Interiors Are the USGBC’s Latest Realm

For all the U.S. Green Building Council has done to advance sustainable building with its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] program, reality is that since new buildings comprise less than five percent of the total construction market, the organization’s influence is considerably limited. But with its new LEED program for commercial interiors, dubbed LEED-CI, the USGBC is poised to extend it—and its agenda’s—reach.

“The LEED-CI marketplace is much larger than the new construction and major renovation marketplace that we’re currently working in,” says Emily Turk, program manager for LEED-CI. “It’s a little bit daunting, in fact, but certainly a very exciting opportunity to affect change.”

Although many developers remain wary of the potential added cost of sustainable building, Turk and other environmental advocates argue that extra expenses need not be the case. Not only are interior products such as low-VOC [volatile organic compound] paints and wheatboard cabinets becoming comparable in price to non-green items, but also the occasional extra cost for environmentally friendly items is often offset by the potential reductions in building operating costs brought about by the increased energy efficiency. These lower building costs can, in turn, mean greater building rental and sale values for owners.

Furthermore, occupants are also finding that green design helps improve workers’ health and productivity, such as through better access to daylight and natural ventilation, as well as less exposure to toxic materials. This situation offers potential for huge savings and increased profit, with workers taking fewer sick days and suffering from fewer ailments.

In July 2002, the USGBC kicked off a LEED-CI pilot program, trying out the new system on over 100 projects, including the redesign of the organization’s own Washington, D.C. headquarters; the pilot program ended this January. Now the USGBC is reviewing lessons learned during that period and encouraging public comment on the system.

After any additional revisions are made to the program and the USGBC membership approves the scheme, the LEED-CI rating system will officially launch. Turk says the group is aiming for a launch in September or early October of this year, just in time for USGBC’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon.

Like the existing LEED program for new construction, now called LEED-NC, LEED-CI is divided into five primary categories: Sustainable Sites, which includes the building’s access to mass transit; Water Efficiency, achieved through the use of such amenities as dual-flush or low-flow toilets and drums that collect rainwater; Energy and Atmosphere, which rewards the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar; Materials and Resources, which covers recycling and the re-use of existing building materials; and Indoor Environmental Quality, which concerns the occupants’ access to natural light and their exposure to toxic chemicals.

The LEED 2.1 scorecard served as a template for LEED-CI, with amendments made as needed. “Some credits were removed entirely, some credits were retained entirely, and other credits were retained but they were changed to be appropriate for the commercial interiors market,” says Turk.

For example, a LEED-NC credit for brownfield redevelopment was deleted from the LEED-CI scorecard, but a credit in the Energy and Atmosphere category was made more specific. “It looks at lighting power, at lighting controls, at HVAC [i.e. heating, ventilation, and air conditioning], at equipment and appliances,” Turk says of the new credit. “We understand that there are certain things a tenant does not have control over. But there are other things that the tenant could, in fact, attempt to influence the owner about, and therefore have a greater affect on the environment and the building.”

LEED-CI’s biggest addition, though, will be that it will affect not only the materials being used to construct new interior spaces, but also the furniture and furnishings that will be placed inside of the space. “That, I think, is a big hurdle,” Turk says, “but an amazing opportunity to affect change in the marketplace.”

While no one expects an overnight greening of the average American office, LEED-CI will indeed give the USGBC its best opportunity yet to transform the building industry, which accounts for as much as thirty percent of overall energy usage. Maybe wheatboard cabinets can’t save the world, but as fossil fuels and other means of generating energy growing scarcer every day, there’s no better time to put design to good use than the present.

USGBC is soliciting comments on the proposed final draft of the LEED for Commercial Interiors rating system. The comment period will be open through Tuesday, July 13, at 5:00 p.m. PST.

Categories: Interiors, Uncategorized