Follow the LEED-er

SN&R mooches off green building rating system

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Growing up, I—like so many other white, middle-class kids privileged with thinking that my specialness would allow me to achieve anything—had lofty goals. I wanted to play World Cup soccer while working as a fashion designer who spoke Italian fluently. During my downtime, I’d jam with my band, the Sena’s. Because you’re reading this column, you probably put two-and-two together: I never achieved any of those goals.

So when SN&R owners told me they would not seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, I did not judge them. Yes, it’d be nice to transform their recently purchased building on Del Paso Boulevard into a state-of-the-art green structure, but they’d have to settle for less, because as co-owner Jeff vonKaenel said, “Exhibit A against doing a LEED-certified green building: cost.”

Documenting LEED costs a pretty penny. This is different than the cost of the technological systems and materials to make a green building, which in many cases do cost slightly more than conventional versions, but a building’s life-cycle should recover initial spending costs (besides, when it comes to the environment, a cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t work—the wide-range benefits of green buildings aren’t easily monetized, as noted by Roy McBrayer, program manager of the California Green Building Initiative).

No, we’re talking about the cost to prepare the documentation and calculations to satisfy LEED credit requirements. Y’all love examples, so here’s one: A mechanical engineer bidding on our project projected $18,400 for HVAC and plumbing designs, and $12,699 for LEED documentation.

Wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council introduced a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven rating system based on accepted energy and environmental principles, known as LEED. The council wanted to reshape the commercial and residential building sector, responsible for releasing more carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States per year than any other sector, to have a positive impact on the environment.

LEED is a lot like cooking—at least for little old me, it is. I’m a vegetarian and pretty much the worst one ever, knowing only enough to rotate among frozen meals, Gardenburgers and tofu hot dogs. Every once in awhile I throw in some canned corn for good measure. Anyway, whenever people ridicule my eating habits, I offer a ready-made excuse: If I knew some recipes, of course I’d cook delicious and healthy meals. It ticks me off that my friend gave me a cookbook for my birthday, knocking my old excuse right out the window. What a jerk!

I will likely cook more as I become familiar with recipes, which brings me back to green building—knowing the basics makes it easier. LEED evaluates buildings in five areas: sustainable sites, water savings, energy efficiency, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

Generally, green buildings conserve water through such measures as low-flow toilets, pervious pavement and Energy Star qualified appliances. They maximize natural light through skylights and windows, and keep temperatures comfortable with cool roofs and advanced insulation. Maybe they even produce their own energy with photovoltaic solar panels. It’s great to use products that are recycled, biodegradable, organic, energy efficient, water efficient, non-toxic, locally produced or sustainably harvested. How do you achieve all this? Oh, honey, the list goes on and on (we’ll examine details in future columns). And it’s not all-or-nothing. If you do what you can, you’ll make me real happy.

When building or renovating green, start early. Deciding late in the game may throw your budget out of whack and add logistical challenges to mechanical, electrical and landscape designs.

“It’s not everyday engineering,” said Amanda Martinez, an electrical engineer with Rex Moore in Sacramento. She suggested first identifying contractors with LEED accreditation.

But back to the beginning. SN&R owners realized no one our size—19,000-square-foot building and $1.4 million budget—would attempt LEED, so instead they downloaded the LEED rating system and checklist from to use as a road map to achieve at least 10 percent above Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations: Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential buildings to qualify for SMUD incentives.

When it comes down to it, improving the performance of a house or office building is more important than accumulating brownie points. And so we gave up our lofty goals of LEED certification.

You know, I really think my designer clothing would have been awesome, especially when worn by the Sena’s on our European tour. But writing this column is turning out to be pretty cool, too.