FM Frequency: Questioning Boston’s “LEED”-ership

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By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP

Published in the April 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Facility managers (fms) should be aware that municipalities are beginning to mandate LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for new construction projects. For those readers new to the industry (or for anyone who hasn’t picked up a magazine or newspaper in a while), LEED is well on its way to becoming an industry standard for new construction (LEED-NC) and existing buildings (LEED-EB).

LEED is a Green Building Rating System that was created several years ago by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The group’s Web site (www.usgbc.org) states it is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with more than 75 chapters and membership of over 7,500 organizations representing the building industry. According to the Web site, USGBC’s executive committee, board of directors, and management team suggest they’re primarily led by architects, government planners, and suppliers of green products and services.

In January of this year, the city of Boston adopted “Code 37 – Green Buildings” which basically requires new buildings (public and private) greater than 50,000 square feet to be LEED “certifiable.” Specifically, these buildings must feature a certain number of “Boston Green Building Credits” which will be approved by Boston’s Interagency Green Building Committee.

Projects do not require formal LEED certification; however, according to Code 37, Section 5: “The applicant shall demonstrate that the Proposed Project will meet the requirements of this article with appropriate supporting documentation and by certification from a LEED Accredited Professional and/or other expert recognized by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.”

A recent announcement posted on the American Institute of Architects Web site boasts that the Boston Society of Architects was “pivotal” in the success of the legislation. Meanwhile, on Boston’s Green Buildings Task Force site, a letter from Mayor Thomas Menino reads, “In today’s world, we need to think boldly and broadly about energy efficiency, conservation, and smart growth.” He further states, “The responsibility lies with each of us to safeguard the environmental well being of our city.”

Now, before questioning the wisdom and logic associated with Boston’s recent decision, allow me to acknowledge that LEED provides very useful guidance for fms planning new construction and operating existing buildings. Underfunded operations can use LEED to help justify capital improvements and benchmark operating expenses.

Thanks to increasing energy costs and environmental awareness and alarmism (see my February FM Frequency column), more organizations are recognizing that facilities are not just important to employees. They’re also important to clients, community relations, and the bottom line.

If you don’t already have experience with LEED or the USGBC, it’s probably only a matter of time before you’re asked about green buildings by your superiors. Proactively investing a few hours exploring these initiatives might be time well spent. Even if your organization decides not to pursue formal certification, keeping abreast of changes in this industry is always a wise idea.

Back to the discussion about Boston. What is notable is what wasn’t discussed by Mayor Menino or the AIA in the aforementioned statements. Specifically, what are the schedule/cost implications of a green building code? What sort of return on investment should be expected? Might the cost of compliance for new construction actually prevent decision makers from investing in new and efficient buildings (when compared to the possibility of renovating or maintaining older ones)? Finally, if these new requirements really had self evident financial justifications or net zero cost implications, were mandates really necessary?

(Let’s be honest; populist politicians like to grandstand about “sticking it to developers,” but fms really know who ultimately pays for new construction.)

Most people will agree with Mayor Menino about the benefits of bold and broad approaches to energy efficiency. Like many TFM readers, I have been an energy hawk most of my career and have considerable experience with energy recovery/efficiency technologies, equipment, and strategies.

Most would also agree that protecting the environment is an important and shared responsibility. I have yet to meet an fm who aspires to be known as an energy glutton or a world famous polluter!

Despite acknowledging these points, I personally think fair competition and free markets have proven more effective than governmental directives for driving innovation, creativity, and cost effective strategies. In my opinion, targeting new buildings for additional design mandates seems neither fair nor effective. It might create appealing press releases, boost architectural fees handsomely, and drive sales of certain products and services (insert your own observation about the folks promoting and applauding the legislation), but I seriously doubt there will be a statistically significant drop in Boston’s energy appetite any time soon.

For the sake of argument, suppose that new laws are essential for reducing utility consumption and increasing environmental protection. Is it effective or fair simply to tinker with new building codes that don’t even require actual LEED certification? If everyone should be reducing energy consumption, and if the goal is encouraging “bold and broad” approaches (the Mayor’s words), shouldn’t Boston be applying operational mandates on its entire building inventory? Why is anyone getting a free pass?

What would be an equitable and effective way to achieve the stated goals? Well there’s one solution, but it could spark another legendary tea party in Boston’s harbor! Simply levy significant energy taxes on gasoline, heating oil, electricity, kerosene, and diesel at the point of sale on all consumers. For reducing consumption of anything, isn’t heavy taxation a time tested and proven solution?

The laws of economics are simple—high prices reduce demand. They also have a tendency to drive innovation, since return on investment in more efficient technology becomes increasingly attractive.

Do I advocate this solution for Boston? Of course not! Even folks who believe government should be manipulating the free market laws of supply and demand would need to consider the unintended consequences of increasing an already heavy tax burden. Under these conditions, Boston’s industrial, residential, and commercial “environments” (pun intended) would no doubt suffer, and unemployment would rise as companies and individuals flocked to less oppressive cities.

On second thought, wouldn’t shuttering a few big companies, decommissioning a bunch of buildings, and forcing several thousand people out of Boston actually help achieve the Mayor’s stated goals even faster with a bonus result of traffic relief? Hmmm…the big picture can sometimes be more like calculus than simple addition!

Back in 1773, taxation without representation was strongly rebuked in Boston in the form of the city’s historic tea party. This time, it’s the city’s own government that’s making the move to meddle where it shouldn’t.

As an active participant in our profession, I feel compelled to point out injustice when private property owners representing a small fraction of a major city’s energy consumers are “taking the heat” (pun intended again). It will be interesting to see how many other cities follow Boston’s LEED this time around.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.

Please note: The views stated in this month’s FM Frequency do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TFM or the other entities represented in the magazine.  

 

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