Pros and Cons of Pursuing LEED

There are pros and cons to everything in life — and applying for LEED certification on a project is no different.

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On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you want to apply for the U.S. Green Building Council’s esteemed certification and a brand-building designation that’s considered the highest honor in construction/operations sustainability and energy management? It is the most widely recognized way to illustrate the green practices associated with the construction and management of almost any building, including foodservice operations.

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But not everything is as perfect as it seems. LEED certification has its downfalls too, so deciding whether to pursue it for a given project tends not to be a simple yes or no proposition. With that in mind, we’ll provide an update on the black and white of the LEED certification process, knowing full well there’s a lot of gray associated with it. At the end of the day, though, it’s up to you to decide the path that suits your project best.

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LEED for Volume
For larger operators like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Darden, Yum! Brands and Chipotle, LEED has become a way of life, and a way for these companies to build their brands and lead the foodservice industry, says Nick Shaffer, manager of USGBC’s LEED program. McDonald’s and Starbucks have even signed on to be participants in USGBC’s pilot program, LEED for Volume. Introduced last year, this program allows companies to simply LEED-certify a concept prototype as the precursor for additional stores to open up nationally or even internationally.

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McDonald’s and Starbucks may be the first two foodservice operators on the list, but others are close behind, Shaffer says. Obviously, LEED for Volume will impact more than the foodservice industry, which is why the 24 pilot-program participants represent a cross section of the business community and include retail stores, banks, Marriott and Starwood hotels, the City of San Jose and universities, including American University and the University of Florida. “These companies are realizing that green building and sustainability isn’t going to go away, so let’s integrate this into aspects of our business because it just makes sense for the future,” Shaffer says. “They can show their certified prototype to stockholders as an example of what they’re doing to lead the industry.”

As a result, their pursuit of LEED certification becomes a model, not only for cost-consciousness, but also for environmental soundness. Plus, it means a lot less paperwork each time a company wants to apply for LEED certification for a store. It simplifies the whole process, Shaffer says.

Starting with bigger companies helps to forge the trail with best practices in LEED design and application so that smaller businesses from all industries will be able to follow and adopt the practices that work for them with greater ease, according to Shaffer. The net result will be that more businesses will lower their utility costs over time, thus reducing the strain on natural resources. Being able to qualify these results through LEED certification will help businesses of all kinds, foodservice included, to enhance their brand perception in the eyes of the consumer.

In addition, the healthcare sector has enjoyed some improvement to its LEED certification process of late, according to Rob Geile, LEED AP and director of consultant services for Hobart Corp. “In healthcare now there actually is LEED documentation on pulpers — we didn’t see that at all just a few years ago.”

LEED Certification Continues to Evolve
For independent restaurants and emerging chains, LEED certification may be out of reach for a variety of reasons beyond their control. Still, following the process can prove beneficial, as the guidelines help businesses save money on rising utility costs, even if official certification isn’t achieved.

But as the LEED certification standards and processes continue to evolve, so too do the opportunities for foodservice operations to play a bigger part in the greening process. “Newer LEED systems are starting to recognize the impact foodservice equipment has on total building energy and water usage,” says Geile, referring to the major changes and improvements with LEED for Retail 2009 when it comes to working with foodservice equipment.

The Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) and other foodservice industry folks worked closely with the USGBC to revamp and relaunch LEED for Retail 2009 when it became apparent to more people that foodservice equipment and kitchens have a significant impact on total building energy and water use. Prior to LEED for Retail 2009, kitchens and equipment were barely addressed, if at all. LEED for Retail 2009 bridged the gap between architects and foodservice consultants and professionals, mainly through a prescriptive path for energy- and water-efficient equipment selection developed by Richard Young, senior engineer at FSTC. This checklist of sorts includes baseline energy- and water-saving benchmarks that foodservice operations must meet to earn the minimum credits in those respective categories.

While LEED for 2009 made a tremendous impact on the future of foodservice and sustainable building and kitchen design, LEED 2012 has capitalized on that forward-thinking movement, and this could be considered another LEED advantage. The main changes in LEED 2012 focus on enhanced, more specific guidelines regarding energy- and water-saving basics and the equipment that will help get the foodservice operations there.

In response to this step forward, many of the LEED for Volume participants have followed the prescriptive path to select items that meet the program’s baseline requirements for energy and water usage. Beyond that, Shaffer says, “they’re paying more attention to the way they build, the materials they use, what they do with equipment and materials at the end of life.”

In general, it appears as if this prescriptive path is a step in the right direction, at least for the foodservice industry. “Richard and his team advised us on the latest and greatest in terms of energy- and water-saving equipment,” Shaffer says of Young. “They really helped us figure out where the leadership is and where the new baselines should be. Our baselines now are more rigorous than ever before, which is what LEED is all about. We’re trying to stay relevant as a leadership tool and continue to raise the bar.”

LEED 2009 marked major foundational changes and revisions to the way credits are reported and earned. In contrast, LEED 2012 focuses on the increasing technical rigor of the rating systems, starting with the new, more stringent prerequisites across all credit categories, according to Shaffer. The updated program also expands on the market sectors able to use LEED. For example, LEED Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (EB: O&M) isn’t used much in foodservice right now, but that could easily change in the coming years, Shaffer says.

“I really see EB: O&M as the future if we can figure out some of the energy issues,” Shaffer says. Restaurants and other foodservice operations might at some point be able to use this certification as a more direct path toward lowering total kitchen energy usage because of its focus on operations, even if the same amount of effort and work goes into earning this rating system certification as the LEED for Retail certification. But, LEED EB: O&M will give foodservice yet another certification possibility outside of LEED for Retail - New Construction and LEED for Retail - Commercial Interiors, which is a plus, Shaffer says.

“In LEED EB: O&M, we look more closely at recycling, purchasing, and waste, really focusing on what comes in the building and what goes out,” Shaffer says. “Rather than focusing on hypothetical water performance, for example, we want to actually measure everything and award what we’re doing and what we’re not doing. It’s a very useful tool for building managers, and they can clearly see aspects of design and performance that’s relevant and cost-effective. I would assume that by 2015, or the next time we release updated LEED rating systems, LEED EB: O&M would become even more prevalent in the foodservice industry. We’re just not there yet.”

This rating system hasn’t caught on in foodservice like LEED for Retail, Shaffer explains, because it’s relatively newer and came out of the design community. It’s just now turning some heads in the foodservice industry.

Energy and Atmosphere Category Upgrades
Major changes from LEED 2009 to LEED 2012 include increased stringency in minimum energy performance across all LEED rating systems, and this includes an increased emphasis on automated systems for demand-controlled energy usage. Each rating system has gone through a revised weighting process with new points associated with each credit within the rating systems.

In addition, projects are now able to earn credits for renewable energy systems, such as solar gardens and wind-powered energy. The scope of green power now focuses more on strategies that offset emissions and carbon footprints. Credit points are also available for renewable energy and enhanced refrigerant management in LEED Interior Design and Construction (LEED ID+C), which includes LEED for Retail - Commercial Interiors.

According to Geile, “the biggest advantage to choosing to go with LEED certification is that it forces all contractors to stay in compliance with equipment specification.” In other words, forget about value engineering. “If a building is going for LEED Platinum and somewhere along the line someone tries to substitute different products, that can’t happen,” Geile says. “Whatever you specify in the original documentation must be what you deliver.”

That means if you follow the FSTC’s prescriptive path for commercial kitchen equipment for LEED for Retail - New Construction projects (Commercial Kitchen Appliance Prescriptive Measures and Baseline), you’re not only guaranteed to meet baseline energy and water markers to earn that Energy and Atmosphere Category point, you’ll also prevent a cheapening of the total equipment package because you are forced to stick with that package. Not all equipment qualifies for the prescriptive path.

Water Savings
With LEED 2012, projects must show much less water used than previous benchmarks allowed in order to earn points for
efficiency, according to Shaffer. This is a clear example of what he pointed out about the FSTC working hard to establish stricter baselines for both energy and water usage reduction.

For LEED Building Design and Construction (LEED BD+C), which includes LEED for Retail - New Construction, a new, sustainable wastewater credit zeroes in on how sewage is treated. That means more credits for low-flow urinals and toilets and other appliances and design to reduce wastewater.

And in LEED ID+C, water prerequisites have become more specific — additional credits are now broken down into water-saving applications such as low-flow spray rinse valves and water-saving appliances that help contribute to an overall reduction in process water use. There also is an added focus on landscaping-water reduction through the use of more natural vegetation and more sustainable irrigation systems.

Other major changes from LEED 2009 to LEED 2012 revolve around the addition of new categories, such as the Locations and Linkages Category, which was developed using borrowed principles from LEED for Neighborhood Development, Shaffer says.

“We are still using some of the old sustainable site credits, but looking more at where the project is located and how it interacts with the community around it,” Shaffer says. That means looking at the presence of bike paths, bike racks and public transportation versus roads and parking spots, and in general, an enhanced examination of transportation as a measurement of the project’s overall carbon footprint.

LEED 2012 also included two other new categories:
Integrative Process (IP) and Performance (PF). The first highlights the importance of collaboration between players in design, construction, operations and maintenance of green projects, and PF highlights the importance of ongoing operational performance in LEED projects, including added focus on metering and commissioning and utility consumption data reporting.

The Costs and Complexities of Pursuing LEED
It’s pretty common knowledge that not only is applying for LEED certification a massive undertaking in terms of effort, labor and documentation, but it’s also costly. There are fees for different administrative staff needs, paperwork, licenses and even the certification itself.

Granted, the LEED for Volume program was intended to help reduce some of that paperwork and costs for companies looking to do more with green building. But even for just one project, it’s a challenge and sometimes a necessity in noncommercial applications to outline clear returns on investment when deciding whether or not to go for LEED.

And, Geile explains, with more foodservice consultants and other industry professionals seeking LEED accreditation these days, some of those administrative expenses can be deferred if you have already gone to the expense of having a LEED AP on staff. Not to mention you won’t have to pay the $10,000 to $50,000 fee for a LEED-accredited design team or project manager if you have one on staff.

“The biggest cost is certifying the building and the documentation because someone has to be paid to pull all that paperwork together,” Geile says. “But the cost of doing that is much less than it was a few years ago with more LEED APs on staff. When LEED was first introduced, costs were between 10 percent and 20 percent, and now the cost can be as little as two percent to six percent.”

Beyond cost and labor, establishing energy and water baselines for the multitude of equipment on the market is no easy task. “Benchmarking a traditional restaurant is pretty hard to do because of all the variables,” Shaffer says. Quick-serve applications for equipment can differ greatly from fast casual and other types of foodservice, even high-volume, noncommercial settings.

“You’re in a position to prove your energy efficiency in an existing facility, and you do this one of two ways: by following the prescriptive path for baseline equipment or by modeling the energy processes for the building,” says Shaffer, who adds that neither approach is perfect.

Modeling is a much more difficult path than simply following a checklist, and you have to analyze the energy usage from the entire building, not just the kitchen, Shaffer says. However, the opportunities to earn additional credits for Energy and Atmosphere are greater — up to a total of 18 credits (prescriptive path is only a couple of points, but for every two percent of energy or water savings over the baseline, you earn an additional point).

Otherwise, the only place to earn additional points for energy- and water-saving equipment or other sustainable systems like recycling, waste control, efficient lighting and better ventilation systems is in the Innovation in Design Category. At that point, it’s all about the process’ persuasive essay, and there’s no guarantee of a point, although, Shaffer says, many projects have earned the maximum five credits here.

Using top-of-the-line efficient equipment can help show energy savings, but the FSTC still remains hard at work testing and retesting Energy Star-rated items and other foodservice equipment claiming energy-efficiency. Those third-party verifications are the key to proving energy savings more definitively.

“Sadly, I wouldn’t say there’s terribly efficient kitchen equipment out there right now that’s really going to boost your score,” Shaffer says. “LEED for Retail isn’t perfect as it stands, and not just for foodservice. It needs to evolve over time, and it will.”

Young weighs in on the changes and some of the drawbacks, as well. “Basically, LEED 2012 will unify the approach to energy and water credits across all the different building types (new construction, commercial interiors and existing buildings), which is very good news, but, on the downside, at present, the LEED 2012 draft criteria are not reflecting all the work we’ve done for foodservice,” he says.

“Bottom line: Foodservice equipment does make a difference on some projects,” Young continues. “We just saw one commercial interior project where the low-efficiency fryers that were specified would have blown out all the available appliance energy credits (worth three or four points). It was necessary to spec high-efficiency fryers, and the designers quickly changed that spec as soon as they saw the LEED point benefit.”

To LEED or not to LEED?
LEED projects and teams have a reputation for becoming credit-obsessed. It can be hard, then, to see the bigger picture: Why go LEED in the first place? Even if you decide not to go that route, LEED’s standards and practices make for a great resource as a first place to start when going green, sans
certification, Geile says.

If you can’t (meaning you don’t have the money, resources, time or staff) or don’t want to make those investments to earn LEED certification, it’s still possible to develop a LEED-style project that will reduce costs associated with rising energy and water expenses and present a powerful marketing advantage, even if it requires more explanation of what you’re doing to your customers.

Regardless, with LEED there are things to look forward to: the popularity of LEED for EB: O&M and its potential to encourage greater energy and resource savings among foodservice companies and institutions. Costs associated with LEED certification are going down. And the FSTC’s prescriptive path and baseline tool can be used by any consultant, designer or dealer, LEED or no LEED.

LEED Terminology

LEED credits: sometimes used interchangeably with “points,” to note achievements in different categories, such as Energy and Atmosphere, that allow projects to earn LEED certification. Certification options include (in order of highest ranking to lowest) LEED Platinum, LEED Gold, LEED Silver, LEED Bronze and LEED.

LEED rating systems: the different tracks for credit accumulation and LEED certification based on the type of project, from new buildings to existing buildings.

EED Interior Design and Construction (LEED ID+C): The overarching LEED rating system category (and specific LEED AP accreditation) focused primarily on existing spaces that includes LEED for Retail-Commercial Interiors and Commercial Interiors.

LEED Building Design and Construction (LEED BD+C): The overarching LEED rating system category (and specific LEED AP accreditation) focused on new buildings that includes LEED for Retail-New Construction, New Construction, Core and Shell, Healthcare and Schools.

LEED for Retail: The main LEED rating system that addresses foodservice equipment and kitchen energy and water processes. LEED for Retail includes New Construction and Commercial Interiors (existing) buildings and spaces.

LEED Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance: a newer LEED rating system which can be applied both to existing buildings seeking LEED certification for the first time and to projects previously certified under LEED for New Construction, Schools, or Core and Shell. The LEED for Existing Buildings rating system helps building owners and operators measure operations, improvements and maintenance on a consistent scale, with the goal of maximizing operational efficiency while minimizing environmental impacts. This rating system addresses whole-building cleaning and maintenance issues (including chemical use), recycling programs, exterior maintenance programs, and systems upgrades, and could be the next rating system geared toward restaurants and other foodservice operations.

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