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Unleashing Corporate Green

The LEED Volume Program seeks to streamline the certification process for developers that replicate a prototype en masse.

By Katharine Logan
May 2012
Illustration by André da Loba

The United States Green Building Council's recently introduced LEED Volume Program throws open the green gates to retail chain, hotel, and other multi-project developers, enabling them to batch certify similar projects. "The essence of the program," says Doug Gatlin, USGBC's vice president of LEED, "is that we can save a lot of expense by not reviewing each and every piece of credit documentation."

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LEED Volume works by establishing a prototype for certification. The prototype identifies the credits a group of projects will target, and defines the means by which successive projects in the group will achieve those credits. Thus, the prototype is a building, but it's also a palette of credits with tightly defined compliance paths.

Unlike the Application Guide for Multiple Buildings and On-Campus Projects, which requires grouped buildings to share a site and supports single-digit building quantities, LEED Volume projects may be located across the nation, and 25 is the smallest batch you can buy. Chains such as Starbucks, Marriott, Verizon, and Kohl's are welcoming the change: "I heard from a number of retailers that it was hard to justify certification because of the lengthy paperwork required, despite each site being relatively the same," says Gary Saulson, director of corporate real estate at PNC Financial Services Group. "The volume certification program simplifies that process and dramatically increases the incentive for retailers like us to pursue certification."

Because individual projects select credits from the prototype palette, projects aren't necessarily identical, and projects following the same prototype may achieve different levels of certification. "The Volume Program is flexible enough to accommodate any design that can meet credit consistency requirements," says Brad Pease, AIA, of Paladino and Company, consultants to seven companies in the LEED Volume pilot. Pease does acknowledge, however, that significant variations will entail additional costs.

Green building practitioners watching squadrons of precertified projects march through LEED's green gates may wonder whether LEED Volume is diluting the currency of green. Surely, acclaiming generic architecture as environmentally progressive sets up a culture-versus-energy dichotomy. In addition, making site- and climate-specific design pay more for LEED certification sets up a disincentive to innovation. Does labeling a building green mean anything if its purpose is to compound already unsustainable levels of consumption?

"I do think it raises a bit of an identity crisis for LEED," says Gordon Shymko, a consulting engineer who has advised green building rating system developers, including the USGBC, as their programs have evolved. While LEED has traditionally targeted innovators and early adopters in the top 25 percent of the market, Shymko says, "LEED Volume gets away from that, no question about it." Instead, Shymko predicts, LEED Volume candidates will tend to settle into the Silver level as the economic sweet spot. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing," he notes. "This is going to draw in a lot of companies that otherwise wouldn't have gotten involved."

And that, according to Gatlin, is precisely the point. "The mission of the USGBC," he says, "is to transform the built environment. If we increase the scale of market uptake, we increase LEED's impact."

According to Gatlin, LEED Volume's primary innovation is its shift in market target away from the consultant team and onto the owners themselves. LEED Volume brings participant organizations' decision-making into alignment with LEED, so that green building is fully supported in an organization's budget, management, supply chain, construction contracts, and even staff evaluation, translating into practices as diverse as recycling, purchasing, cleaning, and commissioning throughout the organization.

PNC, for example, leveraged its willingness to purchase and store ten buildings' worth of plywood, to bring certified wood within project budgets. Starbucks used its LEED program as a springboard for addressing old code-based impediments to water efficiency that piecemeal projects couldn't have solved. "The question is not, how do I get to LEED in the cheapest, fastest way I can?" says Pease. "It's, how can I use LEED as a tool to change the way my organization builds?"

Program participants not only translate scale and uniformity into reduced costs and higher building performance; perhaps more importantly, they take ownership of the intellectual property of developing LEED buildings. Gina Edner, associate director of environmental sustainability with Starwood Hotels, says this intellectual property came as an unexpected bonus. "We now have a comprehensive LEED road map, which is essentially a database of case studies and best practices that enables us to economize sustainable solutions, tighten production schedules, eliminate layers of consultancy, and accelerate the entire new building process."

In response to LEED Volume, the USGBC has seen "amazing commitments from really large Fortune 500 companies wanting to reduce their footprint, and to use LEED as the main tool for defining their buildings," says Gatlin. Continuing to broaden its market outreach, the USGBC is now developing another portfolio-based program. The Portfolio Program will extend LEED-based metrics to new and existing projects regardless of certification, enabling owners to improve building performance, and facilitating entry into the certification stream.

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