Environmental Management Systems: A New Backbone for LEED?

By John E. Tabella and Robert L. Westly  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: This PagePt. 2: USGBC Launches LEED VolumePt. 3: Green Building News

The U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC's) LEED rating system underwent a significant overhaul in its 2009 release. Referred to as LEED version 3 (v3), the rating system was updated with a wide range of major changes: advancements to the particular rating systems, including New Construction (NC), Core and Shell (CS), Schools, Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (EBOM), and Commercial Interiors (CI); improvements to the LEED registration and certification process tool (LEED Online); and outsourcing of the certification process to the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI).

With all of those changes, some facility managers may have missed a very important element of LEED v3: the establishment of minimum program requirements (MPRs), which new projects must meet to be LEED eligible.

Before LEED v3, there was a noticeable disconnect between a building's "green" design and how it actually performed. The system lacked a step to verify that a building or system was performing as designed. For example, how could owners be sure that the energy-saving features incorporated into the design were, in fact, saving energy after commissioning?

An environmental management system (EMS) is one tool that can bridge the divide between design and operation of a building or system, integrate environmental considerations into building management, and ensure that certain MPRs are met and certification under LEED 2009 is achievable and maintainable. Understanding how this all fits together, though, first requires a closer look at LEED v3, and then a more in-depth explanation of the MPRs.

Major LEED v3 Changes

In contemplating improvements manifested in the LEED v3 rating systems, USGBC and its stakeholders focused on three key areas. First, the credits and prerequisites across the earlier rating systems were evaluated and are now aligned in LEED v3 based on commonalities. Second, credits are now weighted; that is, based on their ability to positively impact the environment — primarily measured by energy savings and carbon dioxide emissions reductions. Finally, the rating systems now include region-specific credits, recognizing that regional environmental issues can drive projects.

As a whole, the LEED rating systems are viewed as a success, and have become the de facto voluntary green building certification system in industry. Today, there are more than 20,000 registered projects, and more than 5,000 certified projects, with projects in every state and more than 90 countries.

In November 2009, USGBC outlined MPRs established to provide guidance to applicants, to maintain the purpose and goals of the LEED rating systems, and to facilitate the LEED certification process. Specifically, new LEED projects must:

  • Maintain compliance with environmental laws.
  • Be a complete, permanent building or space.
  • Use a reasonable site boundary in its application.
  • Comply with minimum floor area requirements.
  • Comply with minimum occupancy rates.
  • Commit to sharing whole-building energy- and water-use data.
  • Meet a minimum building-to-site area ratio.

It's important to understand the first MPR, which states a project must comply with environmental laws. Most would agree that a project out of compliance with certain environmental laws and regulations should not "get a pass" and be able to reap the benefits offered by LEED certification. A project that doesn't meet minimum environmental laws is contradictory to the overall purpose of environmental sustainability under LEED certification.

Sharing Data

Another interesting MPRs is the requirement to share whole-building energy- and water-usage data. This has been established as a means for tracking decreased energy and water consumption in LEED certified projects. To meet this requirement, a building owner can agree to provide actual energy and water use data, authorize USGBC to collect this data directly from the utility provider, or re-certify the project every two years under the LEED EBOM rating system.

These two specific MPRs can present challenges to an owner. Often, the owner or members of its team may not have specific knowledge of environmental regulations applicable to the project — what air discharge permits are necessary or whether a waste stream is considered hazardous or non-hazardous, for example. Further, an owner may find troublesome the release language associated with authorizing USGBC to access its building energy- and water-use data, or the requirement that this commitment pass on to future owners or tenants.

One systematic process that can help a building owner work towards environmental sustainability and achieving (or maintaining) LEED certification is an EMS. Essentially, an EMS is the portion of an organization's overall business management system that addresses the actual or potential environmental influences of the organization. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14000 series is the most recognized global EMS standard.

An EMS is based on the circular process management model of "plan-do-check-act," and is designed for continuous process improvement. It is based on five key concepts: aspect, impact, objective, target and significant aspect.

An aspect is an organization's activities, products and services that interact with the environment. An impact is any change to the environment resulting from an aspect. An objective is the overall environmental goal an organization sets out to achieve. A target is a detailed performance requirement that is set to achieve the objective. A significant aspect is an aspect with a significant environmental impact.

To clarify, an aspect is the "cause" and an impact is the "effect." A "significant aspect" is one that an organization determines may have a substantial effect. An objective is general, while a target is measurable.

The Benefits of an EMS

In many situations, the benefits of an EMS are substantial. An EMS will take a little time and some resources to set up. Cost savings are quickly realized, in the form of regulatory compliance, reduced fines for non-compliance issues that trigger regulatory action, reduced energy use, reduced insurance premiums, and other ways. An EMS can help solve the issue of not being cognizant of environmental regulations because it will include procedures for knowing and accessing environmental regulatory requirements, and confirming compliance with those requirements. For ISO 14001 EMS systems, this concept is tied directly to the aspect analysis.

So how can an EMS help obtain or maintain LEED certification? Beyond assessing compliance with environmental regulations, an EMS can also be applied to bridge design and operation via the brainstorming process to identify significant environmental aspects — that is, activities, products, or services of the organization/building that may or do significantly impact the environment. Evaluation of these impacts and how they are being reduced by the LEED certified system will demonstrate the effectiveness the LEED certified system.

This process of evaluating environmental aspects and associated impacts allows an organization to develop priorities so that manageable environmental objectives and targets can be set and attained through LEED. And, by its very nature, this EMS process assists in improving record-keeper and reducing energy use.

An organization may already have an EMS in place, whether explicitly or implicitly, due to regulatory drivers (i.e., environmental laws and regulations) or customer demand (e.g., Federal government tenant requirements). Taking the next step of formalizing an EMS can help an organization improve its environmental performance and public perception. And it just may also be the tool needed to obtain or maintain LEED certification under the v3 release and in future versions of LEED.

Bob Westly is national partner for environmental management services and project director/senior hydrogeologist for the environmental services division of SCS Engineers. Westly works with SCS' national and local clients and SCS' professional personnel in implementing environmental management systems in conformance with ISO 14001.

John Tabella is a project Manager and group leader for environmental services for SCS Engineers'. He consults to various sectors of the real estate community in the Mid-Atlantic area and nationwide on environmental matters.

Continue Reading: Green Building Report

Environmental Management Systems: A New Backbone for LEED?

USGBC Launches LEED Volume

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  posted on 12/23/2010   Article Use Policy

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