The Green Life
Miscellanea 15 years ago No Comments


contributed by Andie Moeder, IIDA, LEED® AP [interior designer for HOK / IIDA Houston City Center Director]

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this edition of OLD SCHOOL, we’re throwin’ you a little NEW SCHOOL too: The World of Sustainable Design. Though the concept of earth-friendly (a.k.a. green) design isn’t exactly new, the willingness to implement it somewhat is. It’s a hot topic and something our readers obviously want to know more about (just see April 2005’s GO AHEAD… ASK ME). So get past the crunchy-granola-Birkenstock-wearing-long-haired-hippie misconceptions and look into the future of good design.


How did I learn about LEED”

I was sitting at my desk having a conversation with my new boss (I had started about 1 month prior). She was telling me how involved the firm that I worked for was with sustainable design and that it was a major focus of my employer. I went to some sessions to learn more about LEED, and since then have discovered a tool that provides great value to our clients and society at large.


Where did this come from”

Interior design and Nature have always had a relationship to each other – our Neanderthal ancestors were literally one with Nature. Houses used to be made out of straw and clay to make adobe, or sod. Even today, most of the products that we use come from natural origins.

There seems to have always been a love of nature which was most prevalent during the Art Noveau architectural movement. However, the energy crisis of the 1970’s made the Design community re-evaluate energy use and conservation methods and pushed Green Design into the mainstream. At the time, the learning curve and technology at the time was very cost prohibitive and led to a decline in interest after the energy embargo passed. However, for many the dream of doing right by the environment never died.

Fast forward 20 years to the 1990’s, and in comes the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). They wanted to create a method of quantifying what defined sustainable design. This was a challenge because there are many different methods of sustainable design, and it was difficult to determine which method was the best.

For example, would it be better to specify a material that would not decompose but last 25+ years, or something that could decompose but had to be replaced every 3-5 years” How would you prioritize the energy needed to create, transport and recycle each different solution” Which would have less impact to the environment”

The USGBC created a board comprised of leading professionals from many different disciplines that focused on sustainable design to meet and discuss such topics. The end result created the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

The LEED system takes a holistic view of a construction process with credits divided into 5 main focuses:

  •  Sustainable sites
  •  Water Efficiency
  •  Energy and Atmosphere
  •  Materials and Resources
  •  Environmental Air quality

The system awards points for each section, compiling them into an overall score and subsequently qualifying the project as Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. These classifications create a barometer for how much of an impact the project will have on the environment.

The Good

Before LEED, there was no widely accepted way to quantify what was “good” for sustainable practices. Many designers selected product from an environmental perspective, but it was very hard to measure how much impact their decisions made. LEED provided a benchmark to define how many sustainable concepts could be incorporated into the new built environment.

LEED is much more than feeling good about doing the right thing – many organizations are seeing a dramatic difference in their performance:

  •  Companies have had increased productivity with their employees due to less absenteeism.
  •  Schools in California have shown better test scores in schools with natural day lighting.
  •  The Medical field has introduced what they call “Pebble Projects” – a research endeavor to quantify how sustainable efforts affect the healing rate of patients.

LEED is still in its infancy, and it will be very interesting to see how the program will continue to evolve.


The Bad

While there are many benefits of going thru the LEED process, the reality of it is that it does have direct costs. At a minimum, applicants are required to hire a 3rd party commissioning agent to verify the projected energy savings. Other costs include the time involved with filling out the paperwork and backup to verify the validity of the claims that are made for the projects submitted.

Also, design solutions may have a higher up-front cost. For example, a raised floor system may cost more than building on a typical building slab, but the trade-off is its superior flexibility. While I do not believe that Sustainable design has to cost more, it will cause the design team to re-allocate how they spend their money.

Finally, the current state of the real estate market has more companies leasing office space rather than owning office space, so the end user may not reap the benefits of lower life cycle costs. This money would benefit the landlord instead, so there may be less incentive to participate.

Where is this going”

LEED is an emerging focus of the industry –   

  •  The number of LEED accredited professionals [LEED AP] have increased 3-fold over the last couple of years.
  •   The number of LEED accredited projects have dramatically increased.
  •  The USGBC has expanded their chapter locations across the country.
  •  Other parts of the world are adapting their own version on LEED.
  •  Some USA government agencies – including Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon – are requiring all new government projects to attain at least a LEED Certified rating, as well as many school districts.

LEED started as a grass roots movement of people wanting to do what is right for the environment, and it has evolved into a national movement that keeps growing each year. Technology has allowed and will continue to provide product manufacturers and suppliers to make sustainable design more cost effective.

Finally, our clients have been asking for sustainable solutions. This has caused an increased awareness and higher demand for sustainable products in their projects. Undoubtedly, this cycle will continue to build upon the last round of standards created.

It is too early to say if LEED will become another code requirement or participation will remain voluntary. It is not too early to say, however, that LEED has now become a barometer for what defines good design.