LEEDing to Better Buildings

By Brown, Lester R. | USA TODAY, November 2010 | Go to article overview

LEEDing to Better Buildings


Brown, Lester R., USA TODAY


THE BUILDING SECTOR is responsible for a large share of world electricity and raw materials consumption. In the U.S., buildings--commercial and residential--account for 72% of electricity use and 38% of C[O.sub.2] emissions. Worldwide, building construction gobbles up 40% of materials.

Because buildings last for 50-100 years or longer, it often is assumed that cutting carbon emissions in that sector is a long-term process, but that is not the case. An energy retrofit of an older, inefficient structure can cut energy use by 20-50%. The next step, shifting entirely to carbon-free electricity--either generated on-site or purchased--to heat, cool, and light the building completes the job.

Some countries are taking bold steps. Notable among them is Germany, which requires that all new buildings either get at least 15% of space and water heating from renewable energy or improve energy efficiency dramatically. Government financial support is available for owners of new and existing buildings. In reality, once builders or homeowners start to plan these installations, they realize quickly that, in most cases, it makes economic sense to go far beyond the minimal requirements.

There already are signs of progress in the U.S., including provisions within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act designed to stimulate the economy. Among other items, it provides for the weatherization of more than 1,000,000 homes, beginning with an energy audit. A second part calls for the weatherization and retrofitting of a large share of the nation's stock of public housing. A third component is the greening of government buildings by making them more energy efficient and, wherever possible, installing devices such as rooftop solar water and space heaters as well as solar electric arrays.

In the private sector, the U.S. Green Building Council, well known for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification and rating program, heads the field. This voluntary initiative has four certification levels--certified, silver, gold, and platinum. A LEED-certified building must meet minimal standards in environmental quality, materials use, and energy and water efficiency. LEED-certified buildings are attractive to buyers because they have lower operating costs, higher lease rates, and typically happier, healthier occupants than traditional buildings do. The LEED certification standards for construction of new buildings were issued in 2000. In 2004, the USGBC began certifying the interiors of commercial buildings and tenant improvements of existing ones. In 2007, it began issuing certification standards for homebuilders.

Looking at the LEED criteria provides insight into the many ways buildings can become more energy efficient. The certification process for new structures begins with site selection, and then moves on to energy and water efficiency, materials use, and indoor environmental quality. In site selection, points are awarded for proximity to public transport, such as subway, light rail, or bus lines. Beyond this, a higher rating depends on provision of bicycle racks and shower facilities for employees. New buildings also must maximize the exposure to daylight, with minimum illumination for 75% of the occupied space. …

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