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Tuesday, December 07, 2021
LEED certification strives to make buildings greener based on silver, gold and platinum certifications — but are building standards becoming greener or just golder?

LEED-Certified: Are UW-System buildings getting greener?

UW System infrastructure is rapidly aging. With crumbling infrastructure and little funds allocated toward renovations, experts question the best way to ensure the next generation of buildings are built as green as possible. 

Over 60 percent of UW System buildings are between 45-70 years old. UW System President Ray Cross stressed the importance of reinvesting in UW System infrastructure in a statement earlier this year. 

Aging buildings across the UW System bring into focus the reality that soon many facilities will need renovations or to be rebuilt in order perform their current function or programming well.

As the UW System looks at constructing new buildings and renovating older structures, many are wondering what the best way is to ensure that the buildings delivered are water-, energy- and resource-efficient.

A common answer to this question across universities is through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.  

Ran by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED is a green building certification program designed to provide a sustainable framework for new construction.

In addition to making buildings more energy-, resource- and water-efficient in construction, LEED standards seek to provide healthy indoor spaces. Buildings are rated certified silver, gold or platinum based on their adherence to the standards.

At UW-Madison, there are 11 LEED-certified buildings and several other campuses across the UW-System, like UW-La Crosse, share a similar number of LEED certifications.

The UW-Madison Education Building, which received LEED platinum certification in 2011, provides a snapshot of what a high-ranking LEED building looks like. 

For instance, 85 percent of the wood used in building project was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC certification guarantees that the wood was removed from a sustainably managed forest.

UW-Madison’s Union South carries a LEED gold certification.

One of the techniques used during the Union South project was the implementation planters covering much of the the building’s roof. These help to reduce stormwater runoff, as well as reduce the heat-island effect that many urban areas generate. 

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The last project to be LEED-certified at UW-Madison was the North Camp Randall Edition in 2015.

As four years have gone without using the LEED tool, UW-Madison Assistant Director for New Technology Directions at the Grainger Institute for Engineering Dr. Angela Pakes would like to see the tool used in more in the future as more projects are planned. 

“We have seen that pay-off in the long run for more sustainable buildings, less energy use, less water use and less material use, more local materials supporting local jobs,” she said.

However, John Davis, a LEED-accredited professional and UW-Madison College of Engineering faculty associate worries that a future too focused on certification may look good on paper, but may not truly deliver green buildings.

“The perception of a sustainable campus does not pay the utility bills,” he said.

Davis’ approach to the future involves taking the best and most useful elements from LEED, such as building commissioning, to deliver quality buildings that are not necessarily certified.

“The building industry believes a certified building is a quality building,” he said. “There is, in my opinion, very little correlation.”

He believes that resources and funds would be allocated in better places, like training and retaining “exceptional” building operators rather than on securing certifications.

UW-La Crosse Safety and Sustainability Manager Dan Sweetman believes that LEED has made a difference in the quality of sustainable operations on campus.

The LEED tool has not only allowed for improvements in buildings that are certified, but has also aided in improving the sustainable operations of some other buildings, according to Sweetman.

“We’ve taken a lot of the items that we’ve learned for green cleaning in those [LEED-certified] buildings and we’ve applied them broadly,” he said.

The issue of creating sustainable buildings is important to the UW-La Crosse campus as it plans for future renovations. It is currently looking to remodel all of its older residence halls and bring them up to code, Sweetman added. 

However, Davis is more skeptical of the true implications of a building becoming LEED-certified.

“In an effort to achieve a building project's energy efficiency goals, LEED-certified buildings typically have complex systems that make solid design, quality construction and optimized operation very difficult to achieve,Davis said.

Davis expressed his struggles with LEED standard buildings as the complexity of the several systems needed to meet LEED energy efficiency standards are not as effective in practice. 

“Should any link in the chain of requirements be broken, bad things occur and building performance suffers,” he said.

For Davis, this signals that the systems delivered in a LEED building may lead to a certified building, but not necessarily an energy-efficient one in operation. 

Although Davis is concerned with the program’s efficiency effectiveness, Pakes sees benefits to the LEED tool.

Pakes has successfully led LEED projects earning silver, gold and platinum certifications. On the UW-Madison campus, she was involved in projects such as the construction of Union South. 

She elaborated on what she thought the benefits of using LEED as a tool for delivering buildings are, statingthat LEED certification brings much more to the table by offering stakeholders in a project a common language.

“It’s not just checking boxes,” Pakes said. “Once you have an understanding of what sustainability means to all those stakeholders, then having a conversation using a tool like LEED to help guide the team along can be super effective in delivering the very good green sustainable building.”

Davis expressed that he sees a similar strength in LEED, noting the positive impact that LEED has made on the building industry is the normalization of “building commissioning.”

Building commissioning is a process focused on verifying that the building owner’s standards are met during the design, construction and delivery of a project — and it has become a “common practice in the industry,” according to Davis.

Although there is fog surrounding the exact future of green building, Sweetman expressed the sentiment that it is a priority in the UW-System.

“At the end day it is a priority as we’re looking at redeveloping our facilities as far as remodeling goes and or any new construction on our campus,” he said. 

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