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‘Sustainability as an operational strategy is a tremendous way to save money’

Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and Founding Chair of USGBC, and author of Green Think, in this in-depth conversation with B Surendar, explodes a few long-standing myths about sustainability, and explains the evolution of LEED certification as a dynamic tool to measure ongoing operating performance of buildings.

| | Jul 21, 2016 | 12:02 pm
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Rick Fedrizzi

Rick Fedrizzi

Could you please give readers a flavour of your book, Green Think? What objectives did you set out to achieve through the book? And how do you see the book as helping in market transformation?
The private sector is leaving trillions on the table – and condemning humanity and our planet to a terrifying future – by failing to widely embrace the extraordinary power of sustainability to drive economic growth.

There are two key ways all businesses stand to gain from being environmentally conscious. First, by eliminating waste and doing things more efficiently, companies save money. Second, by using sustainability to drive innovation, new products become more effective, more desirable to customers and, thus, more profitable.

Let me repeat that: More savings. More innovation. More customers. More money.

What’s not to like here?

It took a while for us in the environmental movement to figure out that business really didn’t need another PR programme; they needed a solid business case. There’s nothing that makes business people happier than making money or saving money. And sustainability as an operational strategy is a tremendous way to do that.

Climate Control Middle East has reliably learnt that the proceeds from the sale of copies of the book will be going towards an orphanage in Haiti and USGBC’s Green schools initiatives. I am curious to learn more about the oft-quoted correlation between Green Buildings and an improvement in academic performance of students, including better cognitive ability and reduced absenteeism from school. How did you arrive at the correlation? And has USGBC conducted specific studies to quantify the improvement in performance in real- life situations?
There is no silver bullet in education reform, and any parent, teacher or administrator will tell you that a combination of factors contribute to academic success. That said, there is compelling research that shows a clear relationship between the condition of school facilities and factors critical for student academic performance.

Several peer-reviewed studies have linked recirculating air and low ventilation rates in classrooms with lower average daily attendance, respiratory illness and slower speed in completing tasks.

Studies have found that poor facilities and low-quality indoor environments are strongly associated with student truancy and higher rates of suspensions.

It took a while for us in the environmental movement to figure out that business really didn’t need another PR programme; they needed a solid business case

Loud classrooms with poor acoustics are also impacting student performance. At least six major studies have concluded that students’ ability to hear their teacher clearly has a substantial impact on their short-term memory and academic performance. As far as specific studies are concerned, one that’s getting a lot of well-deserved attention right now is the “Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function”, a peer-reviewed study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that demonstrates improved indoor environmental quality doubles cognitive function test scores. On average, study participants scored 101% higher in Green Buildings with enhanced ventilation compared to those in conventional buildings. Last week, the Hawaii legislature cited this study as a key reason the state needs to improve the cooling and air quality conditions in their K12 building stock.

There seems to be a strong sentiment that building owners are more focused on getting LEED points than paying attention to the green ideals of the LEED rating system and to the long-term performance of buildings. We see that trend here in the Middle East, where in quite a few cases, the exertions arguably seem to be more towards getting the plaque – and then complacency sets in. What steps is the USGBC taking to encourage a more sustainable evaluation exercise that will ensure certified buildings remain Green for their entire lifecycle?
One of the things we are doing is debunking some myths. These include:

That green buildings cost more, when in fact, today, you can build to LEED Gold for not a penny more than it costs to build a conventional building that costs more over time because it’s inefficient. Experienced project teams practising integrated design save money and deliver a higher performing project. We’ve got so much data now, since there are more than 77,000 LEED-registered and certified projects around the world, that when people try to tell me it costs more, I’m pretty sure they simply don’t know what they are doing. And our team can walk them through the numbers in such detail that those claims simply don’t hold up. Now granted, LEED Platinum can cost a little more, but that’s because you are usually pushing the envelope.

That Green Buildings can’t be beautiful. For a long time, people thought Green Buildings had to be ugly, or at least boring, but Shanghai Tower, California Academy of Sciences, Freedom Tower, even the Marlins Stadium, put that myth to rest a long time ago.

That you have to build new. But LEED for Existing Buildings has certified the improved performance of [retrofitted] iconic buildings all over the world – the Empire State Building; the Merchandise Mart and Sede Centrale, headquarters for Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, the oldest building on the planet to be LEED certified (558 years old, exceeding the previous record holder, which was Fay House at Harvard University, by more than 350 years).

For better buildings, accountability makes a difference. Through a carefully managed, independent, third-party verification system, LEED affirms the integrity of Green Building commitments by ensuring project teams are delivering on design plans and goals. Third-party validation helps guarantee that each project saves energy, water and other resources, reducing the overall environmental impact. No cutting corners.

LEED certification is verified through Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), an independent third party that holds participants accountable to meet clearly defined goals that optimise building performance. LEED guides projects to save money, conserve energy, reduce water consumption and drive innovation. Through a rigorous, documented process that relies on performance and measurement, LEED rewards and validates best-in-class building strategies and practices.

Can you do all these things without actually certifying? Of course. But then, how can a buyer or a tenant know you really did what you said you were going to do? LEED certification does that for you. And more and more investors don’t want to simply take the word of the property owners, or spend the time doing the due diligence – they simply require LEED certification, most often at the LEED Gold level, whether it’s a new building or after an existing building has been retrofitted. There’s high confidence in the process and in the results that get delivered, and that kind of certainty is something everyone wants.

The world sorely needs accurate building performance data, analytics, and for the data to be integrated in an ecosystem that allows for better control of HVAC equipment, say. Is the USGBC taking any steps to incorporate the benefits of the Internet of Things and cloud-based systems in the Green Building movement?
With our first iteration of LEED, we created something unprecedented – a brand for Green Buildings that unified the industry, and a private-sector rating system that transformed the market on a scale none of us could have imagined in our wildest dreams.

LEED was never meant to be static, but rather to continuously improve and adapt to new technologies, practices and advances in materials science. Since its inception, it’s grown from a single rating system for only new buildings to a suite of rating systems that are applicable to a variety of building types at every stage of their lifecycle.

As LEED evolves from its roots as a design tool to become a true performance metric, we’ve also added ways to make the invisible actionable

LEED has also undergone regular comprehensive updates, the latest of which is LEED v4, a version that is bolder, more specialised, and designed for an improved user experience. It includes a focus on materials that goes beyond how much is used to get a better understanding of what’s in the materials we spec for our buildings, and the effect those components have on human health and the environment. It takes a more performance-based approach to indoor environmental quality to ensure improved occupant comfort. It brings the benefits of smart-grid thinking to the forefront with a credit that rewards projects for participating in demand response programmes. And it provides a clearer picture of water efficiency by evaluating total building water use.

As LEED evolves from its roots as a design tool to become a true performance metric, we’ve also added ways to make the invisible actionable.

The LEED Dynamic Plaque is an elegant public declaration of a building’s environmental efforts and performance. Located in a lobby or other common space, the plaque displays immediate measurements about a building’s resource use, reflecting the outcomes of the LEED system – from energy to waste disposal.

The LEED Dynamic Plaque software platform provides a LEED Performance Score based on original LEED certification and five performance categories that collect data from buildings – energy, water, waste, transportation and human experience.

When new data enters the system, the LEED Dynamic Plaque automatically generates an up-to-the minute LEED Performance Score, featured on the face of the plaque, tied to the familiar LEED certification levels (Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum), so that at that any moment in time, you (and your tenants, customers, visitors, etc.) know exactly how the space is performing.

Green localityThe score builds over a 12-month period, so at the end of 12 months, the performance score is the building’s updated LEED score.

The plaque is a visual scoreboard so that owners can compare their building’s current and past performance and can examine the building’s overall performance relative to comparable structures. It is, in essence, a Fitbit for buildings.

But if you want to know how your building compares to others in your neighbourhood or your city, we have the Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG). Essentially, GBIG is an online platform that allows investors to understand the attributes, performance and accomplishments of a building asset. This kind of transparency is vital to driving market transformation – helping us all understand the value of our buildings.

With the LEED Dynamic Plaque measuring real performance rather than prescribing process for getting there, and GBIG, we now have a powerful set of integrated sustainability solutions, linking real-time performance, asset certification and portfolio-level reporting to provide investment-grade data.

The large stock of Existing Buildings the world over provides an opportunity for a massive green transformation. A place like Dubai, for instance, has a stock of over 120,000 existing buildings. The Government of Dubai is trying to raise the energy-efficiency profile of the buildings through a state-wide retrofitting programme, because it sees an opportunity for mitigating climate change to a significant extent through the initiative. As a Council, do you feel you need to lay greater emphasis on existing buildings? How does the USGBC propose to promote faster and wider adoption of the LEED for Existing Buildings programme?
As noted earlier, some of the most iconic buildings in the world have used LEED for Existing Buildings as a roadmap to improve their ongoing operating performance. Our existing building stock really needs to improve, and then monitor its performance on an ongoing basis. The LEED Dynamic Plaque is one of the tools in our arsenal for this very issue. Verdani Partners, a LEED consultant, looked at the differences between using LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) and the LEED Dynamic Plaque as a recertification option.

Utilising the LEED Dynamic Plaque as a recertification method, buildings must recertify every year. With the current LEED-EB recertification path, LEED buildings only need to be recertified at least every five years to maintain LEED status. However, LEED Dynamic Plaque requires much less documentation and tracking than LEED-EB recertification. The idea is that building teams spend more time tracking building performance and less time buried under paperwork. The documentation requirements for LEED Dynamic Plaque are much simpler and only require critical pieces of measured data, such as utility bills.

Recertification offers the opportunity to measure the effectiveness of your building’s environmental performance strategies over time, offering an excellent opportunity to pinpoint areas that can save you money and other resources.

Open-plan offices are being called the bane of the sustainable development movement. Examples of built-for-purpose offices seem to be few and far between. So while the shell qualifies for LEED credentials, the interiors, when implemented as an afterthought, do not aid in reducing energy consumption or in providing thermal comfort to occupants. What measures would you suggest for helping overcome the situation?
LEED for Commercial Interiors has always been one of our most used rating systems, because it helps tenants have the same kind of roadmap for efficiencies as entire buildings. More and more, we’re focusing on the people inside the buildings – to make sure buildings are working not just for the environment but also for their inhabitants.

An organisation called DELOS has pioneered a new standard for buildings – the WELL Building Standard. WELL is the first protocol of its kind to focus specifically on human wellness within the built environment. It prescribes a series of technology enhancements and performance-based measures across seven categories – air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. You might have noticed that some of these categories are the same ones we focus on in LEED. In fact, WELL builds on the health metrics in LEED and takes them to the next level. In 2014, WELL became GBCI’s first client besides LEED, and together we’re already making a world of difference.

But we’re finding a number of new things in the market are also helping these indoor environments be much healthier and more comfortable for their occupants. Certainly, our work on improving the materials that go into buildings is significant. But if you improve interiors with the person in mind, the WELL rating system is a fantastic tool.


(The writer is the Editor of Climate Control Middle East.)


Read the review of Green Think here: From greenbacks to a Green planet


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