Municipalities take the LEED

Leo Pierre Roy
Managing Director, Environmental and Energy Services
Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc.
Watertown, Massachusetts
Presenter, 2006 APWA Congress

Across the country, mayors, public works directors, and city councilors are taking their stewardship responsibilities seriously by actively promoting "green buildings" for their communities. Initially viewed as impractical, expensive, and downright kooky, the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard is increasingly being used for public buildings including schools, libraries, fire houses, and municipal offices. Civic leaders are requiring the use of these sustainable design principles to minimize adverse impacts to natural systems, conserve water and energy, utilize environmentally preferable materials, and reduce solid waste and air emissions. Municipalities today face many challenges, including tight budgets and aging infrastructure, but by building LEED-certified facilities, cities and towns can reduce their total cost of ownership over the life of their projects.

Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle has embraced this cost-saving approach. Seattle's Sustainable Building Policy was instituted in 2000 and utilizes a Green Building Team to support the requirement of LEED Silver Level performance for City-funded projects with over 5,000 square feet of occupied space.[1] Seattle tied its policies to LEED because it is a national standard that "helps to establish minimum performance levels, creates a common dialogue for discussion, and allows Seattle to measure its sustainable building performance relative to other jurisdictions using LEED."

The LEED criteria, developed by the USGBC over a ten-year period through a voluntary, grassroots effort, have become a widely accepted standard for what is environmentally preferable design and construction. These criteria are designed to reduce or eliminate the negative impacts of buildings on the environment and their occupants in five areas: sustainable site planning; water and water efficiency; energy efficiency and renewable power; conservation of materials and resources; and indoor environmental quality. Nearly 500 projects have been LEED certified, representing a staggering half billion square feet, and over 4,000 projects have registered for certification, in every state in the U.S. and around the globe. Municipalities are among the leading proponents; they operate approximately 15 percent of LEED-certified buildings. LEED promotes a whole-building, integrated design process, encouraging early collaboration among all design, engineering, and construction disciplines. The LEED point system is flexible, and based on existing, proven technologies, as every project is not able to incorporate all sustainable design features; ratings include Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. LEED projects are registered under categories like New Construction (NC), Existing Building (EB), Commercial Interiors (CI), and Core and Shell (CS). New standards are being developed for Homes (H) and Neighborhood Development (ND), and these last two offer great opportunities for municipalities.

Target Store in Chicago, IL. Mayor Daley has been a strong proponent of green roofs, encouraging companies to install them, as he has done on City Hall. (Photo credit: Weston Solutions, Inc.)

Lists of the most livable places in America commonly feature cities like Seattle, Portland, and Austin, which are focused on direct, bottom-line results, including community health and quality of life. Not surprisingly, these cities have capitalized on the environmental benefits of green design. Studies show that green buildings bolster employee productivity, eliminate sick-building syndrome, and reduce absenteeism and worker compensation claims. Employees in LEED-certified buildings commonly demonstrate a 2 to 16 percent increase in productivity.[2] The increased control of ventilation, temperature, and lighting, including more natural light, also aid in the recruitment and retention of employees. Comparing the cost of building upkeep to the cost of employees' salaries illustrates how green building improvements are quite worth the initial investment—especially when the municipal government owns its properties. Lower operating costs make the decision to go green a natural choice. According to the Mayor's office in Boston, where LEED Silver certification was recently adopted as the minimum rating for city-owned building projects, "We are the long-term owner. There are people who are building buildings to sell that can't recapture the money spent, but long-term owners can capture the operating cost savings. It makes a lot of sense."[3]

Municipal leaders are also seeking green building attributes such as: improved stormwater management to prevent flooding and keep waterways clean; alternative power sources for energy independence and cleaner skies; expanded recycling programs to limit the need for more landfills in their backyards; and multimodal transportation options to reduce vehicle congestion and pollution. These significant benefits translate to reduced storm losses; lower utility bills; efficient land use; and conservation of taxpayer dollars.

Looking at long-term reasons for adopting green building standards, many of the country's largest municipalities cite that their concerns for human well-being extend to climate change. Global warming is forecasted to cause a minimum one-meter rise along America's oceanfront areas, which would flood property worth billions of dollars, such as over 100 square miles (or $48 billion worth) of San Francisco Bay.[4] Rising sea levels could cause significant freshwater shortage problems in coastal areas as groundwater aquifers interface with saltwater; water efficiencies created by green design can help communities adapt to limited supplies. Then, there's simply our responsibility no matter where our municipality is to consider our kinship to the rest of the world; what happens in New Orleans or Sri Lanka affects us. If we can slow climate change through green design, then officials' mandates to apply it could potentially mean mitigating other impacts of sea level rise. Even an increase of one foot could change the frequency of 100-year storms significantly in waterfront areas (which includes most of human settlement, as more than 50 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of a seacoast). Add a few feet of flooding to that and major tidal-area transportation centers like airports in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston become submerged.[5] The costs of adapting to future impacts of climate change are enormous. Under the auspices of the U.S. Council of Mayors, Nickels launched the Climate Protection Agreement in 2005; in less than a year, nearly 300 mayors representing over 48 million Americans have accepted the challenge.[6]

The more municipalities learn about green design and see the benefits, the more they are eager to expand their commitment. For example, Sarasota County, Florida started in 2001 by becoming the first county in the state to provide a LEED training workshop; the county was amazed when out-of-towners flocked to the sessions. In 2003, when their electric bills were rapidly rising, an energy coordinator was hired to guide the county through EPA's Energy Star program. (LEED and Energy Star are very compatible programs.) Once the county learned that its new, 133,000-square-foot judicial building was one of the most efficient buildings in the nation, it knew that the public could benefit from such savings on other facilities; a green building ordinance ensued, mandating that all public facilities meet the highest level of green building certification possible, such as LEED or a comparable standard. The ordinance also encourages private developers to build green by providing financial incentives like fast-track permitting and 50 percent discounts on permitting for LEED-certified projects.[7]

Manulife Financial's HQ in Boston, MA's new Seaport District. It features a green roof as well as a double skin curtain wall with plenum and shade system for energy savings. Achieved LEED Certification, with strong support from the site owner, the Massachusetts Port Authority.

In 2001, San Jose, California became one of the first municipalities to require the use of the LEED standard on all municipal buildings larger than 10,000 square feet. More than a dozen cities, including Arlington, VA, Austin, TX, Dallas, TX, Los Angeles, CA, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, and San Francisco, CA, have passed similar ordinances. Federal agencies have also embraced the LEED standard, including the General Services Administration (GSA) which builds non-military federal buildings. They have a goal of LEED Silver rating on all structures costing $2 million or more. Other federal agencies that have adopted LEED include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Navy, Air Force, and not surprisingly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In January, 21 federal agencies signed the Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings Memorandum of Understanding to formalize their commitment.[8]

On the Continental Divide, Denver's Mayor John Hickenlooper announced his commitment to green development by requiring that every city-funded building qualify at minimum for the LEED Silver rating, starting with a new municipal courthouse. The facility's innovative design will save energy, and maintenance and operating costs, which can be significant considering that nationally, buildings use at least 36 percent of the U.S.'s energy.[9]

Green design is not just a fad promoted in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, but a national trend. Pittsburgh has superceded Portland as home to the world's largest green building. The $385-million, 1.5-million-square-foot, David L. Lawrence Convention Center was completed in 2003, giving the city more green building square footage than any other in the U.S. Additional LEED-certified buildings nearby include PNC Firstside Center, Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank, KSBA Architects corporate headquarters, a new residence hall at Carnegie Mellon University, McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and even a Siemens-Westinghouse fuel cell manufacturing plant.

In older cities like Pittsburgh, the concept of using green building as a tool for urban revitalization is a popular trend. For example, Cambridge, Massachusetts recently became host to the first municipal building in the state, and the oldest building worldwide, to receive a LEED Gold Certification. The Cambridge City Hall Annex was built in 1871 and due to indoor air quality problems, officials renovated the building to meet local codes. The Annex is an example of how historic preservation and healthy, green design work well together. New England is replete with similar historic municipal buildings with huge potential for renewal. Practicing green also makes it easier for municipalities to convince developers to follow suit.[10]

Whether motivated to apply LEED certification for the operational cost savings, climate change, employee productivity, or other economic, environmental, and social advantages, municipalities are realizing the benefits of green design, and leading the way.

The author will give a presentation on this topic at the 2006 APWA Congress. His session is entitled "LEEDing the Way-Municipalities Promote Green Building" and takes place on Sunday, September 10, at 2:00 p.m. Leo Pierre Roy can be reached at (617) 607-2146 or

[1] Seattle's Sustainable Building Policy (2000, February). Retrieved July 19, 2006, from the City of Seattle website:

[2] Green Building by the Numbers (2006). Retrieved July 19, 2006, from the US Green Building Council website:


[4] Global Warming Fact Sheet (1999, April). Retrieved July 19, 2006, from the San  Francisco Department of the Environment website:

[5] The Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Transportation (2002, October 1).The US Department of Transportation Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting. Retrieved July 20, 2006, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website:$File/Transportation_Paper.pdf.

[6] US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (2006, February). Retrieved July 19, 2006, from the City of Seattle website:

[7] Suttell, R. (2005, October). What Works at Sarasota County. Buildings. Retrieved July 20, 2006, from the website:

[8] Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings Memorandum of Understanding (2006, January 24). Retrieved July 20, 2006, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website:

[9] Barnes-Gelt, S. (2006, July 9). Time for a Greener City Hall. Denver Post. Retrieved July 19, 2006, from the US Green Building Council website:

[10] Best Practices in Sustainability: Historic Preservation Meets Energy-Efficient Green Design in Cambridge, MA (2006, February). Buildings. Retrieved July 20, 2006, from the website: