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Thomas Mueller, president of the Canada Green Building Council, stands in front of a living wall at the LEED-certified Vancouver Aquarium. The freestanding wall is planted with spiny wood fern, licorice fern, evergreen huckleberry and wintergreen. (Laura Leyshon/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and Mail)
Thomas Mueller, president of the Canada Green Building Council, stands in front of a living wall at the LEED-certified Vancouver Aquarium. The freestanding wall is planted with spiny wood fern, licorice fern, evergreen huckleberry and wintergreen. (Laura Leyshon/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and Mail)

Green building

Playing loose with LEED Add to ...

As the keeper of the LEED brand in Canada, Thomas Mueller doesn't care for phrases such as "designed to LEED" or "LEED-like" that are sometimes used by developers to promote their building projects in brochures and on websites.

As president of the Vancouver-based Canada Green Building Council, Mr. Mueller oversees a third-party verification process that awards LEED certification only to buildings that meet internationally recognized standards of sustainability.

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Only projects registered with CaGBC, or those which have achieved LEED certification, are allowed to use the brand in promotional material, Mr. Mueller says.

Yet LEED - which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - has become almost a generic term among developers, architects, designers and contractors to describe high standards of green design, construction and operation.

And some in the industry are playing a little loose with the term, using phrases such as LEED lite, LEED shadowing and spirit of LEED to describe projects that may aim to be green but have not achieved the actual status.

Since February of 2002, 154 buildings across the country have gained one of the four LEED rankings: 35 certified, 52 silver, 58 gold and nine platinum. They include office, industrial/manufacturing, government and institutional, retail and residential buildings.

An additional 1,253 projects across the country are registered with CaGBC as LEED projects that are aiming to get the certification upon completion - but there are likely just as many that are borrowing the term's instant credibility without going through the process of proving they meet its standards, Mr. Mueller estimates.

"We think there's an equal or maybe even higher number of projects that are just using LEED to better design their projects, but that are never registered or certified through us."

Because LEED is an open-source rating system that can be obtained for free, Mr. Mueller doesn't have a problem with developers who use the guidelines to build greener buildings. But those using LEED terminology without permission will get a phone call from the CaGBC asking them to either register the project or remove references to LEED in their marketing materials.

"We ask them not to use the terminology and they usually comply. They usually didn't know it's a protected trademark," says Mr. Mueller, who says he recently saw a sign on an office building construction site promoting the project as "designed to LEED," even though it wasn't registered with his organization.

In the past two years, CaGBC has asked the owners of five to 10 projects to refrain from using LEED terminology if they do not intend to register, Mr. Mueller says.

It's a fine balance between protecting the brand and being too overzealous about it, he acknowledges. "We don't want to be the LEED police," he says.

Whether a developer will pursue LEED certification is usually influenced by the additional administrative costs they must incur, says Doug Webber, green building practice leader for the Toronto engineering firm Halsall Associates Ltd.

Developers can spend as much as $50,000 in administrative costs to document a new building's green features, from design through construction, according to the CaGBC. Mr. Webber believes the cost is worth it because LEED certification "is essentially a quality assurance process that shows that what you paid for, you're getting."

Still, in this troubled economy, a recent survey of more than 900 U.S. building professionals showed mixed feelings for LEED certification. While 93.4 per cent agreed it was worth the time and effort to build green, just 66.2 per cent said it was worth obtaining official LEED certification, down from 77.4 per cent who felt that way in 2007, according to the third annual green building survey conducted by Los Angeles-based law firm Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis, technical consulting firm Constructive Technologies Group Inc. of Irvine, Calif., and the U.S. construction industry publication Green Building Insider.

The turbulent economy may be partly to blame for the change of heart, the survey concluded, because some respondents are reluctant to incur additional fees for services that are not directly associated with traditional bricks-and-mortar construction costs.

The incremental construction costs of a new, 100,000-square-foot LEED silver-certified building are about 3 per cent higher than traditional construction costs, estimates Stephen Carpenter, president of Enermodal Engineering in Kitchener, Ont. That can translate into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars more.

But he, too, thinks it's worth it because a LEED silver-certified building would get that incremental cost back in three to five years through such factors as lower maintenance costs and energy savings.

More organizations in Canada are requiring that new projects be built to LEED certification standards. Calgary, for example, has mandated LEED gold for municipally owned buildings. And, in 2006, East Gwillimbury, Ont., became the first Canadian town to mandate all new municipal and industrial, commercial, institutional and high-rise residential buildings be built to LEED silver status.

Enermodal Engineering will work only on projects that are officially registered for LEED certification, Mr. Carpenter says. "If a person says [to us]they just want to design to LEED but they don't want to actually certify, we say 'thanks, but no thanks.' We don't want to be involved," he says.

"If you don't want to certify, we don't want to be involved because we think it's the slippery slope to green-washing."

The rating system

LEED LEVELS

There are four levels of achievement:

  • Certified
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum

LEED CATEGORIES

There are also different types of certification

  • LEED New Construction
  • LEED Neighbourhood Development
  • LEED for Homes
  • LEED Commercial Interiors
  • LEED Core and Shell
  • LEED for Existing Buildings (established in May)

Aquarium's green roots go deep

Landscape architect Randy Sharp knew he was onto something big back in 2005 when, while planning the ultimate urban-style garden for the Vancouver Aquarium, he discovered there was a growing interest in vertical garden systems, also known as green or living walls.

The resulting three-metres-high by 15-metres-long freestanding wall - designed by Mr. Sharp's Vancouver firm, Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc., and housing 7,000 hardy individual B.C. plants - is a striking visual example of the Vancouver Aquarium's environmental stewardship.

The same can be said for Aquaquest - the Marilyn Blusson Learning Centre, the aquarium's newest building, which is earning accolades for sustainable design and technical innovation and recently became the world's first aquarium building to achieve both LEED Gold and ISO 14001 certifications.

The building earned LEED points for such features as a cooling system that draws seawater from the nearby Burrard Inlet, and a roof-top rainwater harvesting system.

The ISO 14001 certification was awarded by the International Organization for Standardization to recognize management's commitment to improving the entire site's environmental performance on an ongoing basis.

Max Richter, an associate with Stantec Architects, the Vancouver firm that designed the Aquaquest building, says it was wise of aquarium management to qualify for both the LEED and ISO certifications.

"The one thing about LEED is that it's really a snapshot of the building right after construction. But we have to be aware that a building's lifespan is 50, 60 or 100 years," Mr. Richter says. "That's why something like ISO complements LEED quite well because it is going to help maintain a level of performance and continually improve it, through the years."

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