San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Keeping score with certification of green buildings

From the print edition

To many architects and builders, the question of what constitutes a “green building“green is an open one, which depends on factors such as the conditions of the site, climate, local customs, personal taste, available budget and a multitude of other considerations. However, others are in the business of defining exactly what a green building is, and of putting their stamp of approval on them.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, for example, examines a long list of factors, and then, based on the compliance of the building with these requirements, denies or issues a certification. Depending on the number of points of compliance, the building can receive certification on one of four levels:  Basic LEED certification, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

LEED, developed in the United States by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, pioneered third-party, independent certification for green buildings in the U.S. and now has been  applied in 137 countries, including Costa Rica.  

According to Roberto Meza, an engineer who works with LEED certification, there are now seven LEED-certified buildings in Costa Rica, while another 27 projects are pending. Other green certification programs also exist, including BREEAM, developed in the United Kingdom, and a new initiative being developed in Costa Rica specifically for Central America, called Requisites for Sustainable Buildings in the Tropics, or RESET (TT, May 12).

The reasons for certifying a green building are many, and can include: 

•Marketing to environmentally conscious buyers or renters; 

•Using the certification requirements as a guide for green building; 

•In the case of corporations, as public relations and cost savings, or as part of a defined Corporate Social Responsibility policy; 

•In the case of government buildings in some countries, as a legal requisite and an example; 

•International development banks (such as the World Bank) are providing financing through local banks in Costa Rica and other countries on favorable terms for certified green buildings; 

•Finally, that the builder is willing to submit the building to an independent, highly detailed technical review is a sign of seriousness, and achieving certification a sign of good design and quality construction.

LEED looks at the following issues, among others, and awards points based on compliance with a list of technical considerations under each heading.

•The site of the building. Buildings that take advantage of existing infrastructure, control erosion and runoff, have access to public transportation and do not waste green space receive a higher rating;

•Water efficiency, achieved through landscaping and water-saving appliances and plumbing fixtures;

•Energy efficiency, achieved by building design and construction, smart appliances, and sometimes, on-site generation of energy;

•Use of sustainable building materials and minimizing waste and use of natural resources; here, the impact of the building on CO2 in the atmosphere is taken into account;

•Design. LEED recognizes smart design, and assigns extra credit for design innovation.

RESET, which is in the final stages of development, is meant to be more attuned to building in a tropical, developing country than LEED and other certification systems, which were created in wealthy countries with temperate climates. According to Huberth Méndez, executive director of the Foundation for Urban Development, and a member of the committee of the Costa Rican Construction Chamber, which is designing RESET, the new certification system gives comparatively more weight to the choice of a site, building design and water use, and less to energy use, which is much more important in a climate that has extremes of hot and cold than in a tropical one like Costa Rica’s.

Méndez also thinks that certification with RESET will be less expensive (Roberto Meza estimates that LEED certification can cost between $2,250 and $27,500, depending on the size and complexity of the building or project, although he stresses that savings in energy and water use, as well as construction costs, usually easily pay for the costs of certification).

Although Meza believes that RESET is not strictly necessary – he thinks that LEED certification is sufficiently flexible as well as time-tested – he applauds the initiative as one that will lead to increased consciousness about sustainable building design in Costa Rica, and more green buildings as a result.

“The points [counted for certification] are not the point,” he says, “The point is more and better sustainable buildings.”

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