Its a green agenda for architects

Updated: Aug 31 2008, 06:11am hrs
On a recent Friday, when the rest of the staff of the architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle was out of the office enjoying a beautiful August day, about 25 people sat in a windowless room learning about the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process.

Conducting the seminar was Lauren Yarmuth of YRG Sustainable Consultants, one of a growing cadre of consultants who specialise in helping developers, architects and sometimes tenants gain an official stamp of approval from the US Green Building Council through its LEED certification programme the undisputed calling card of environmental bragging rights. Going green used to be part of just a handful of organisations mission statements, but now its become part of everyones agenda, said Ashley Katz, communications director for the Green Building Council. That has, of course, increased the need for sustainability consultants. Many of the consultants are, like Yarmuth, trained as architects and work directly with the Green Building Council to develop and refine the guidelines they help clients follow. At the end of 2006, the Green Building Councils membership included 679 consultants. By July 31 this year, there were 1,590.

This mirrors the rapid increase in the number of buildings certified by the council: In 2005, there were 404 buildings that met LEED standards. Midway through 2008, 1,705 buildings have been certified. The council was founded in 1993 by Rick Fedrizzi, David Gottfried and Mike Italiano, three friends with backgrounds in marketing, development and environmental sciences. Since its founding, the council has grown to more than 16,700 member companies and organisations. It is financed through memberships, educational programmes, a yearly conference and expo, and LEED certification fees. Membership ranges from $300 for small businesses to $12,500 for billion-dollar corporations.

LEED started certifying new construction as green or sustainable in 2000, and the fifth version of standards is being prepared for 2009. Like any fast-moving industry, it has not been a perfect evolution. There have been some examples of consultants who charge a lot of money to churn paper without results, said Tom Paladino, a sustainable consultant based in Seattle, who has been working in the field since 1994. But if youre serious about sustainability, third-party certification, like LEED, is part of the deal. Otherwise, its like saying, I want to get fit but I dont want to get on the scale.

And the scale itself, which the building council has constantly calibrated, can still require expert advice. Just because LEED gives a point for something doesnt mean its the right thing to do environmentally, Yarmuth said at the Beyer Blinder Belle seminar. You will encounter trade-offs a lot. She used as an example one commercial client that wanted credit for alternative transportation, which required bike parking and showers for 5% of full-time employees. While bike racks are simple and easy, showers use water and more construction materials (not to mention more money). Is that the best thing to do in a hot, dry climate where there is a water shortage she asked.

For consultants, this is their core competency, said Emilio Galanda, assistant vice president and head of corporate facilities for ING investment management, which hired YRG to oversee LEED certification for the renovation of its three-floor, 17,000-square-foot headquarters at 230 Park Avenue. They act as an adviser that is impartial. Despite a seemingly straightforward point system and scorecard, getting LEED certification is not always easy. Even large firms with employees with titles like environmental strategist hire consultants to walk them through the process. According to Thomas W. Hicks, vice president for international programmes at the council, there are LEED projects under way in 75 countries. There is tremendous demand to bring LEED in and localise it to their conditions, Hicks said.

NYT / Lisa Chamberlain