As green buildings become the norm, architects, engineers and building owners are customizing projects and looking at what’s next on the horizon.

The LEED-certified moniker is becoming more commonplace—on commercial and office buildings, hospitals, even schools.

There’s little doubt among Central Ohio building professionals that the greening of buildings, both new construction and renovations, is going mainstream as owners and property managers realize the cost savings and other benefits that spring from environmentally friendly practices.

Along the way, they’re also learning that a LEED-certified workplace may give their employees something to crow about.

“This is not just building-related,” says Tyler Steele, chairman of the Central Ohio Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and property manager for Hines. “This trickles out into economic development in a big, big way. It’s not about tree hugging. It’s about the bottom line.”

What exactly is LEED? Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), provides an internationally recognized point system to measure a building’s sustainability. It measures performance in five areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

LEED essentially provides a framework, and independent third-party verification, for designing, building, operating and maintaining a building that is healthy and sustainable. Other considerations recognize the building’s location: What amenities are within walking distance, for instance, and how does it interact with surrounding spaces? The guidelines can be applied to all building types: commercial, public facilities, even homes.

Raising the Bar

Several major construction projects now under way in Central Ohio are embracing sustainability. One of those is the Hilton Columbus Downtown hotel, scheduled to open across from the Greater Columbus Convention Center in September.

The $92 million project, managed by Turner Construction Company and Smoot Construction, aims to achieve LEED Silver certification by including green features such as dual-flush toilets and low-flow fixtures, individual occupant lighting and thermal controls, use of local materials made with recycled content, and bicycle storage and changing rooms. Related goals include reducing energy and carbon use by 33 percent and recycling construction waste.

Green is also the goal of two hospital construction projects: the expansion of both Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The Nationwide Children’s expansion, scheduled to open in June, adds 750,000 square feet of clinical space and a third research building as part of an $840 million facilities master plan. The project includes a LEED-certified central energy plant and underground parking that allows six acres of the hospital grounds to be used for green space instead of asphalt.

The $1.1 billion OSU expansion, which includes a new 20-story main hospital tower as well as an expanded Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, is scheduled to open in 2014. The project aims for LEED certification and will use an estimated 20 percent less energy than a standard building.

As LEED grows in popularity, it continues to evolve. “LEED is not a static animal,” says Steele. “It’s dynamic.”

The USGBC continues to fine-tune and update its standards for certifying green buildings and will wrap up the public comment portion of the development of LEED 2012 in May. Those in the industry say the newer standards for LEED, which already has silver, gold and platinum levels, will be more stringent than the 2009 version.

“We keep raising the bar,” says Steele. “This is the nuts and bolts piece that the architects, engineers and builders make sure they’re complying with.”

In today’s economy, businesses are looking for a competitive edge, but they’re also looking to save money. “These days, to be competitive, LEED is almost essential,” Steele says, especially in a leasing environment. “It is mainstreaming.”

Steele, a sustainability advocate who had his own consulting company, recalls that several years ago, he was lucky to find any corporate interest in going green. “Where I couldn’t get Owens Corning to return my phone call 10 years ago, now they started calling me,” he says.

“I know we see it a lot more,” says Lewis Smoot Jr., senior vice president of Smoot Construction. “Everybody’s looking at it. And they are diligent about doing what their dollars will allow them to accomplish.”

Custom Solutions

Ideally, for sustainability advocates, the ultimate goal is to create buildings that consume no more energy than they produce.

“We are experiencing clients moving beyond just being aware of sustainable design issues,” says Allen Schaffer, an architect and director of sustainable design at Moody·Nolan, via email. “We do less review of basic concepts and are able to begin analysis of system strategies much earlier in projects.

“We are currently working on a project that has a very aggressive energy goal and strong desire for high quality indoor environment,” Schaffer writes. “Although early in design, the team has investigated integrated strategies that reduce energy loads first, then focus on the efficiency of these strategies while providing daylight and natural ventilation.”

While many organizations support sustainability, not all of them go through the LEED certification process due to the associated expense. Still, many remain interested in embracing green practices to cut energy costs and make their spaces more healthful. LEED’s strategies can help guide that.

As the green building movement grows stronger, the question is: What lies ahead? “Is the trend going to go down the path of LEED or is the trend going to go down the path of sustainability?” asks Stephen Metz, an engineer and vice president at Shelley Metz Baumann Hawk, whose projects include the new Franklin County Courthouse. “The pendulum actually seems to be swinging a little more heavily toward LEED.”

“LEED is a tool for sustainable design,” says Jim McDonald, project associate for DesignGroup architects. “What’s the next level of sustainability? … We need to make it second nature like it is in a lot of European countries.”

To get there, McDonald says, building professionals “try to educate the building owners and facility managers about how to better use their facilities with new technologies and newer materials. How do we reduce the energy bills?”

Alas, there isn’t a cookie-cutter solution to accomplish that goal, says Mohamed El-Sayed, a mechanical engineer with KLH Engineers. “There is a path to your own energy efficiency. There is no one-size-fits-all.”

First on the list of factors to consider when introducing environmentally friendly practices is assessing how the space is really used. Consider the best ways to reduce heating and cooling costs and water usage specific to that building.

El-Sayed points out that a large manufacturing facility may operate around the clock, year-round. A school, on the other hand, isn’t likely to be open much during the summer when the weather is warmest, or in the evenings when weather is cooler. The bottom line, he says, is to employ customized practices that translate into dollars in the owner’s pocket.

Schaffer says the key to success is to have the client set goals early in the project and then have the entire team—the client and design and construction professionals—work together to find appropriate solutions.

DesignGroup has helped clients upgrade HVAC systems to include common-sense approaches, such as occupancy controls to reduce energy costs, McDonald says. One no-brainer: sensors that automatically shut off the lights in unoccupied offices, conference rooms and restrooms. Other energy-savings practices include using the sun to light and heat spaces and, conversely, using shade systems for cooling a building.

Sphere of Influence

Among all the members of a project’s design and construction team, the structural engineer likely has the least influence on sustainability, says Metz. Sure, a building’s structural steel may be made of recycled cars. But it’s not so much about the materials the engineer uses, Metz says, as it is about how sustainability goals influence the overall design and structure.

“We know that if the sustainability goal of the building is getting as much daylight into the building [as possible] and outside views for the occupants, that means I won’t have a lot of outside wall,” Metz explains.

Reynoldsburg City Schools worked with AEP Ohio on a program that provides incentives to business customers to reduce costs by installing energy-efficient equipment. The company provided more than $182,000 in cash incentives as the district works toward gaining LEED Silver or Gold certification for a new high school opened in the fall. The building was designed by Moody·Nolan.

The school’s construction was green-driven. A geothermal system heats and cools the building and lighting is energy-efficient. A “light shelf” on the building’s south side reflects sunlight into classrooms; continuous-dimming controls reduce indoor lighting as needed. Classroom thermostats reset the temperature if it fluctuates more than two degrees.

The new school, built on farmland, was constructed with some recycled materials, and cisterns collect rainwater for watering plants. Altogether, the project’s green practices are projected to save 1,660,738 kilowatt hours annually, according to Schaffer.

The project was designed so that the building’s actual energy performance can be measured—part of a data collection effort led by the Ohio School Facilities Commission with assistance from the USGBC Central Ohio Chapter. “This kind of data does not exist on most projects,” Schaffer says, “so building owners are not able to assess performance over time and realize the full return on their investment.”

Ohio leads the country in LEED-certified schools, says Steele, thanks in part to the forward-thinking Ohio School Facilities Commission. The state has more than 300 school buildings that meet LEED criteria.

Moving Forward

In April, AEP Ohio was among dozens of vendors at DesignColumbus 2012, hosted by the USGBC Central Ohio Chapter and the Construction Specifications Institute. The event highlighted local sustainable projects as well as available green products and technology.

Some of the newer construction and renovation options for sustainable workspaces and buildings include nontoxic, recyclable materials for flooring, counters, fixtures and wall systems. Energy-efficient and eco-friendly doors, windows and roofing also are available.

For leased spaces, Steele suggests, consider reusable, movable wall systems made from recycled materials. They are relatively easy to reconfigure and save on wasted materials and labor costs related to repeatedly putting up and tearing down drywall for changing tenants.

McDonald says repurposing materials and reusing and restoring items are smart sustainability practices. Always ask: “Can it be used for something else?”

Air quality also matters. Remember “sick building syndrome”? The USGBC wants buildings to earn LEED certification not only to save money, but also to create a healthier environment with fewer harmful emissions.

Providing cleaner air should be a priority, McDonald says, citing the medical community’s stance that a spike in asthma diagnoses proves that poor air quality affects health. “How many ads do you see for asthma medication these days?” he says.

Aside from financial and environmental benefits, LEED certification also comes with another perk: an official USGBC designation and a plaque, which can serve as point of pride. “These days, to keep people motivated, to keep people engaged in their work, it’s a challenge,” Steele says. “It helps when they can say, ‘I work in a LEED building. Somebody cared enough to show their commitment to make it the best building it could possibly be.’ ”

But it’s not just the official designation, he adds: “You’re developing a landmark really. You’re developing an asset to the city.”

Last year, KeyBank opened a branch in Westerville that gained LEED certification. “Basically it looks the same as our other branches,” says Scott Moline, KeyBank’s vice president of construction and senior regional construction manager.

But the environmentally friendly materials the bank was built with have become a point of pride for the branch’s staff. When the plaque went up, “We had a really enthusiastic response from our employees,” Moline says. KeyBank is set to open a second LEED-certified branch on Henderson Road near Upper Arlington.

Through LEED and beyond, the Central Ohio chapter of the USGBC is intent on transforming Central Ohioans’ view of how buildings are designed, built and operated, and how they think about the spaces where they live, work and play. “We’re just trying to leave the planet better than we found it,” says Steele.

Debbie Briner is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the June 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.