Is LEED certification worth looking into for your next warehouse?

by Amy Drew Thompson for MHI Solutions

More and more companies are choosing to invest in green building practices, enjoying quick returns on investments that pay off in profit and public opinion.

Every day, society seems to move forward when it comes to green practices, which have now evolved well beyond the idea of leaving the forest as you found it after a day hike. Everything from simple water bottles to entire construction projects are done so not only by using less, but by generating far less waste in their wake. And the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Certification Program is allowing companies to make their newer, greener policies official.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) provides a series of standards for sustainable construction, and the certifications come in a number of levels — from basic to Silver, Gold and Platinum. In growing numbers, businesses are getting on board with LEED, building with energy savings in mind in both the materials used and the ways in which they are designed to work — using less electricity, creating less runoff and recycling rain water. Even green rooftops are gaining ground, doing their job to reduce the crushing effects of the “urban heat island” and to bring unnaturally jacked temperatures down, even helping improve air quality.

So, have we reached the tipping point for corporate eco-consciousness? Patrick Penfield, assistant professor of Supply Chain Practice and director, Supply Chain Executive Programs for Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, hopes that the spread of green through corporate America is rooted in a concern for the environment. But he’s still pragmatic.

“It’s all about the bottom line,” he says. “Even executives with a genuine concern for the planet are ecological modernists, looking at how they can reduce costs by reducing the footprint of packaging, of buildings, of all that other stuff. You may want to help the environment, but it still has to be about saving money.”

That said, there are certainly savings to be had by having a LEED building. With warehouse and distribution, Penfield says, “you’re probably going to be looking at your energy costs — what type of energy do you use? Boilers? Furnaces? You’ll be looking at your wastewater, how it’s removed from your facility and how much water you use overall. You’ll be looking at your lighting, hopefully moving toward LED, which most warehouses are doing these days. You might also think about your materials-handling equipment, moving more toward electric or, hopefully, hydrogen.”

Scoring points
LEED certification is points-based. For each sustainable design (or redesign, in the case of facility upgrade) decision you make, you garner points. Commercial buildings must satisfy all LEED prerequisites and earn a minimum of 40 points on the 110-point LEED system rating scale — the higher your points, the loftier your certification.

Ratings systems will differ depending on your project. The Core and Shell Construction system, for example, is appropriate for buildings that are new, ground-up projects, or are undergoing major renovations to their exterior shells  and core mechanical, electrical and plumbing units but are not complete interior fit-outs. Others — Commercial Interiors and Existing Buildings Operations & Maintenance — are for smaller undertakings.

Points can be accrued in any number of ways. “You could get points for something as simple as putting in a bike rack or using local suppliers or ground-up construction choices like water-collection systems,” says Penfield. In the latter, rain-collection systems are built into the facility’s infrastructure and connect to the plumbing, and are then used for all the non-potable needs — toilets, for example, or irrigation systems for exterior landscaping. “You’re not relying on county water,” he notes. “You’re using the water you have at your disposal.”

Of course, what works in Seattle probably won’t in Phoenix. Where your facility is located speaks very loudly to which of Mother Nature’s resources you’re best suited to rely on.

“In Syracuse, N.Y., where I am,” Penfield explains, “the return on investment for solar panels is probably not great.” But what the city lacks in sun it more than makes up for in wind. “We have a large mall here, Destiny USA, which has cutting-edge urban wind turbines on its roof. They generate all the electricity that lights the parking lot.” The mall has grown steadily since opening in 1990 and received LEED Gold Certification for a 1.3 million-square-foot Core & Shell expansion in 2012. It’s likely the mall’s nine electric vehicle charging stations helped earn it Gold as well.

For some, it’s about walking the talk.“Big Ass Fans designs, engineers, manufactures and installs energy efficient products that help customers obtain LEED certification,” says Christian Taber, LEED AP BD+C (Building Design & Construction) — and the company’s chief applications engineer — who cites innovation among the company’s guiding principles. “That has a role in everything, including the construction of our facilities.”

So when the company began planning a 45,000-square-foot research and development lab in Lexington, Ky. — the only one in the world built specifically for the testing of large-diameter fans — it followed the LEED for New Construction guidelines. Additionally, more than a few Big Ass Fans employees have earned the LEED Green Associate credential — and not just engineers.

Recently, 16 members of the sales staff passed their exams. All these investments, in money and time, says Taber, help demonstrate the company’s commitment to the green building movement. “Our goal is to have experts on staff to support our customers in every way that we can.”

Undoubtedly, it’s good for a company’s résumé. “LEED certification is a valuable public relations tool for corporations that go through the trouble to obtain it,” says Greg Doppler, president of the Cincinnati-based Cornerstone Specialty Wood Products, whose ResinDek panels have been used to accrue LEED points in a number of warehouse distribution centers across the United States, including Honda of America in Troy, Ohio, which used 130,000 square
feet of Cornerstone’s ResinDek floor panels — along with a host of other ecofriendly construction materials — in securing LEED Gold certification for its facility in 2008.

“Through LEED, certification companies are making a declaration that [the environment] is important. Smart companies are using this to generate positive publicity in the marketplace … which attracts an ever-growing percentage of customers who prefer to do business with corporations that value environmentally responsible practices.”

And much in the way that a 40-inch Sony LCD TV cost $1,600 about five years ago (at press time Walmart was selling it for $428), the cost of LEED related investments, says Doppler, is dropping as eco-consciousness begins to permeate the space.

“Normally, the choice to employ sustainable building practices — the use of recycled materials, energy-efficient power for heat and air conditioning, etc. — can add 15 to 30 percent to the cost of construction and operations,” he notes. Naturally, ROI must factor in. “How quickly you see a return depends heavily on the choices of your design team for technologies and systems, as well as the building, local environment, utility rates, tax incentives and numerous other factors,” says Big Ass Fans’ Taber.

As part of the company’s water conservation goal, for example, it simply eliminated irrigation from the menu — hello, instant savings! It was money the company didn’t have to spend on upgraded lighting, which Taber says paid for itself within two and a half years. “And of course, the installation of our own fans reduced HVAC materials.”

Where to start?
For those beginning to see the value of a little initial investment into the concept, the first step is hiring a consultant. And for new builds, the architect (many already have LEED certifications of their own, thereby eliminating the need for an additional consultant) and contractor will need to be in on the meetings as well.

Penfield recommends doing some research beforehand into which tax credits are available in the area where you’ll be building, and then deciding which level of certification makes the most sense. “As a team, you’ll go through the plans and discern how many points you can accumulate based on where you are, what you’re building and the conditions specific to your situation — budget, time frame, etc.”

For the folks at Big Ass Fans, putting the money where their mouths were paid off. Not just for the company, but for the planet. The company’s Lexington facility uses 35 percent less energy and 58 percent less water than a building that meets minimum code requirements.

“With our innovative design,” says Taber, “we used 9 percent less construction materials and produced 51 percent less landfill waste than a typical construction project.”When you can check the money box and the Mother Nature box, it feels even better.

Read more from MHI Solutions.

Amy Drew Thompson is a regular contributor to MHI Solutions.