Going Green in the Construction Industry

Branch Builds Director of Project Administration Heather Bowman

By 2030, LEED-certified projects will have diverted more than 540 million tons of waste from landfills. That’s a huge accomplishment when you consider the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) launched the rating system to the public just 20 years ago. Now, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

LEED is for all building types and provides third-party verification that a structure was designed and built to support personal health and well-being, use less energy and water, and reduce carbon emissions. In states that don’t require buildings to be LEED certified, an architect typically works with the project owner during the design phase to decide if LEED is a priority, and if so, which rating they’d like to try reach: Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum.

A building’s rating is based on the number of points it receives, and the scorecard is broken into different categories such as water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, and materials and resources. If a project is shy of reaching its goal ranking, the owner can purchase LEED Green Power Credits to earn more points.

So, what’s Branch Builds’ role in a LEED project? The company is often tasked with managing the process. They track and document the amount of recycled material used, where the material comes from, the weight of the trash the job creates, the types of paint, flooring, and mastics (high-grade construction adhesive) being used, and more.

Branch Builds has completed several LEED-certified projects, including a three-part renovation at Virginia Tech that involved Davidson Hall, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences headquarters, and Sandy Hall. All three of the historic buildings are on track to receive LEED Silver certification.

“The challenge with the project at Virginia Tech was having to triplicate the LEED certification process,” Senior Project Manager Bryan Underwood said. “Collecting the data is very labor-intensive, but we had LEED professionals helping us along the way.”

LEED professionals make sure there’s a strategy in place to meet the certification requirements, help track the data, and update the project’s progress through LEED Online. There are two levels of LEED accreditation: LEED Green Associate and LEED AP Specialty designation. The LEED GA exam is for those new to green building, while LEED AP is an advanced credential.

Branch Builds Director of Project Administration Heather Bowman has been a LEED AP for more than 10 years and said every certified project is a mark of accomplishment. She’s experienced the changes to the LEED certification process first hand, including the launch of today’s version of LEED, LEED v4.1. It simplified the rating system, streamlined the scorecard and requirements, and introduced methods for tracking and rating performance. But those improvements also came with new requirements.

“It seems like once owners are into getting LEED certified, they make it harder and harder to accomplish and increase the standards because they’re trying to push and grow people,” Heather said. “So, it’s more challenging now, and when they change the requirements, it’s harder to advise the owners on what the cost is going to be.”

Even though LEED has its challenges, it has some substantial benefits. From 2015-2018, LEED-certified buildings saw a combined $1 billion in energy savings, $715 million in maintenance savings, $149 million in water savings, and $54 million in waste savings, according to the USGBC.

In 2019, USGBC reached a major LEED milestone with more than 100,000 registered and certified commercial projects around the world. As for the future of LEED, USGBC is already planning for its next version; however, Heather thinks the rating system is going to have some competition. Branch Builds has seen partners using EarthCraft and IgCC, which have the same mission as LEED: create energy-, water- and resource-efficient buildings.

In addition, some organizations are forgoing the certification process altogether. While the majority of Branch Builds’ projects are built to LEED standards, the company only has five projects where the owner decided to complete LEED’s certification process.

“Part of LEED is that things might cost more. An owner pays the architect to do LEED, pays the contractor for more services to track the process, and then pays LEED to review the project,” Heather explained. “Fairfax County Public Schools, for example, wrote their own sustainability requirements and are meeting them without having to pay an outside service to verify and certify.”

According to a report from the World Green Building Council, the gap among those doing the majority of their projects green and those who are seeking green certification on their projects is expected to grow through 2021, meaning owners are becoming less reliant on green certification.

Certified or noncertified, the number of green buildings continues to increase. With more than 10 LEED APs on staff, Branch Builds has embraced sustainable design and construction practices and is committed to enhancing the quality of life of those within and around their sustainable structures.

Published by Starr Anderson, Marketing Communications Specialist, Branch Group