A Green Building Consultant’s Insider View of a Successful LEED Gold Project
By Jerry Yudelson, Yudelson Associates
In October of 2012, we received word that the UniSource Energy corporate headquarters building in downtown Tucson had finally received LEED(r) Gold status, more than nine months after initial occupancy. A good-looking, 270,000-sq.ft. office building along Broadway in the downtown core area, the UniSource Energy (NYSE: UNS) building is designed to serve nearly 500 people working for southern Arizona’s main electric utility, Tucson Electric Power. The nine-story building provides improved working space for employees of Tucson Electric Power (TEP), the company’s principal subsidiary. It also includes nearly 11,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space as well as a conference center, meeting rooms and 500 parking spaces.
Yudelson Associates began this project in February 2010 as the LEED green building consultant, assisted by Nicole Isle of Brightworks, working with a team led by Ryan Companies, Phoenix, with architectural services from The Davis Experience of Tempe and Swaim Associates Architects of Tucson. Ryan Companies was both the developer and general contractor, using a design/build approach to deliver the project’s green-building features according to UniSource’s requirements.
To kick off the sustainable design aspects of the project, Yudelson Associates organized and conducted an all-day eco-charrette which resulted in a clear statement of this green building’s environmental and energy goals, most of which were realized during the course of the LEED certification effort. The eco-charrette consisted of general group discussions and presentations facilitated by us as green building consultants, followed by breakout group sessions focused on key topics such as energy, water and indoor environmental quality. In this daylong event, while we used the LEED rating elements to guide our discussion, we didn’t introduce the LEED scorecard until near the end of the eco-charrette. By the end of the first day, we were pretty sure this project could achieve Gold certification, with an outside chance of achieving the Platinum level.
In this project, the constrained downtown site, adjacent to a streetcar line under construction, didn’t allow for any adventurous landscaping measures for stormwater management, but did help to garner a lot of LEED credits for sustainable site selection and low-impact development. In particular, the urban location helped to achieve 22 out of 26 total points for the LEED Site Selection credits, including location to existing transit and the new streetcar project, along with three levels of parking tucked under the building, reducing urban heat island effects and proper stormwater management through onsite detention. (Insert Figure - LEED Facts).
As a green building consultancy, we welcome these kinds of opportunities, and we congratulate UniSource Energy and the whole development team on this milestone LEED Gold certification.
The LEED certification process showed me once again how easy it is to achieve a LEED Gold certification on a conventional building budget. Interestingly, the project started with a goal of achieving LEED Platinum - before the eco-charrette. I think that, just as in high school, everyone secretly wants to date the prom queen or the captain of the football team, every project owner wants to achieve LEED Platinum, at least until the reality of cost sets in! The eco-charrette quickly helped the building team ratchet down its goals one notch - to Gold. Given that we eventually realized 62 points, just two over the minimum for a Gold project, that decision turned out to be timely and realistic.
However, taking the LEED approach, with Gold as the goal, did allow the project’s designers to achieve a projected 24% lower energy use than the ASHRAE 90.1-2007 standard, reduce water use 30% from code levels, install a 100-kW solar thermal system for water heating and a 150,000-gallon rainwater collection cistern for site irrigation. Tucson’s heavy but very infrequent rainfall, mostly during the summer “monsoon” season, requires very large onsite storage, so as not to burden the downtown area’s antiquated storm sewer system with additional runoff from the developed site.
What were the lessons learned? The first LEED lesson, which will come as no surprise to experienced green building consultants, is that the devil is in the details, AND it’s all details! For example, we were surprised near the end of the certification process, to find out that our green-building team had not yet submitted properly dated photos of the soil erosion and sedimentation control measures, a LEED prerequisite quite easy to meet, and so we had to back up and resubmit those, otherwise the whole effort would have failed.
A second LEED lesson, related to the first, is that the LEED consultants have to be very proactive in getting busy professionals to dot all the “I’s” and cross all the “T’s” for LEED documentation, because the reviewers are very thorough and will question any details that aren’t 100% in order, regardless of the clear intention of the measure(s) taken. After the first (design) review, we received a lot of reviewer comments on incomplete documentation that the team had to address when submitting the final review.
The third lesson is that no matter how much LEED experience individual team members have and how competent they are as professionals, the LEED project management team has to make sure that each staff person on every architect, owner, developer, consultant or contractor team, has a clear understanding of their responsibilities for documentation. The fact that a particular firm has done lots of LEED projects doesn’t guarantee that every team member fully understands LEED documentation requirements. Education is ongoing and never-ending in the LEED (and green building) universe. This was evidenced by several reviewer requests for documentation that we thought had been properly submitted by the consultants.
The fourth lesson is that sometimes decisions are made for reasons of economy that really stretch out and complicate the LEED process. In this project, the owner’s initial choice to do some of the building commissioning work in-house did not work well, since the owner’s team had no prior experience in commissioning. This led to divided responsibilities in commissioning, once they hired an outside consultant, and really stretched out getting the final commissioning report done.
But, in the end one should always celebrate successes! The project did get Gold certified, it got finished and occupied on time, it’s designed to be reasonably energy- and water-efficient, it employs healthy building materials and creates an interior environment that should work well for employees. Ultimately, that should be the end-game for any LEED project.
As a green building consultancy, we welcome these kinds of opportunities, and we congratulate UniSource Energy and the entire development team on this milestone LEED Gold certification.
Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED Fellow, has been working on LEED projects since 2001. For eight years, he was a national LEED faculty member and trained more than 3,500 building industry professionals in the LEED system. He is the author of 13 books on the subject and also the founder of Yudelson Associates, a green building and marketing consultancy in Tucson, Arizona.