LEEDing To a Path of Despair by Jason Fischer

The temperature was cool outside as I walked through a strip center’s parking lot on Harwin Street.  I paused for a moment to feel the sun on my face.  The realization that I had failed the LEED exam settled in.  My black hatchback was filthy, long neglected for the sake of memorizing acronyms and rating criteria.  I hadn’t failed the test by much but it was enough to leave me feeling confused and empty.  It was like getting dumped by a not-so-pretty girl just when I was beginning to feel something deeper.

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That day was just over a year ago. Not much has changed since then. Every day I still sit in the same room with the same fluorescent ceiling lights, white walls and blue carpet next door to the office where I broke the news to my boss. LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, but that doesn’t explain much.  The U.S Green Building Council developed this as a rating system to provide a standard metric for sustainable construction.  The back of my study guide says, “USGBC is a community of leaders working to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated.  We envision an environmentally responsible, healthy and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.”  Reading that got me excited, but the reality of how LEED actually works is rarely discussed.  For that matter, the daily life of the average architect is an untold story.

In college I didn’t really grasp what architects do.  I just knew that I liked what I was learning.  I was lead to believe that as an architect I could make a living through my exceptional design talent and my charming personality.  I imagined that once I graduated and joined an innovative firm, I’d be traveling the world designing high-profile projects that all my friends would envy.  As it turned out I graduated from college at a time when architecture jobs weren’t falling in anyone’s lap.  I had charged through college and got out as fast I could to begin my life as a globetrotting architect playboy.  I took summer studios instead of interning.  I didn’t anticipate that not many firms would look at me as they didn’t know who I was and I didn’t have any work experience.

The job that I did eventually land wasn’t my first choice. It was my only choice.  But I was full of enthusiasm about being there anyway. It was a small office. There were only three of us:  the owner, an elderly architect and myself.  When I started work there I learned that the owner would be the “project architect”, the old guy would be the “designer” and I would be “production”. I didn’t mind this. I knew that I had a lot to learn and was excited. I was eager to learn, and learn I did.  The first things that I learned were old architect sayings about being at the bottom of a totem pole and shit rolling downhill.  My days were filled with doing what no one else wanted to do.  But, as an optimistic person I took on every menial task making it my own and hoping that eventually my abilities and talents would be recognized.  The difficulty was that it was hard to show just how awesome I was when I wasn’t properly prepared for the practical world of architecture.  I couldn’t fly solo on anything except making coffee, answering the phone, and organizing the library. This is the stuff that internships are made of.  I’d pour through Graphic Standards and old construction drawings learning how to put a building together.  Picking the brains of my two mentors and having access to an extensive architectural library I learned as much about how to put a building together as this office could teach me.

I took on the role of teacher when it came to the computers in the office.  I was an expert with Photoshop and AutoCAD and they weren’t. Before I arrived the office had already begun to change From CADVANCE to AutoCAD but they were having trouble with the transition.    If you ever heard the expression “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” then I don’t need to tell you how life in the office was be for the next few years.  My co-workers fought me every step of the way when it came to learning AutoCAD.  I was adamant about making the switch to AutoCAD because all the consultants used it.

I eventually became a valuable member of the staff.  I was put in charge of presentation drawings and construction detailing.  It wasn’t too long before the old timer decided he’d had enough and retired.  He probably did this because we had to change drafting programs again, this time to Revit Architecture.  He has talked about coming back, but the thought of having to learn a new program keeps him away.  Ever since he left it has been just the boss and me at the office.

Environmental benefits:

  • Enhance and protect ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Improve air and water quality
  • Reduce solid waste
  • Conserve natural resources

Economic benefits:

  • Reduce operating costs
  • Enhance asset value and profits
  • Improve employee productivity and satisfaction
  • Optimize life-cycle economic performance

Health and community benefits:

  • Improve air, thermal, and acoustic environments
  • Enhance occupant comfort and health
  • Minimize strain on local infrastructure
  • Contribute to overall quality of life

Our office is dependent on receiving work through the Houston Independent School District Bond Program.  Last year we learned that in order to be considered for schoolwork that we would need to have a LEED accredited professional on staff as all of their new projects will have to be LEED certified.  That was when I was charged with becoming a LEED accredited professional. I was determined to make a success of this assignment.  It was clear to me that LEED certification is a big step in significantly improving building construction and sustainability.  My boss didn’t see this in idealistic terms though. He thought LEED was a marketing tool.  He didn’t want to have anything to do with it and probably wouldn’t have given it a second look if the Houston Independent School District hadn’t required it.  The marketing aspect of this was hard to argue with after a United States Green Building Council member gave a seminar that we attended actually said it was a marketing tool.

People are becoming more environmentally conscious every day. They want to experience LEED Certified buildings and even build green for themselves.  The benefits are there, but you really have to want them because they are expensive up front.  Some credits are just a matter of being courteous to the environment during construction. Preventing loss of soil and polluting the air with dust and particulate matter are simple to avoid.  Most credits have benefits that don’t show up until much later, although they increase the initial cost of construction. This is a difficult concept to sell to clients, as most clients get mad if you suggest spending more money.  I can’t imagine trying to convince a client that they need to invest in providing their own sewage treatment to treat 50% of their wastewater.

LEED certification requires an exam and I’m not good at taking tests. My spirits fell when I started to look into study materials.  There were none that I could find easily.  The program wasn’t popular enough back then for me to just go to Brown Bookstore and pick up a copy of the study guide.  By chance I discovered that a friend had a copy of the USGBC, Colorado Chapter, LEED study guide that I could borrow.  With that and a couple of practice tests downloaded from the internet, I began studying.  I thought that four weeks of study would be sufficient.  I had heard of others who only studied two weeks and passed the test. I became discouraged again when I learned that the exam had changed while I was studying for it. The last thing I wanted to hear was that I would be facing a new, more difficult version of the test. This meant that my new study materials were already out of date.

The firm had already spent three hundred dollars signing me up for the test.  So, I pressed on. I discovered that the point of the test was to prove that a person with the title of LEED AP knows the fine points of putting a building through LEED certification.  A simple way to explain putting a project through the certification process is to say that it means being able to navigate the USGBC website. The basic requirement is to know where to go on the web site to apply for credits.  Accumulating credits earns a building certification. There are different levels of certification. The highest level of certification is Platinum. To achieve that you need fifty-two to sixty nine points. If your project is awarded thirty-nine to fifty-one points it is rated as Gold. For thirty three to thirty eight points you receive a Silver certification. For twenty six to thirty two points your project is Certified but it doesn’t receive a precious metal label. You would think that a green building would be given a Green certification but that isn’t the way it works.

 

LEED Credit Example:

Energy and Atmosphere Credit 2:  On-Site Renewable Energy: 1-3 points

Intent:  Encourage and recognize increasing levels of on-site renewable energy self-supply in order to reduce environmental and economic impacts associated with fossil fuel energy use.

Option 1: 2.5% – Use on-site renewable energy systems to offset building energy cost – 2.5%

Option 2: 7.5% – Use on-site renewable energy systems to offset building energy cost – 7.5%

Option 3: 12.5% – Use on-site renewable energy systems to offset building energy cost – 12.5%

 

My study routine would force me to leave the comforts of my cozy apartment.  I needed to stay away from television and the urge to fall asleep in my big green corduroy chair.  I would pull myself out of bed at five o’clock in the morning and be at my local Starbucks by six o’clock so that I could put in two hours of study before I had to be at work.  In the evenings I would grab a quick dinner and hit the books again.  The books included the borrowed LEED technical review manual and a three inch three ring binder that was filled with every LEED credit detail on the USGBC website.

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After I had memorized every LEED credit from the website, I was able to point out some of the better aspects of the system to my boss.  For instance, the section of Indoor Environmental Quality is dedicated to ensuring that a building treats the occupants well by giving credits for increased ventilation, use of low-emitting materials, and providing day lighting and exterior views.  He began to feel that I had a good argument for LEED, and I made learning the material look easy, so he signed up for the test also.  We were going to take it on the same day, but I suggested that he let me to take it first so that I could prepare him for the questions that would be asked.  He signed up to take the exam a week after me.

I went into the testing center feeling very confident.  The test didn’t take too long, only an hour or so. But it felt like an eternity.

EXAMPLE TEST QUESTION:

During the complete renovation of a 60 year-old warehouse into an office building, the project team documents diverting 68% of the construction and demolition waste from the landfill and reuses 8% of the materials from the demolition in the new remodel.  Which two strategies could help the project team attain two LEED Points? (Choose two)

  1. Crushing and reusing concrete on-site
  2. Keeping the original toilets and windows in the building
  3. Keeping structural wood members and office partition walls
  4. Specifying recycled content steel and composite wood and agrifiber products

After each question, the candidate is required to choose three of the following five answers, or four out of eight, or even two out of four answers.  I think they mixed up the combinations of choices just to aggravate me.  The part of the test that made me feel most uneasy was when I realized that there probably weren’t going to be any partial credit.  This test seemed to have been designed to assault me psychologically, just like AutoCad seemed to have assaulted my firm’s former lead designer. Shortly after I was defeated by the LEED exam a new job came along and we put LEED on the back burner.  That was quite a while ago now.

I planned to take the test again, because I knew it would be easier the next time.  I would know what to expect.  Just this past week, I spoke with my boss about the exam. But a quick search for “LEED” on the archinect.com forums turned up passing rates for the new tests.  LEED 2.2 is the current exam and the pass rate is Thirty four percent but the new exam, LEED 3.0 is expected to have a pass rate of 20%.  Along with these daunting statistics and a price increase for taking the exam they have made it more complicated by adding a new multi-tier system of “excellence for professionals.”  There is Tier I; LEED Green Associate, Tier II; LEED AP+, and Tier III; LEEP AP Fellow.  I have yet to figure out which tier to aim for.

High up on the twelfth floor in what must be the most environmentally unfriendly building in the Galleria area, I still think about having “LEED AP” behind my name. I don’t think it will be there very soon though.

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