The Orion Building’s designation as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)Gold building was featured in Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal’s October 9, 2009 edition.  The article recognized the importance of LEED certification, but noted the number of buildings becoming LEED certified has grown so significantly in recent years so as no longer to be an unusual news story.

LEED is a green building rating system developed by the United States Green Building Council(USGBC), which is setting a new standard for site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials section and indoor air quality. Each of these areas carries points under the LEED rating system.  Through an extensive process of verifying prerequisites and credits, a project must reach a certain score to be designated as LEED Certified, LEED Silver, LEED Gold, or the environmentally progressive of all, LEED Platinum.

Rebecca Hage Thomley, Chief Executive Officer, was interviewed for the article.  She said she that, while it would have been nice to have received public recognition for achieving LEED Gold status, she felt strongly that pursuing certification for Orion’s project was the right thing to do for the company’s employees and the community, and not for the press or public recognition.

The article also can be found on the journal’s web site at:  Is LEED losing its buzz?

The entire article, however, can only be read by a Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal subscriber.  The text of the article is as follows:
Is LEED Losing its Buzz?
By Sam Black, Staff Writer
A few years ago, it was a big deal when any building announced it was LEED certified.  There were regular tours, speaking engagements, white papers, awards and news stories.

Today, when a building like Orion Associates’ new headquarters attains Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design status, it may or may not be noticed by anyone besides the building owners and tenants, regardless of what level or type of LEED certification it attains – bronze, silver, gold or the most rigorous level, platinum.
The only cause for dwindling attention is the sheer number of projects that have been designated LEED.  In Minnesota, that number (at all levels, from certified to platinum) has exploded from nine to 98 over the past two years.  In September 2007, there were 89 projects registered and awaiting certification.  Today, there are 262.

A 100-year-old building in downtown Minneapolis, Butler Square, has been certified as a LEED Existing Building.  The new Gophers football stadium is LEED certified.  Several new office buildings have received the designation, as have government buildings, restaurants, primary- and secondary-level school buildings, apartment projects and various neighborhoods.

Even the White House in Washington D.C is pursing LEED status.
The most well known LEED projects in Minnesota are some of the earliest. There’s the Great River Energy headquarters in Maple Grove, the first platinum project whose giant wind turbine on the front lawn can be seen from Interstate 694.

Norman Pointe II, and office building in Bloomington, got a lot of attention in the commercial real estate industry for being certified as a “core and shell” LEED new construction project.
Ample attention was paid to a factory for Quality Bicycle Products in Bloomington and a rebuilt Cub Foods store on Phalen Boulevard in St. Paul, as well.

Breaking Ground
Karges- Faulconbridge Inc.’s (KFI) corporate headquarters in St. Paul was certified as a LEED existing building gold project in November 2004.  It was the first LEED-certified project in the state and a very big deal for the firm, said Chris Nelson, KFI mechanical engineer and project manager.

The project, which converted a former Jubilee grocery store into an energy efficient 35,000-square-foot office building with low-flow toilets, a geothermal heat source and energy performance tracking systems, earned KFI recognition at Greenbuild 2004 in Portland, Oregon.  The company even won a 2005 Seven Wonders of Engineering Award for the building.

We were doing 30 tours a year,” Nelson said “we even had a lot of our competitors come through, along with professional societies.”

Although interest has dropped off, it turns out to be a pretty good return on investment for the engineering firm.  As an early adopter of LEED in this market, KFI learned about the certification first hand while other firms were trying to explain the program to their clients.

It also enhanced KFI’s image as a cutting-edge green firm and helped spread the news about LEED in Minnesota, which has since become an important part of business.  KFI has consulted on 20 to 30 projects that are aiming for or already have LEED certification, Nelson said.

Five Years Later
Compare that exposure to Orion Associates in Golden Valley, which achieved gold certification this summer for its 15,000-square-foot building addition that has received scant media attention other than a small story in the Golden Valley community newspaper (Our Goal of Achieving LEED Certification for Our Office Building Noted in the Golden Valley  City News).

Orion had secure financing, hired general contractor TBD Builders of Forest Lake and St. Paul-based Progressive Architecture, Incorporated for its renovation before President and CEO Rebecca Hage Thomley decided to incorporate LEED design into the project.  Hage Thomley received encouragement from her son, Nick Thomley who was pursuing LEED for his own company’s headquarters in Minneapolis.

Hage Thomley said she felt strongly that pursuing certification for Orion’s project was the right thing to do for the company’s employees and the community – and not for the press or public recognition.

She and her husband took out a second mortgage on their own home to do a change order specifically to pay for the increase in project costs and certification process.

Orion’s project qualified as a gold-level; the onsite day care, which reduces carbon emissions from employees dropping their kids off at day cares all over town, and the showers for staff who bike to work, put it over the top.
“That was pretty exciting for us,” Hage Thomley said of the gold status.

The process turned into a positive learning experience for everyone involved, and one that she would recommend to other businesses, she said.

“It would have been nice if we would have gotten some press on it,” Hage Thomley added.  “There are not a lot of human services companies that have it.”

Other Minnesota projects that have flown under the LEED-radar in the past few years include a Kohl’s Corp. department store in Chaska, certified LEED; the Ameriprise Financial Center in downtown Minneapolis, certified silver level; and the Red Stag Supper Club in Minneapolis, also certified silver level.  However, even going platinum doesn’t ensure exposure.  Blattner Energy Inc.’s corporate headquarters in Avon achieved LEED platinum status this summer, and it received scant media attention.

Still Growing
Mike Tobin, national director of sustainability for CresaPartners’ Minneapolis office, said the pace of clients asking for information about LEED continues to increase as the program becomes more mainstream.  Being a LEED certified project is a competitive issue, especially among office buildings fighting for tenants.

Building owners might not get as much “attention and glory” for being LEED anymore, but they “don’t want to be the one that’s not [doing it],” Tobin said.

Motivations for going LEED vary, he added.  Some firms pursue it because it may align with a product or type of service they sell.  A big corporation such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. may seek LEED certification for long-term energy savings. Hospitals may look at LEED status as part of an effort to improve patient outcomes and speed up bed turnover rates.
Some firms can still successfully use LEED as a way to market themselves and demonstrate to the community their commitment to the environment.

There are other building ratings out there, but LEED is the one that has caught on and will continue to expand, said Rick Carter, senior vice president at architecture and engineering from LHB Corporation in Minneapolis and a member of the U.S. Green Building Councils’ (USGBC) local chapter.  The ISGVC administers the LEED program.
Building owners gravitate to the program because of its popularity and recognizable standards, both nationally and internationally, Carter said.  When developers commit to using it, they get everyone from the janitors to the CEO speaking the same “green-building” language.

Carter said people are still able to get public relations mileage out of LEED approvals.  If the university had put out a press release saying it just received a blessing from the Minnesota Sustainable Design Guide, most people would have asked, “What is that?  What are you talking about?”  However, enough people say, “Wow, the first LEED-certified stadium in the country. That’s great.”

Capitalizing on LEED
Carter said not every building project or existing building should try to be LEED certified, especially if they’re just using it for marketing reasons.

The one exception is when buildings go platinum, he said.  Those projects still stand out because there are s few of them.

The USGBC has only designated three LEED Platinum projects in Minnesota: Great River Energy; Blattner’s headquarters in Avon; and Markim Hall, a new building that opened this summer at Macalester College.
School officials are pleased and surprised with the amount of attention the building has received for its LEED status, said Brian Rosenberg, president of the St. Paul college, adding that publicity wouldn’t have come at all of the hall was only a silver-level building.

The $8 million project was constructed by Roseville based McGough Companies and designed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Bruner/Cott & Associates Incorporated.  It was funded by donations to the school.  Some donations came in only because the school was aiming for platinum status.  Rosenberg estimated the LEED platinum status costs about 15 percent more than generic construction would have.

School officials originally debated going for a lesser designation and using the money it would have spent on the certification process – which totaled more than $100,000- for other sustainable projects on campus.  However the school wanted to construct at least one building that showed to the community, staff and students that Macalaster has highly sustainable buildings.

“It’s one thing to claim it yourself, and another thing to have it externally verified,” Rosenberg said.
For future building projects on the campus, Rosenberg said Macalaster will try to design up to at least LEED silver level, although it may not actually apply for certification.

At some point, LEED-standards may become so common that the plaque and certification isn’t that important, he said.
Tobin, at CresaPartners, agrees that LEED is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and he doesn’t see it becoming less important to get certified. Even if a majority of buildings were to one day get LEED status, doing so isn’t irrelevant.

LEED is always evolving and the certification standards continue to be fine- tuned to keep up with the latest technologies, Tobin said.

“A building that achieved silver status in 2009 isn’t going to be a LEED-silver building in the future,” he said.  The USGBC in Washington, D.C., continues to raise the bar, trying to keep its standards up to date.  There have even been discussions about requiring projects to be certified on regular basis.

“[The USGBC] doesn’t want to be a snapshot in time.”