A few years ago, a tenant came to Joe Maguire with a request to pursue LEED certification for the facility it was leasing.
Maguire, president of Wolverine Development Corporation, a company that owns 58 buildings in Michigan, investigated, but found that for a building and company of that size, it didn't offer the return on investment he wanted to make it worthwhile. He began what would ultimately be a fruitless search for a system that offered a robust sustainability rating system that was more economical than LEED or Green Globes.
"After waiting for someone else to do it and giving up, we decided 'Well, we're going to do it,'" Maguire says. And so, SERF was born. The system, Maguire says, focuses on sustainability from a building owner's perspective. It now has certified facilities in 10 states, including Hammer's Chicago high-rise, the first building in Illinois to be SERF certified.
The tradeoff in being more affordable is that SERF is, in many ways, less stringent in what it requires. For example, while LEED-NC requires beating the energy usage requirements of ASHRAE 90.1 by 10 percent, SERF requires meeting them as the minimum.
The system grew from how Maguire's company approaches sustainability. One of the key tenets of both his company and SERF is adaptive reuse, which prioritizes bringing existing buildings, most of them urban, up to a certain sustainability level while repurposing them, as opposed to knocking down and starting over. The purpose is twofold: be more sustainable and take advantage of urban buildings' location, which is often close to businesses, doctor's offices, schools and other locations tenants visit during the day. If the facility is close to those things, it can cut down on total environmental impact by requiring less driving when someone runs an errand. If it's an urban center that's missing some of those services, they often follow if a business moves into an area.
"Generally the most sustainable action one can take is to reuse an existing structure," Maguire says. "That doesn't mean necessarily it's an urban structure; however, a number of the clever adaptive reuses are urban structures, and they've been very, very successful in revitalizing the urban core, not just in major cities but in secondary and even tertiary cities."
SERF also offers its prospective customers an assist in the marketing department. As a facility is evaluated and certified, the details are documented and a profile of the project and the facility is developed. It gives building owners a way to show prospective tenants how the facility pursues sustainability.
"Almost always, there's a great story to be told about a certified building," Maguire says. "Often when we, as owners, invest in sustainable initiatives, they're hidden. They're not immediately evident to anyone."
The SERF certification is prescriptive. As is the case with most rating systems, third-party standards such as ASHRAE energy standards are used as baselines. One difference is that SERF uses those baselines as the only requirement for certification, as opposed to using reductions in consumption as a standard. Another difference is that SERF uses a dynamic scoring system, which allows for certification of facilities that find it impractical or impossible to achieve one or more of the 22 areas of evaluation used by the rating system. Facilities that don't meet requirements in one area must achieve a higher level of performance in other areas. An inspection by a third-party architect or engineer not affiliated with the facility is required before certification is granted.
While SERF is not intended to be as rigorous as LEED, it is designed to help push more building owners and facility managers down the road toward sustainability. As Maguire says, many times "sustainable" is simply another way to say "a good idea."
"We call it sustainability now, but oftentimes it's just smart," he says. Just because a building can't meet a certain criteria required by a green building rating system, it can still be a good business decision to increase a building's sustainability by other measures.
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