Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lot 5 decision

The Town Council took a momentous step on Monday night in approving a contract with Ram Development for the Lot 5 project. I have been involved with this project since the beginning of my term in December 2003; and with Bill Strom and Cam Hill I represented the Council on the negotiating team. I believe the final result is something that will make the town proud: a development combining first-story retail with 137 residential units (21 of them permanently affordable); a large public plaza; art, through our percent for art initiative, designed and directed by accomplished public artist Mikyoung Kim; architecture designed with the advice of Marvin Malecha, dean of the College of Design at North Carolina State University. Good design, significant and well-designed public space, new retail opportunities, enough residential density to put "eyes on the street" and enliven downtown, the retention of the existing public parking, these are goals that this council and several before it have had for the redevelopment of this site.

In response to concerns raised by Council members Jim Ward and Laurin Easthom, we made one significant change to the contract that was before us Monday night. We directed the manager to require that Ram achieve a 20 percent improvement in the energy efficiency of the project beyond the standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. We authorized him to achieve that commitment by negotiating, as necessary, minor changes to the contract.

The manager has the flexibility to find the negotiation points wherever he can, but the suggestion that I put on the table at the meeting was that he look to the LEED certification process and see if savings could be made by not strictly following it. It may be time to reconsider our thinking on the best way to ensure true energy efficiency. We are requiring Ram to go through the process of LEED certification and commissioning. In recent months, however, citizens have come forward to suggest that LEED standards alone do not guarantee an efficient building. I have come to suspect they are right: The certification process may wind up costing Ram money that could be better spent on physical aspects of the building that would, in fact, achieve energy efficiency.

Prior to Monday's meeting I had brought to the Council's attention a report published in October by two experts in constructing energy-efficient buildings. Auden Schendler and Randay Udall have, in a real sense, "written the book" on LEED. By now thay have concluded, "LEED is Broken; Let's Fix It."

Between the two authors, we've built a passive solar home, designed the world's first renewable energy mitigation program, participated in the pioneer program that developed LEED 1.0, built two LEED-rated buildings (with half a dozen more planned) and played a consulting role on numerous other green building projects, including a high performance affordable housing project. We're concerned that LEED has become costly, slow, brutal, confusing, and unwieldly, a death march for applicants administered by a soviet-style bureaucracy that makes green building more difficult than it needs to be, yet has everyone genuflecting at the door to prove their credentials. The result: mediocre "green" buildings where certification, not environmental responsibility, is the primary goal; a few super-high level eco-structures built by ultra-motivated (and wealthy) owners that stand like the Taj Mahal as beacons of impossibility; an explosion of LEED-accredited architects and engineers chasing lots of money but designing few buildings; and a discouraged cadre of professionals who want to build green, but can't afford to certify their buildings. A growing number of LEED veterans have, or soon will, throw in the towel. LEED is broken. . . .

And further,

The danger is that LEED certification will cannibalize funds that otherwise could be used to improve the building. At today's price point, developers face a choice: pursue LEED--or purchase a photovoltaic system, daylighting, or efficiency upgrades.

About the LEED point system they have pointed observations:

"LEED brain" is a term for what happens when the potential PR benefits of certification begin driving the design process. LEED can be a way to facilitate regulatory approvals, appease the public, and get free press. There's also a powerful incentive for mechanical engineers, architects and contractors to gain LEED expertise. It labels their firm as "green," increasingly a prerequisite on requests for proposals. Unfortunately, if you know how to scam LEED points, you can get the PR benefits without doing much of anything for the environment. . . . The dirty little secret is that you can certify a building without doing much at all (other than mountains of paperwork) to make it green.

An example: A project got one LEED point for spending $1,300,000 for a heat recovery system that would save about $500,000 a year. The same project got one point for installing a $395 bike rack. If you were simply after points and you needed only one more for your project to make the grade, what would you do? Another example: on a project in Colorado, a reflective roof counted toward the LEED rating. Reflective roofs are preferred over black roofs because the black tends to create a "heat island" effect. But this project was 8,000 ft. above sea level, where the heat island effect did not apply. So it got a credit without any measurable benefit. "In truth," the authors write, "LEED is based less on scientific analysis than on committee consensus."

The intent of LEED is great. So is the momentum it's generated. But aren't energy-efficient results what we want? "In the final analysis," write Schendler and Udall, "LEED is just a tool." There may be better, more straightforward ways to measure whether the building Ram is designing is going to achieve energy efficiency. As long as they can demonstrate the 20 percent savings in measurable ways, I think a compromise on LEED is worth investigating. Ram told the Council that they were looking at around $200,000 for LEED certification and commissioning. I simply suggested to the manager that the LEED process might be one place to look to find the trade-off needed to achieve the 20 percent improvement in actual energy performance.

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