Grand Rapids buildings LEED the way

Trevor Smith

Maureen Hart frantically scribbled the words shouted from behind her onto the giant easel drawing pads at the front of the conference room. Words like recycling, food waste, buildings, water consumption, transportation, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and renewable fuel filled the pages.

Over 60 people packed into the room at Western Michigan University’s Fetzer Center to participate in this sustainability workshop led by Hart, the author of “Guide to Sustainable Community Indicators” and of the Web site

“There are probably just as many definitions of sustainability as there are people trying to define it,” Hart said. “You as a community need to decide what’s going to work for you.”

While what “works” for one community may not for another, green buildings have worked for West Michigan. Grand Rapids is one city leading that movement as green buildings become an increasing trend in communities across the world. Its green buildings are part of the effort to reduce carbon emissions and conserve energy.

Grand Rapids has attracted the national spotlight to West Michigan in recent months with recognition for its number of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). This honor has made the city an example of successful sustainable practices to communities across the nation.

“Grand Rapids is number eight in the nation in certified buildings,” said Linda Frey, executive director of the West Michigan chapter of the USGBC. “There are 217 certified and registered buildings in Grand Rapids alone. That is about 30 percent of Michigan’s certified and registered buildings.”

LEED certification is a third-party verification that recognizes a building’s performance in key areas such as energy savings, CO2 emissions reduction, water efficiency, sustainable materials and resources used.

In the United States, buildings account for over 70 percent of electricity consumption, and nearly 40 percent of CO2 emissions, according to the USGBC.

Registered buildings are those that make the commitment to submit protocols for LEED green buildings rating system. Projects are not certified until they obtain the third-party review by the USGBC, verifying that the building has implemented the aspects of the system.

The third-party confirmation is what sets certified buildings apart from those that simply claim to be green.

“Someone can say ‘my building is green,’ and we can say, ‘that’s fantastic.’ While someone else can say ‘my building is LEED certified,’ and that’s even better,” said Grand Rapids City Planner Landon Bartley.

“It’s a trusted authority from the USGBC saying ‘yes we’ve looked at this building, we have a fairly rigorous set of standards and yes, [it] meets those standards,’” he said.

According to Bartley, in addition to being ranked in the top 10 in total number of LEED buildings, Grand Rapids is also recognized as having the most LEED certified buildings in the world per capita.

“If we can do well in reducing the emissions [caused] from buildings, why not? There is a very concrete impact from building a building to LEED standards,” he said.

While in recent years many cities have began to catch on to LEED by offering incentives and even mandating that buildings be green, Grand Rapids hasn’t seen the need for such tactics.

“As a city, I think it’s important to get it into the public’s head as far as the benefits,” Bartley said. “If the public demands it, builders will build it.”

That public demand has increased not just locally but on a national level, according to a recent report released by the American Institute of Architects.

The report, “Green Building Policy in a Changing Economic Environment,” noted a 50 percent increase in green building programs since 2007 in U.S. cities with a population greater than 50,000.

“We really have found that local communities see the value in green building and have done what they can to encourage it,” said Brooks Rainwater, AIA director of local relations and author of the report.

One of five cities highlighted in AIA’s report is Grand Rapids.

“We are very impressed with what’s happening in Grand Rapids,” he said. “The mayor there, George Heartwell, has been a strong proponent for green building and it’s exciting to see policies like this happening all across the nation.”

Rainwater said other communities can learn a great deal from cities that are doing things right.

“There are some cities that have been working on green building for a decade, even upwards of two decades,” he said. “They have learned a lot over that period and so looking at what they have done and adapting that to your own local community can really create the best green building program.”

A number of factors are likely to have triggered the national movement toward green building.

In years past, it was cost issues that made building green less appealing. However, the cost of building green has decreased considerably over the last decade and has become more comparable to non-green building.

“There are some up front costs that are extra, but on the grand scale of the building cost, it’s so minimal, that it’s almost laughable when people say ‘no, I don’t want to build it [LEED] because of the costs,’” Bartley said.

However, to Rainwater, in addition to the cost factors it’s the public awareness that is driving this trend for environmentally friendly buildings.

“I think there is a larger understanding of the environmental issues that are happening out there, and I think there is just a ground swell of support from local citizens as well as policy makers and politicians to do something on sustainability,” he said.

Despite the tough economic times, local policies to promote energy-efficient building have thrived, according to Rainwater. Green initiatives have even helped revive certain aspects of the nation’s economy.

The USGBC’s Green Jobs Study released earlier this month predicts that green construction will support nearly 8 million jobs and add $554 billion in U.S. gross domestic product by 2013. Specifically LEED related spending would account for 230,000 of those jobs and $12.5 billion in GDP.

As more and more is invested into green jobs nation wide, it is only natural that construction would follow suit.

“There’s a trend, there’s no doubt about it,” Frey said about the increased interest in green building. “It’s not a fad.”