We spend most of our time in some kind of building (home, office, school etc), and yet very little thought goes into the environmental footprint that buildings and infrastructure impacts. Sustainability and environmental initiatives have become more mainstream in all industries and this even holds true for the building and construction industry. New construction of office spaces, factories and even homes have taken on new, innovative, ways of designing and building that align to reduce their environmental impact. As the environmental platform has become more mainstream in the last 20 or so years, the building and construction sector (largely due to the growing demands of urban population growth) has developed a certification program is able to define the level of environmental compliance a building meets – this is referred to as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification or commonly known as ‘LEED’ certification. This blog post will outline what LEED certification is, how it benefits the building owners and the environment mutually, and how you can retrofit your home to meet some of these standards so that you too can mutually benefit the environment and your wallet.
What is LEED Certification?
Touched on briefly in the introduction, LEED certification is a building recognition framework that can apply to virtually all building types. LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification for buildings, homes and communities that are designed and built using initiatives and strategies that aim to reduce negative human and environmental impact. The rating system of the LEED program assesses a building’s location, transportation, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, material selection and indoor environmental quality. Essentially, LEED provides a framework that covers healthy, highly-efficient, and cost-saving sustainable buildings. The framework works more as a design tool rather than a performance measurement tool, and focuses more on energy modeling rather than actual energy consumption.
As mentioned, this certification framework can apply to almost all building types, and building construction phases, and is not necessarily only focused on new builds. Given this, this framework can be applied to many facets of a building, including building design and construction, interior design and construction, building operations and maintenance and even home construction.
An interesting part to this certification program is that there are differing levels of achievement, based on the type of building/phase that is being recognized. These levels are: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. These ratings are determined through a points system, and based on the potential or already established environmental and human impacts and benefits. There are LEED certified personnel to perform these audits and give out rating levels.
This certification system is the most widely known and used green building rating system in the world, and is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability leadership. LEED Canada has recognized and certified over 4,300 buildings since 2004, and has registered over 8,500 projects. Canada currently has the second highest number of LEED projects in the world.
Benefits of LEED Design and Sustainable Buildings
Surprisingly, buildings contribute nearly 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, 35% of landfill waste comes from the construction and demolition of buildings and homes. This is not a sustainable way of living. We all need buildings, in some capacity or another, for offices, factories and homes. Therefore, making something so essential to human life environmentally friendly is important for the longevity of human existence.
In Canada, and the global marketplace, LEED is recognized as a way to address climate change on a construction level, and create buildings that are more resource-efficient, healthy and resilient. Resource efficiency can include (but is certainly not limited to) recycled and sustainable building materials, water conservation and energy efficiency.
Unsustainable infrastructure generally applies more to old buildings, but could also be new builds that are just not built to environmental standards/specs. The leading cause of resource in-efficiency are generally poorly insulated buildings, or those that have old or leaky windows and doors. The heat or air conditioning has a path to easily escape, making furnaces and air conditioner units run more frequently, and harder. This is not good for the equipment (overworked), the environment (as the demand for the equipment to run harder contributes to GHG emissions) and certainly not good for whoever is paying the bills to keep that building heated/cooled. This is where being environmentally friendly can be mutually beneficial.
How You Can Align Your Home/Office with LEED
Actually certifying your home or office as a LEED recognized design is very costly and is a difficult undertaking for the average owner, especially for older builds (not to say it is impossible, it is just more of a challenge!). However, that does not mean that the premise or initiatives behind the certification process is not something to strive for. Small modifications in your home or office can make a big difference in ensuring you are as resource-efficient as possible. These modifications can include:
- Light Bulb Upgrades
Swapping old incandescent light bulbs for LEDs or CFL bulbs is one way to reduce the amount of energy used in your home or office. Incandescent bulbs are resource intensive in comparison to the LED/CFL counterparts, and do not last nearly as long. Depending on use, some LED bulbs are supposedly good for 20+ years!
- Insulating Areas
In older homes or office buildings you will often find limited or outdated insulation in some areas (typically in the attic or basement walls). Without proper insulation, any heat or cooling you are trying to do will have a path to escape, creating an unsustainable cycle of continuous heating/cooling. It is more difficult for your home or office to reach the temperature you set if you do not have the proper insulation to keep it contained. With upgraded insulations types, including spray foam, insulating new areas of your home or office have never been easier. As stated above, this is great for the environment, your equipment and your wallet, as you are not overworking your A/C unit/furnace, saving you money in the short and long term.
- Upgrading Appliances to High-Efficiency
Obviously operating more appliances that meet the high efficiency standard is better, but these upgrades can be costly. Appliances that would immediately benefit from an upgrade to high efficiency are those that run constantly, such as a refrigerator, freezer unit, and possibly furnace/central air conditioning unit. All others that are used in moderation (dishwasher, washing machine, etc), would benefit from being high efficiency, but you will not see the return on investment as quickly.
- Upgrading Windows
Another costly endeavor would be to upgrade all old window units, especially those with leaks, old/poor sealing and/or single pane. Just like insulation, leaky or unsealed window units create a path for cooling/heat to escape, creating that continuous cycle of heating/cooling once again.
- Upgrade Water Fixtures
To save water, which is the world’s most important natural resource, upgrading your shower head, toilet and faucets to ‘low flow’ is a huge improvement to reducing your water consumption without having to alter your habits.
- Sustainable Building Materials/Donating Building Material
For the next build in your home or office, try going to a ‘Reuse It’ building centre and find items and materials that might work for your construction project, rather than buying new. Although this does require a bit more effort to seek out exactly what will work, you will save money and you are not creating more pollution/garbage. In addition to buying used construction materials, consider donating your old materials, such as old kitchen cupboards, or even left over materials from a project. This way you can reduce the amount of construction and building material headed for the landfill.
These are just a few home and office upgrades that you can consider doing that would assist in resource efficiency and conservation. Technology has come a long way, and doing small upgrades, as needed, certainly can benefit the environment and your bank account. Oftentimes too, the government of Canada has government incentives for home retrofits and energy efficiency, so before committing to any of the above projects out of pocket, it is certainly worth looking at government programs that may assist in the funding of these projects.
LEED certification is certainly one of the leading ways for the building and construction industry to be recognized for their environmental achievements. It is also a fantastic way for businesses to market themselves as a sustainable company or workplace, by designing and building a LEED certified space. Many large based businesses, such as Universities, Colleges, Manufacturers and Technology hubs aim for LEED certification. However for the rest of us, small wins in our home and office spaces that align with the premise of the certification process are great steps in reducing our GHG emissions and carbon footprint. Any level and commitment to energy efficiency and resource conservation is a benefit to the environment!