious goal.

But in my opinion, LEED is making its biggest impact in market transformation. It has created an incentive for building material suppliers and manufacturers to be able to demonstrate by their products are green.  By providing LEED points for using green products, the USGBC and the LEED system had a large role in making sure that there is up-to-date product information available on construction materials and components  -whether they be windows or paints or furniture or flooring or ceiling tile.  You can’t claim LEED points until you demonstrate that the products are, in fact, designed to have a benign effect on the environment during fabrication, use, and disposal.  Fifteen years ago, all of this information was treated as proprietary, and architects and users couldn’t tell what was in the specific paint or sealant or roofing material.

David Hollenberg:  LEED is changing the market; the many players are participating with enthusiasm.  I can’t come up with an argument for not going through with the LEED Certification process.

Specifically, why did Penn choose to adopt LEED Certification versus another building rating system?

David: To us the value of LEED is the third party.  If we did meet the LEED standards and didn’t bother to apply for it, I think that’s not as powerful as saying that we actually did go through with the process, there’s a plaque from a neutral third party to prove it. Other certification processes, like Green Globes, is self-certified. We value the third party that compares us to the whole market.

Could you give some examples of LEED Certified buildings on campus?

Dan: Of the buildings that are done and have completed the certification process, the most recent are the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, Weiss Tech House in Levine Hall, Golkin Hall, and the Steinberg-Dietrich Hall’s west end addition.  The awards for the New College House, the Levin Building in SAS, and the Perry World House are pending.

How does the LEED Certification process work at Penn? And is there a concern that some of the LEED standards may be too difficult to take on?

Dan: As part of our Climate Action Plan, brand new buildings and major renovations must meet at least a Silver LEED Certification – and we hope higher.  We put a lot of trust in our design consultants and contractors that we hire.  Our role at the Penn facilities is to make sure that they’re taking this seriously and to be a resource if they have questions.  About 20% of LEED documentation comes from us, the client – information on the building site, on campus standards, and on maintenance, cleaning, and operations.

David: Among the consultants we use, there is no one that doesn’t market their design with a sustainability component.  All major architects will have a sustainability section that lists the LEED building projects they have been a part of.  So even if we weren’t doing LEED, because of who we hire at Penn, our architects and builders would strive for LEED certification anyway.

Dan: We’re comfortable taking part in a bigger effort to lead the regional design and construction industry.  Penn spends over $200M in renovations and new construction in a given year, and we are committed to making sure that every dollar spent goes toward greening our campus and maintaining high standards of environmental performance. We’re going to ask our consultants to specify the high performance equipment, and furniture and finishes that contribute to a healthy indoor environment.  We are going to require contractors to properly dispose of building materials, and maintain a healthy and clean jobsite.

David: We’re extremely comfortable doing it because we know we’re building a building that is intended to last for a hundred years.  For instance, the new College House on Hill Field. Students will continue to live in it until the 22nd century.

Are there any other LEED Certification categories?

Dan: So what we have been talking about until now is LEED New Construction.  There are a number of different LEED catagories, including LEED for Commercial Interiors (CI) for renovations, which has also been used on campus.

David: What’s more challenging is LEED Existing Buildings (EB).  This category continues to monitor a building’s sustainability and energy efficiency when it is operating.  The first Climate Action Plan included a pilot EB project, and we explored certifying Huntsman Hall with great expense and time, but we came to the conclusion that it was too complicated for our typical buildings.

Dan: But we still learned a lot and implemented what we learned. The process of exploring what are best practices in cleaning and maintenance, for example, changed our housekeeping standards across campus – not just for Huntsman Hall.  We’re using reusable microfiber cloths instead of single-use disposable paper towels for general cleaning, using lower toxicity spray cleaners, and cleaning the floors with ionized water – which leaves no residue or odor - instead of detergent.  These are all important features of improving indoor air quality and reducing waste.

David: Although we focus our design on construction, the real thing is the daily the long run than many of the specific design decisions that go into the building.

What does all this mean for the future of sustainable buildings on our campus?

Dan: Since the operations of buildings are so important, it means that we need to be really smart about what we’re building and how we operate our buildings.

David: And we believe beauty is important, too.  Places are sustainable in the long run if people care about them - if they love them.  There is a reason everyone who went to Penn still wants us to take care of their buildings.  They fall in love with the nature of these buildings.  Making beautiful places, and making people care about them is fundamental to our sustainability goals.  It’s not a debate; it’s essential.

What’s one challenge that you think Penn faces when it comes to reducing energy consumption on a building-by-building level?

David:  Public policy aside, there’s always the question of how much control should be given to the building occupants.  One extreme is the Annenberg Public Policy Center:  in each office, a small panel on the wall has three lights that change color based on weather conditions, and give occupants information on what they can do to change their office temperature.  If it’s nice outside, the occupants can open a window to provide ventilation.  If the outside air is too hot and humid, the panel tells them to rely on the central air conditioning – but if they open the window anyway, the internal vent will shut off the delivery of conditioned air to their room.  There are also a series of sliding wood panels and shades that can control light and heat gain.  All these things can increase or decrease the temperature of a building by a few degrees by giving the occupants options to manipulate their own spaces.  I’m not saying that buildings all must behave this way – although they eventually may.  But there is a real robust debate to be had about how much people have to know or should know about their behavior inside and outside buildings.

We believe that in the long-run it is important for people to have a basic sense for how their behaviors impact the environment -- but to what extent? You don’t want to leave it entirely up to the occupants because they could do things they shouldn’t, leading to a building performing terribly. Should buildings be like driverless cars?  Or are they something that you want to adjust to your own behavior and preferences?

What about a challenge Penn faces on reducing energy consumption on an individual level?

David: We believe we have an educational obligation to whomever is using our buildings, especially students.  As professionals in the environmental field, my colleagues in the Penn Sustainability Office care about our campus carbon footprint, and Penn’s overall energy use, but what’s often in the mind of most students is recycling because it’s very visible and something that they do every day.  Figuring out how to educate people on energy, plug load, what to do, what not to do, how to get people thinking about their lifestyles… everyone is struggling with the best way to do this.  In term of building design, it would be ideal to design every building so that how it’s behaving can be easily described to the people in it. We want people to see how their actions can make an impact.

What can the Penn community do overall to further reduce energy usage?

Dan: We want all members of our community to be aware of our reliance on energy, and where it comes from.  In 2016, about 58% of the electricity in our region comes from fossil fuel combustion – about 33% natural gas and 25% from coal – and we should all be intentional in our desire to reduce energy use where we can.  Burning fossil fuels produces CO2, of course, and coal production also contributes to a host of other contaminants, including mercury and other toxins.

We can’t control how our electricity is being generated, but we can control, to a large degree, how much we use.  Do you really need an individual dorm fridge for everyone in the suite?  Can you hang dry some of your clothes instead of waiting around for the dryer?  Can you remember to turn down the air conditioning and heating if your away for the entire day, or for the weekend?

Often, it’s the simple things that make a difference, and one of the best pieces of advice we give people is:  at the end of the day, make sure that you turn off what you turn on!

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