Making sense of the sustainable building certification programs on the market
By Sue Pekonen and Joseph Caouette
Sustainable buildings usually have three main goals in mind: reduce environmental impact; ensure long-term economic viability; and contribute to the health and social well-being of everyone who interacts with the building.
Certification programs like LEED, Green Globes and Living Building Challenge all embrace these goals. But that is where the similarities end. Each program offers a distinct approach to sustainability projects, and tracking the differences between certification systems can be more than a little confusing for builders and owners. Why does one project use LEED while another chooses Green Globes? What kind of projects should be tackling the Living Building Challenge? Everyone may agree on the goal of making a more sustainable building, but there are a number of different routes projects can take to get there.
Looking at LEED
A total of 269 projects are LEED Certified in Alberta, making LEED the most recognized certification system for sustainable building practices in the province.
In order to receive certification, projects must provide rigorous documentation throughout the design and construction process. The building owner is required to pay for the certification costs, and the onus for the delivery of the documentation is on the consultants hired by the owner.
The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) handles project certification, although there are occasional exceptions, such as Qualico Commercial's EPCOR Tower at Station Lands in Edmonton. Uniquely, the project was certified through the U.S. Green Building Council.
"Our anchor tenant, EPCOR, required a minimum of LEED Silver certification for this project," explains Cameron Haldane, commercial construction manager at Qualico. "During the course of design and construction, we were in constant discussions with the design team, tenants, and our construction manager, Ledcor, in order to enhance the product being delivered, while minimizing costs. In the end, we made the decision to target the more demanding LEED Gold requirements...under the Core and Shell rating system."
Choosing LEED Gold allowed Qualico to increase the sustainability of the project without increasing costs for the tenants. Unfortunately, the Core and Shell rating system was not available through the CaGBC at the time, so the company decided to register through the U.S. instead.
To move from Silver to Gold, the project team identified a few key improvements through an integrated design process. "The mechanical and electrical contractors, Priority Mechanical and MCL Electrical, were brought to the table early on in the design process to help identify key energy efficiencies and savings for the building. Efficiencies such as...rainwater collection for use in flushing toilets and urinals, and light fixtures with both motion and daylight sensors integrated within each fixture were utilized. We also focused on the curtain wall and beefed up HVAC systems," he says.
Adopting an established benchmarking system like LEED also brings the advantages that come with using a widely known brand. Lending institutions and tenants alike recognize LEED, Haldane says.
Green Globes growing
LEED still dominates the market, but the Green Globes program has been slowly gaining ground by offering an alternative approach to certification. Recognized by both the federal and provincial governments, and managed by ECD Energy and Environment for new construction, the program offers a five-tiered rating system to recognize projects that use building practices contributing to environmental stewardship. Among its higher profile proponents in the province is the University of Alberta, which has committed to it on several projects, including the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre in Camrose, Alta.
One of the major appeals of Green Globes is that the program is "not an all-or-nothing approach to certification," explains Wolf Geisler of Element Sustainable Design Consulting.
"LEED is a very rigorous and beneficial program," he says. "A team may follow all the processes and checklists, but if it misses a small portion of the intent, it will not receive all the points and, therefore, may not achieve certification."
Geisler breaks down sustainability into three components—environmental, social and economic—and notes that every program addresses those issues in different ways. Green Globes may have worked well on the Performing Arts Centre, but every one of the various certification systems is extremely valuable to the continuous improvement of sustainability, he notes. In the case of Green Globes, the upstart system provides a speed and flexibility its more established counterpart may lack.
"Green Globes provided us with timely answers to sustainability questions during the project," Geisler says. "On LEED projects that I have worked on...there have been challenges to get timely answers to sustainability questions through the design process."
Taking the challenge
Finally, for the most ambitious projects, there is the Living Building Challenge. Alberta Construction Magazine's 2014 Top Sustainability Project is set to become the first Petal-certified building under the system in the province.
Scheduled for commissioning in early 2015, the Mosaic Centre in south Edmonton aims to exemplify the Living Building Challenge mission statement, which is "to lead the transformation to a world that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative."
Living Building Challenge certification is just that: a true challenge to commercial property owners, designers, contractors and tenants. It asks all parties involved to delve beyond their day-to-day existence and think 20, 30 or even 50 years into the future to understand a building's full impact.
"Living Building Challenge was chosen because of the ethos of the intent of the program," says Dennis Cuku, owner of the Mosaic Centre. "We wanted to have a project that had a holistic approach to design, construction and use. It is not as prescriptive at LEED, yet it still provides opportunity to provide leadership in sustainable building design and function."
That said, the project is still aiming for LEED Platinum certification. Since LEED is widely recognized by governments, banks and potential tenants, co-certification will open up more business opportunities for the centre, according to project proponents.