Serving Architects, Consultants in Everything Green Become Mainstays
By Lisa Chamberlain
August 26, 2008
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 specialize in helping developers, architects and sometimes tenants gain an official stamp of approval from the United States Green Building Council through its LEED certification program — the undisputed calling card of environmental bragging rights.
That some two dozen architecture professionals — including a partner in the firm — were getting daylong instruction is indicative of the growing importance of sustainable design, especially as local and state governments are increasingly requiring LEED certification of public projects.
“Going green used to be part of just a handful of organizations’ mission statements, but now it’s become part of everyone’s 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 Ms. 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 Council’s 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 organizations. It is financed through memberships, educational programs, 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 you’re serious about sustainability, third-party certification, like LEED, is part of the deal. Otherwise, it’s like saying, ‘I want to get fit but I don’t 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 doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do environmentally,” Ms. 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 percent 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.
A year ago in May, CB Richard Ellis developed a corporate policy to be carbon neutral by 2010, according to Sally R. Wilson, global director of environmental strategy for the real estate investment and management firm. CBRE manages 1.9 billion square feet of properties, buildings or facilities, and many of its clients are looking to go green as well.
The company started with its own regional headquarters at 750 Ninth Street NW in Washington.
Ms. Wilson brought in Holley Henderson, a principal of H2 Ecodesign, based in Atlanta, to manage the process and make sure the architect was designing to LEED standards.
“Certified wood is a hot topic right now” with the Green Building Council, Ms. Henderson said by way of example. “The requirement is, 50 percent of wood has to be sustainably harvested. But keep in mind, if you use wheat or sunflower board or some other alternative, those are grasses, not wood. The way the credit reads, 50 percent is a lot, so the more you reduce your wood, the easier it is to get this credit. People who just look at the scorecard and checklist wouldn’t understand these nuances.”
And not even the consultants always get things right. CBRE installed a green roof on the section it had control over, but the Green Building Council did not award it the credit it was seeking since it did not cover the required percentage of the total roof.
As Ms. Henderson works with more and larger clients, she has seen larger firms bringing the work in-house. “In the last six months, I’ve seen a trend away from being hired as an embedded employee in the whole process to having more of an advisory role,” she said.
“We do have a sustainability manager in-house; we didn’t have that before,” said Guy Geier, senior partner of FXFowle, an architecture firm that hired YRG to manage the firm’s renovation of the National Audubon Society’s new 28,000-square-foot office space on Varick Street in Lower Manhattan, which is expected to achieve LEED platinum status. “We will continue to use YRG for bigger, more complex projects,” which are increasingly done overseas in Asia and the Middle East.
According to Thomas W. Hicks, vice president for international programs at the council, there are LEED projects under way in 75 countries. “There is tremendous demand to bring LEED in and localize it to their conditions,” Mr. Hicks said.
Most of the big salmon fisheries in Europe, the Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest are gone, victims of commercial development, overfishing and pollution. Now one of the greatest remaining runs is at risk from a giant gold and copper mine that would dominate the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, an extraordinarily rich fishery that produces about half of the wild salmon sold in North America.
On Tuesday, Alaskans will vote on an initiative intended to strengthen protections for those headwaters — the intricate system of lakes, streams and rivers where the salmon spawn and live. It deserves their overwhelming approval.
The initiative will not, as opponents have claimed, block all mines in Alaska, or even this one, known as the Pebble Mine. It simply states that any new mine cannot put toxic wastes in salmon-bearing streams. This, in turn, will require mining companies to be meticulously careful when designing and operating a mine. Given the industry’s history of environmental misrule, that can only be a good thing.
This has been a typical Alaskan struggle over natural resources, but more local than most. The debates over logging in the Tongass National Forest or drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have involved federal lands, engaging Congress and the White House. This fight largely involves state lands, but that has not made it any less fierce. Each side has spent millions to advertise their competing economic claims.
The pro-mining forces — including many legislators and a consortium of Canadian and British companies — claim that the mine could yield more than $300 billion in metals and hundreds of jobs for struggling rural Alaska. The pro-salmon forces say the mine could kill a fishing industry worth at least $300 million a year — and that while metals are finite, the salmon are a renewable resource. But they will only be renewable if the waters they inhabit are kept free of toxins.
This country has failed to protect the salmon, and the salmon industry, in New England and in California, Oregon and Washington. Alaskans now have a chance to save one of the last healthy wild salmon populations left. We hope they vote yes for the initiative.