For skeptics, green design conjures images of tree huggers shivering in minimally heated buildings. But sustainable buildings — and the techniques used to rate their "greenness" — have evolved.

One of the newest benchmarking tools is the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Green Building Rating System. The system, still in its early stages, was rolled out last year, and several pilot projects were built based on its guidelines. A bank building was the first project to receive certification.

Unlike other guidelines that address just energy efficiency or materials, LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) considers the whole building. "It addresses site, energy, materials and indoor air quality in one package. What's really powerful is the recognition that the integration of these issues is where you get the most benefits," says Mary Casey, an associate with Seattle-based Callison Architecture Inc.

The LEED system is broken down into five categories (see sidebar "Scoring Green"), with each carrying a point value. A building's "greenness" is judged by total points achieved. The system relies greatly on checklists that allow teams to quickly identify what is appropriate for a particular project.

"There's a recognition that not all these points are applicable to all projects. The aggressiveness of your approach depends on how far you want to pursue it," Casey says. "Some things are freebies, some cost a lot, but you're not shut out if you're not willing to spend a lot of money."

Although there are no financial bonuses tied to certification, those familiar with LEED say they wouldn't be surprised if one day there were tax incentives for such buildings.

Sustainable principles

Incorporating LEED thinking into a project can begin as early as site selection. Developers can consider recycling existing buildings, making sites accessible to public transportation, and opting for native grasses and drought-tolerant, bug-resistant plants to minimize watering and fertilizing. "It all helps to reduce the impact on greenhouse gases and the environment," Casey says.

At the construction site, too, much can be done to reduce the environmental impact. "Contractors' greatest control starts when the project goes into execution," says Lawrence Finn, a construction manager with Atlanta-based Winter Construction. "The contractor can influence the selection, delivery and disposal of materials with a greener approach. For instance, on-site trash separation and asking, ‘What's being thrown away?’ can have a huge impact.

"We can ask the architect to write into the specs that materials arrive at the site packaged in cardboard, which we can recycle, and get paid for, rather than paying a surcharge to dump it into a landfill," Finn continues. "Rather than paying, we get paid. It's a no-brainer. With sustainability, you move away from the linear process — take material, make a building and throw away resources — and close the loop by recycling."

For a project under construction in Atlanta, Finn has investigated using gypsum as an additive for the landscaping topsoil. The soils in the metro area are deficient in certain nutrients that can be provided by raw gypsum. "Rather than tracking our leftover gypsum off site and having the landscaper truck his own gypsum in, our waste becomes his raw material," he says. Finn views sustainability as providing a triple bottom line — doing the right thing with regard to civic, environmental and financial responsibility.

New thinking

People often associate green design with a higher cost. Although some systems carry higher initial costs, long-term savings often make such investments worthwhile. "If I were a retail owner, the energy section would really grab my attention because it saves money over the entire life of the building," Casey says. "In an energy crisis, if owners had another source, like solar power, they might be able to divert to it and potentially avoid a price gouge."

Other more intangible benefits of using LEED are points scored for being a good neighbor. The development and construction industries aren't always regarded as the good guys, but LEED allows the building team to fuse environmental responsibility with commercial profit. Casey points out that the general public would likely be more receptive to new retail projects if developers communicate that they're going to maintain native plantings and generate their own power rather than being energy hogs when they move in.

"I would be a lot more excited about having a sustainable building come into my community," she says. "The other great thing about LEED is that the approach is not, ‘You should do this because it's altruistic.’ It's just smart business," Casey adds.

The approach can also work as a business and marketing tool. "There are only finite resources the mother ship provides us," Finn says. "If the market starts to demand these types of certifications and you're already familiar with how to put these buildings together, you're good to go when the market shifts."

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based writer.

Scoring green

The LEED Green Building Rating System uses a point system to assess a building's greenness. Certification levels are: Certified (26-31 points); Silver (32-37); Gold (38-44); and Platinum (45-64). Here's a sampling — by no means comprehensive — of greening suggestions within the five LEED categories from which building teams may pick to score points.

  1. Sustainable sites — Channel development to urban areas with existing infrastructure; protect greenfields; reduce pollution and land development impacts from auto use.

  2. Water efficiency — Limit or eliminate potable water use for landscape irrigation; specify high-efficiency equipment; reduce burdens on municipal water supply and wastewater systems.

  3. Energy and atmosphere — Reduce ozone depletion; encourage increasing levels of self-supply through renewable technologies to reduce environmental impacts associated with fossil fuel energy use.

  4. Materials and resources — Reduce waste generated by building occupants that is hauled to and disposed of in landfills; divert construction, demolition and land clearing debris from landfill disposal; reduce the use of finite raw and long-cycle renewable materials.

  5. Indoor environmental quality — Establish minimum indoor air quality performance; consider operable windows for natural ventilation; reduce the quantity of indoor air contaminants; provide individual control of thermal, ventilation and lighting systems; provide occupants access to daylight and views outdoors.

For more information about LEED, visit the U.S. Green Building Council's Website, www.usgbc.org.