Learning to Use LEED: One Class’s Experience

For the last three years, I have taught a course entitled “DEA 422: Ecological Literacy and Design” at Cornell University as part of the interior design program in the school’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. Every year, the students enrolled in the course undertake a team-based project that entails researching and creating design proposals for clients. For the first two years of the course, the projects were not realized, which was a source of disappointment for the students. However, this changed in 2003, when the students assisted the National Park Service in its very real quest to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for a new maintenance facility in the Grand Canyon National Park.

Called the South Rim Maintenance and Warehouse Facility, the building complex is situated near the southern limits of the park, close to its entrance. A preliminary design for the project was developed in 1998, and in 2002, Shaw Beneco won the contract to build the project. The project manager, Curtis Williams, contacted me for advice on how to turn the design into a certifiably green building, as defined by the standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program.

LEED was set up to encourage a collaborative, integrated approach to the design and construction process, as well as to optimize a building’s environmental and economic factors. The process is simple: LEED offers a checklist of objectives for which a building receives credits, or points. A building will be LEED-certified if it is awarded 26 out of a possible total of 69 credits. Better scores earn better ratings: a score of 33-38 points earns a silver LEED rating, 39 to 51 points a gold rating, and 52 or more a platinum rating.

It is one thing to design and build a LEED-compliant building; it is quite another to have it LEED-certified. Of the 1161 projects that have been registered with the USGBC for certification, about 100 have achieved LEED standing—less than 10% of the total. This low percentage reflects the many difficulties associated with this process, including the need for firms to design and build in new ways—ways many of them find too unfamiliar, risky, or costly—and the tremendous amount of accounting and tracking that must be done to verify eligibility for LEED credits.

This is where the students made a significant contribution. After learning about the basics of LEED, the class broke into six teams according to the six divisions of the LEED process: sustainable sites; water efficiency; energy and atmosphere; materials and resources; indoor environmental quality; and design innovation. Each team conducted research to support its particular LEED certification requirements. These findings were then complied into a series of documents for Shaw Beneco’s project management team.

Among the processes documented for the South Rim project’s LEED certification were:

  • specifying post-consumer, recycled content used throughout the project. Materials reused included structural steel from old cars, glass fibers from old bottles (for window frames), nylon from old carpets (for new carpets), and cotton from old blue jeans (for exterior insulation);
  • insulating the building envelopes (floors, walls, roofs, windows, and doors) to decrease energy loads required for the building’s heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems;
  • providing optimal indoor air quality by using low volatile organic compound-emitting carpets and paints; placing office equipment, such as copiers and printers, in a separately ventilated room; and flushing the building with fresh air for two weeks prior to its occupation;
  • minimizing the vegetation cleared from the site, as well as utilizing all of the materials that were cleared.

Shaw Beneco is in the final stages of completing the documentation required for the building’s LEED certification and expects to submit its materials formally in the first half of 2004. Through the DEA 422 students’ efforts, the building—which was at risk of not getting certified—will most likely achieve a LEED rating. It’s a great achievement for all involved, and was a great practical experience for the students.

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