Will changing the city's building requirements be a boon or a bust?
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, April 21, 2011
Two steps forward, one step back. That’s how some people describe a change to Albuquerque’s building requirements. The city says the move will save much-needed money while continuing to take a step forward with conservation, but critics argue it’s a big step backward.
The City of Albuquerque climbed aboard the sustainability bandwagon a few years ago, launching the AlbuquerqueGreen campaign, adopting the nationwide 2030 Challenge and declaring victoriously that all new city vehicles would be powered with alternative fuel. In 2005, it even adopted a law requiring some new structures to meet the guidelines of the world’s most recognized and respected system. Buildings more than 5,000 square feet would have to follow standards set by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
What that last bit means is that when larger structures were built or majorly renovated, they had to meet requirements of energy efficiency, water conservation, lighting and air quality.
On Feb. 7, the City Council unanimously repealed this law, replacing it with older conservation rules. The 2009 code addresses energy efficiency, but it doesn’t outline standards for many other aspects covered in LEED. Some green-building advocates worry the move may serve as a bellwether for the city’s attitude toward sustainability and speculate about the larger implications of this change.
LEEDing the Way
LEED is a certification system that measures a bunch of factors to determine whether a building is truly “green,” and, if so, exactly how green it is. The technicalities may be complicated, but LEED’s core concept is simple: Green buildings should save energy and water, emit low levels of carbon dioxide, boast healthy indoor air quality, and be constructed in an environmentally responsible manner. The U.S. Green Building Council (a D.C.-based nonprofit) developed the system, which includes tiered levels of certification: basic certification, silver, gold and platinum. Albuquerque’s law required LEED Silver certification, the second rung on the ladder.
Getting a building LEED certified takes time and money. It’s hard to say exactly how long it takes, but sources the Alibi spoke with for this article agree that securing the LEED stamp of approval adds a 1- to 2-percent increase in construction costs. Of course, because LEED buildings are more energy efficient, their owners save money on utilities. According to the Green Building Council, LEED buildings will save up to 20 percent of their total construction costs over their life cycles, and operating costs decrease about 13.6 percent for new buildings (or about 8.5 percent for renovated ones).
Since Albuquerque adopted the LEED Silver requirement in 2005, it’s completed six LEED-certified projects—including renovations at Animal Welfare’s Eastside shelter—and is in the process of erecting a seventh. Mark Motsko, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Municipal Development, says if the city continues to seek LEED certification for No. 7 and the budget remains unchanged, all projects will have totaled about $41.3 million. Assuming it cost an additional 2 percent to get them all LEED certified, that’s $826,000, or an average of $118,000 per project, for the certification.
The Great Debate
City Councilor Isaac Benton says he voted to repeal the 5,000 square foot law because the city can’t afford it. As an architect, he agrees with the premise of LEED, but he says many of its tenets can be followed without having to pay for the certification.
“LEED is great as a voluntary thing,” he says, “for a government entity, it’s a feather in its cap. But more important is the actual meat of LEED—good, fresh air in buildings, sustainable practices.”
Benton argues that the 2009 Interim Albuquerque Energy Conservation Code is actually more stringent than LEED when it comes to straight energy efficiency. Municipal Development’s Mark Motsko agrees, saying that while the old rule only required a certain level of efficiency for large buildings and renovations, the new one requires it for all new buildings and renovations, regardless of size.
Benton does see the need to address some of the other practices followed in LEED in the city’s conservation code, and he plans on introducing legislation to do just that. He’s working with the Sierra Club and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project to come up with requirements that should be added, with a focus on water conservation.
Councilor Trudy Jones, who sponsored the resolution that rolled back LEED requirements, did not respond to requests for comment.
Lisa Logan is the New Mexico market manager for Green Ideas Sustainability Consultants and former president of the Green Building Council's local chapter. She’s against the change in city policy and says she doesn’t find much comfort in Benton’s comments. She says people who want to use LEED concepts without undergoing the certification process are trying to skirt bureaucracy. But, she says, getting certified “doesn’t require that much effort on the design team’s part, and then at the end you have a great project.”
Logan argues that when municipalities create their own green codes, what they come up with is never as good as what LEED has already outlined. “Why reinvent the wheel?” she asks. But the biggest defense she offers for LEED is its third-party verification. One of the most important parts of the process, she says, is making sure that once a project is completed, everything works the way it’s supposed to. “People pay a lot of money to make [a project] renewable,” she says. “But sometimes there are controls backed up, things that never get plugged in, and energy efficiency goes out the window.” A third-party expert knows to check for things architects and contractors forget, she says, and there’s no substitute for the assurance that comes with LEED certification.
With the city government’s decision already made, though, Logan’s concerns have drifted to Albuquerque Public Schools. A few years ago, with not only the city but the state and federal government adopting their own LEED requirements, APS decided to start making new schools LEED certified. Five out of 11 schools built since 2007 attained this certification. But there’s been discussion on the APS Board to discontinue this trend, and Logan thinks the city’s move may serve as a push in that direction.
APS Board Member David Robbins is the main man trying to squash LEED certification in schools. While he says there are positive aspects to the system, he considers most of it “touchy-feely.”
Robbins’ largest concern is cost. Last year, voters approved a more than $600 million bond for APS for a five-year period. Robbins proposes that if the district was able to save 3 percent of that by tossing out LEED, it would add up to about $18 million, enough to build an entire elementary school. “I’m a Jerry Maguire type of guy,” he says. “Follow the money.”
There is, of course, the other side of the cost equation to consider. Robbins says many of the features inherent in LEED buildings seem counterintuitive to energy savings, such as more windows, larger classrooms and high ceilings. But according to Kizito Wijenje, director of APS’ Capital Master Plan, the reality is just the opposite. “We spend $14 to $15 million a year in electric and gas bills alone,” he says, “which is about $50,000 a day.” LEED buildings, he adds, will cut utilities by 10 percent to 20 percent in the long term. “It’s worth it,” he says.
Wijenje has a larger point, though, which is that he believes LEED buildings make it easier for students to learn. “We’re not just building monuments to prove anything,” he says. “We’re trying to facilitate learning.” Many LEED advocates argue that buildings made to fit the system’s environmentally conscious standards benefit students educationally. More natural daylight, clean air, clear acoustics and adjustable thermostats in classrooms make for more comfortable and happier students, he says, which pays off in test scores.
“If you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck, you get the kind of schools built in the late ’70s to ’80s,” he says. “They look like prisons.”
That’s a point that doesn’t move Robbins. He agrees that surroundings can make a difference, but he says as long as students “aren’t walking through sludge,” their learning isn’t drastically affected. “It’s the parents who care about it,” he says. “The kids care more about what they’re wearing.”
Gael Keyes is the principal of Desert Willow Family School, an alternative K-8 that resided in a string of portable classrooms until its LEED-certified home was built two years ago. Although she doesn’t have numbers to back up her point, she says the building makes students and teachers alike “feel better, feel safer,” and that it’s improved their experience in an unquantifiable way.
“From an educator’s point of view,” she says, “I feel that it’s essential that if we’re teaching kids about how to grow up into the 21st century, we’re not just talking the talk, we’re walking it as well.”