Portland developers leading by design, but not LEED-ing

I interact with a fair number of architects and developers as part of my job. Lately I’ve noticed some of them are eschewing green building certifications, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), in favor of investing more in added features to the buildings themselves.   

When LEED was first introduced in 2000, knowledge of green building techniques was not nearly as widespread among the design and build community as it is today. We’ve come a long way since then, and we have LEED to thank for much of that. Today’s architects, engineers and contractors are much more knowledgeable and committed to addressing environmental considerations than ever before. And the market looks for, and places value on, buildings with sustainable features. The building industry as a whole, which once focused almost exclusively on economic costs, now weighs ecological costs as well. As a result, today’s buildings are much better environmental performers than they were only a few decades ago.

This is true of virtually all new construction, including renovations, remodels and additions, not just the projects that spend the time, money and energy to achieve some level of LEED certification.

There’s been a lot of talk about the relative virtues of the various building rating systems (for more on the climate impact of that hot air, check out this link). But only recently has the topic moved to the environmental efficacy of the certification process itself.

“We sometimes have tenants who explicitly want to be able to say their office is LEED platinum or whatever, so in those cases we’ll get the building certified,” says Noel Johnson, managing director for Killian Pacific, a commercial developer based in Vancouver, Wash.

“We’d much rather use the money we’d spend getting certified and tracking points on innovative building systems like chilled concrete slab in lieu of traditional air conditioning. And today’s tenants are sophisticated enough to agree with this approach, foregoing the plaque on the wall for a more meaningful, authentic building.”

According to Johnson, the costs associated with just the paperwork involved for a LEED certification are tens of thousands of dollars, and sometimes as high as six figures depending on the complexity of the project and the level of certification sought.

“In addition to the fees we pay to USGBC, one needs a LEED consultant and someone at your firm assigned to keep track of the certification process,” Johnson says.

Ben Kaiser agrees. He’s the Portland architect and developer behind the Radiator Building, a 36,000-square-foot office building in North Portland, and Carbon 12, a proposed eight-story mass timber condo development across the street.

“We opted against LEED certification despite the fact that maximizing energy efficiency was a core value we had for the Radiator,” Kaiser says.

Instead, he and his partners chose to invest in a unique exterior louver system designed to maximize natural light while minimizing the heating and cooling impacts of solar gain. The Radiator also has solar panels on the roof and energy-efficient LED lighting throughout the structure.

Avoiding the costs associated with certification made the decision to invest more in energy efficiency much easier, Kaiser says

“And we’re glad we did,” he says. “We recently paid the October heating and electric bill for the building, and it was shockingly low.”

Another consideration is the environmental cost associated with choices made in the process of seeking certification. From an environmental standpoint, if you can use wood, you should use wood (click here for more on that). Under the LEED system, though, if one wants credit for using wood, the wood must be FSC-certified. But FSC-certified wood is not overly abundant. Here in Oregon, the biggest wood-producing state in the country, only about 140,000 acres of the state’s 30 million forested acres (that’s less than half of 1 percent) hold FSC certification. So if you’re constructing a building here and you want to earn a LEED point for wood, you very likely will need to import your wood from someplace else.

Killian Pacific faced this consideration recently with a six-story mass timber building currently under construction in Portland.

“Sustainability led us away from sourcing FSC-certified wood because we’d have to truck it in from far away,” Johnson notes. “After all, we have well-managed Pacific Northwest timber nearby. We lost LEED points, but the tenant agreed with our approach.”       

Whether or not the move away from green building certification is a long-term trend, it’s clear that developers and their clients will continue to lead energy and environmental design because it’s the right thing to do, and perhaps they’ll forego the expensive plaque.


Timm Locke, Director of Forest Products

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