HONOLULU—The terms “renewable energy” and “energy efficiency”—previously catchwords for policy wonks at NGO’s and Bay Area progressives—have now entered the demotic as they have become necessary goals for our future environmental and financial survival.
For the construction and building industry, the increasing popularity of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program reflects both the industry’s desire for more sustainable practices and developers’ recognition that going green makes sense financially.
Founded in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit organization comprised of a broad spectrum of the construction and environmental advocacy sectors, the LEED certification program can vouch for varying degrees of sustainability for an array of construction projects, from home renovations and commercial buildings to entire neighborhood developments (which is currently in the pilot stage.)
The methodology is pretty straightforward. The person or entity seeking certification earns points for adhering to sustainable practices that fall under the following categories: site selection, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, locations and linkages, awareness and education, innovation in design, and additional points can be earned for regional priorities, which are eco-conscious considerations particular to a certain area.
Four levels of merit can be awarded based on the total number of points accrued. There is the standard LEED “certified” designation, and in increasing order are the Silver, Gold, and Platinum certifications.
The growing popularity of the LEED program in the commercial and government sectors in particular can be strongly attributed to the high amounts of energy buildings consume and, consequently, the startling volume of pollutants they emit. According to the USGBC, 39 percent of CO2 emissions, 40 percent of energy consumption, and 13 percent of water consumption are credited to workspaces and places of business. In Hawaii, the environmental repercussions are compounded with the exceedingly high cost for oil. In effect, isle residents pay the highest prices for electricity, and often the most for gasoline, in the nation. (It then comes as no surprise that in Hawaii, energy saving technologies count for a share of the regional priority points.)
“As an island that has to import so much for our energy needs, we should be at the forefront of sustainability,” says Phillip Camp, an architect with Hawaii Architecture LLP, a firm that has worked with several properties that have achieved LEED accreditation. “We’re not last in the U.S., but we’re certainly not like Chicago,” he says of the windy city, which currently has the highest number of LEED certifications per capita in the country.
The benefits of LEED certification are inherent in the kinds of improvements or considerations that rack up points. For Hawaii buildings, taking measures to ensure maximum cooling efficiency is a huge priority, considering that air conditioning is the number one contributor to the electric bill.
Retrofitting the air conditioning with more efficient systems can save owners a lot of money. The Pacific Guardian Center in Downtown Honolulu received $1.25 million in upgrades five years ago, which, in addition to the air conditioning updates, included utilizing the latest technology to improve lighting efficiency and installing a computer system that shuts off lights that are not in use. The owners saved $400,000 in electricity costs the first year alone. With oil prices rising considerable since then, the owners have already more than made up for what now seems like a modestly priced improvement project.
In a world increasingly concerned about future energy deficits (although the rolling blackouts in Nevada is proof that they’re already here), properties with sustainable features and LEED certifications are now worth more on the market as well. “People are starting to recognize the value,” Camp says.
For the homeowner who can’t afford all the bells and whistles, though, there is what Camp calls the “low hanging fruit”—innovations that don’t cost too much but conserve energy and make financial sense in the long run. Camp says good architects and contractors naturally implement green features in their planning and construction by say, designing a floor plan that takes advantage of outside light, using natural ventilation, or laying down landscaping that requires less water. And there are also affordable touches to cut down on air conditioning costs, such as placing insulation in the walls (a common practice nowadays) and acquiring windows with heat-absorbing glaze, both of which can greatly reduce the amount of heat that seeps into a home.
With a State law signed in 2006 declaring that all Hawaii agencies and public schools must, to the extent possible, earn a LEED Silver level certification for all new buildings (with a thumbs up mention of solar water heater installation), and further legislation that includes improving energy efficiency in existing structures, the LEED program is poised to play an ever-expanding role in encouraging private and public sectors to think green for both environmental and financial purposes.
The construction and architecture industry has what’s called the 2030 Challenge, whose adopters pledge to pursue an end-game of carbon neutrality (using no fossil fuel or green house gas-emitting energy to operate) for their building projects by, according to the site, “implementing innovative sustainable design strategies, generating on-site renewable power and/or purchasing (20 percent maximum) renewable energy.”
According to Camp, not nearly enough companies are seeking LEED certification. “But I’d love to see all of them reach for that,” he says.