Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: The Value of a Collaborative LEED Design Methodology

Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: The Value of a Collaborative LEED Design Methodology

This is the fourth article in our series on "green design" for the nonprofit sector. In the first article we explained why a sustainable design approach to office space is not only a good choice for nonprofits, it's the right choice. And in the second article we looked at the LEED certification system and explained how green design is also smart design. In the third article we outlined ten ways you can go green in your office space. In the fifth and final article, we provide an overview of funding sources and mechanisms for your sustainable design project.

It's hard to imagine anyone saying, "Sure, sign me up for that mutual fund or money market account, but don't bother with the compounding interest." That's essentially what happens when architects, designers, and developers approach sustainable building design as an afterthought or additive layer to be applied to the traditional architectural design process. When approached that way, sustainable design can indeed end up being more costly than traditional design. In actuality, however, a sustainable design methodology almost always is more cost-effective than a traditional design approach, especially if it's incorporated into the design process from the start of the project.

Articles in the Sustainable Design series:

Interest in LEED-certified buildings has been growing ever since the federal government made LEED certification a requirement for new buildings built with taxpayer dollars. (For more on the LEED system, see my colleague Tove Andersen's article, "How Big Is Your Footprint?") But let's face it: We're all creatures of habit, which can make it hard to persuade decision-makers in an organization to try something new — especially if the cost savings promised by the new approach are not immediately apparent.

Why am I telling you this? Well, the traditional building design process is linear — first the site is studied, followed by the massing and the core, then the mechanical and electrical systems. The design and engineering teams are brought in separately on an "as needed" basis, ostensibly to keep costs down. As each team goes about their work, they tend to produce designs without reference to the overall project parameters. Design decisions that can have major impact on the building's systems and total costs are often reviewed late in the design process and treated as substitutable components rather than as part of an integrated whole. Site orientation, shading screens, night-time heat displacement methods, and thermal mass cooling systems are all innovative ways to cool an office building and reduce energy costs — but are rarely considered in traditional building designs.

The ultimate value of a sustainable project is most likely to be realized when all systems teams are brought to the table at the start of the project and are given an opportunity to provide input on the design before actual construction begins. This kind of collaborative process serves to inform the members of each team of the project's goals with respect to sustainability, and gives each team member a chance to contribute ideas and weigh the viability, cost, and value of each suggestion prior to settling on a final plan. In this way, the need to revisit and redesign is minimized, while the chances of realizing a premium product are maximized. This, in turn, translates into lower overall design costs.

Moreover, when energy-saving systems and other sustainable concepts are integrated into the design from the outset, they inevitably affect the size of the building's heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment. As the HVAC equipment gets smaller, so does the amount of energy required to power it. Combine the cost savings associated with lower energy requirements with light-control sensors that automatically turn lights off in appropriate conditions, and your electricity requirements fall further. And because lights create heat, having lights on less often means you'll require less energy to cool the space, making it possible to reduce HVAC size even further. This is what we call the "compounding effect" of energy-efficient design, and it's even more compelling when it is translated into actual dollars and cents.

Now consider another form of "compounding" energy savings. Traditionally, most office buildings are cooled through vents in the ceiling. But people who work in office buildings occupy space that extends from the floor to approximately five to six feet above floor level. Because warm air rises and cold air sinks, air pumped through vents in the ceiling must be cooled to 55 degrees in order to keep the temperature of a building's "inhabited space" comfortable (approximately 75 degrees). In contrast, air distributed through vents at floor level only needs to be cooled to 64 degrees. Obviously, the difference of 9 degrees, extrapolated over the life of the building, will result in substantial energy savings.

Floor distribution systems have the added benefit of allowing for greater control by each individual within the office environment, which, in turn, contributes to greater employee comfort and better productivity. Buildings designed to LEED standards also will have lower VOC (volatile organic compounds) readings, resulting in better indoor air quality for employees and, typically, a 5 percent reduction in absenteeism. As business owners become aware of these kinds of benefits, they invariably grasp the concept that improvements in employee productivity have a compounding effect on the organization's bottom line. In fact, studies have shown that better climate control and improved air quality can increase employee productivity by 11 percent to 15 percent annually. Even taking the lower number and applying it to employee salaries — which can be as much as three-quarters of an organization's total costs — that represents a significant return on investment.

Floor distribution systems are seldom considered by developers or building owners, but new technology has made them increasingly attractive both in terms of price and performance. And when you factor in their potential to deliver compound interest, they really should be considered by every architect or building owner about to embark on a new project. Moreover, by considering such a system early — and collaboratively — in the design process and including holistic and forward-thinking techniques such as day lighting, performance glazing and sun-shading systems, the design team can have a measurable impact on keeping total project costs down while delivering a sustainable building.

Charles Segerman previously at the Tower Companies, a development company in the D.C. area that has adopted a sustainable approach to all its projects, reports that his firm shoots for an approximately 30 percent reduction in water consumption and a 35 percent reduction in energy consumption in every standard class "A" office building it designs. Segerman also says that, by using the collaborative approach described above, his firm's LEED-certified buildings only cost 2 percent to 3 percent more than a typical office building — a significant savings over the 7 percent to 15 percent in added costs typically associated with a more traditional LEED-certified approach.

A final note: When a nonprofit fortunate enough to initiate and complete a new building project considers whether to pursue LEED certification, it may decide to avoid the paperwork and follow-up commissioning associated with LEED, while still promoting its building as environmentally sustainable. In such a case, while the completed building is likely to be a blessing for the organization, the building's tenants, and the environment as a whole, the final design of the building almost certainly will not push the sustainable design envelope or achieve its full property value.

Why is this important? Let's say you have a friend or family member who has studied at an elite university, made great grades, and is about to graduate; in other words, she'll be very marketable on the job market in a few months' time. But at the last minute she decides not to take the final exams necessary to complete her courses and graduate. Most people would recognize that as a huge mistake — not just in terms of her immediate job prospects, but in terms of life. It's the same for organizations and building designers that don't go the extra mile to obtain LEED certification. They've done all the hard work but they fail to fully capitalize on their investment. Yes, you can avoid the paperwork if you chose to, but you'll be sorry you did.

LEED is not the answer to everything. But if you're considering, or are about to start a new construction project, and ROI is important to you, look at your project holistically, ask if the building you are considering is LEED certified or sustainable, and make sure you collect that compounding interest that's there for the taking through reduced core-factor costs, lower energy costs, and the increased productivity of your employees.

In the final article in our series, my colleague Holly Lennihan will provide a brief overview of government programs and funding sources for sustainable design projects. Until then, think green! In the meantime, if you have any questions about the LEED system or sustainable design principles, you can contact me at

The sustainable nonprofit

March 30, 2020