Value of ‘green’ boom unknown

Ohio leads nation with 300-plus LEED-certified schools

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Ohio has spent more than $100 million since 2007 to require that nearly all state-funded school construction projects be built to a widely used “green” standard. Critics, though, question whether that investment will pay off in significant energy savings.

The state today has more than 300 schools certified or registered with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), more than any other state.

The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission has not calculated how much it has paid in requiring the green standard, but the OFCC in 2007 added 3 percent to each school project it funds to pay for LEED-related costs. USA Today last year calculated Ohio’s total price tag at $160 million.

Meanwhile, the OFCC has estimated the schools will save $150 million in energy costs in five years. The commission projects that LEED schools in Ohio will use 30 percent less energy and 40 percent less water than typical schools.

“Our school buildings will be owned and operated for decades, which is plenty of time to realize an exponential return on our comparatively nominal up-front LEED investment,” said David Scott, an environmental attorney in Columbus and vice chairman of the Central Ohio chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED’s parent organization.

But some say while LEED has raised the profile of green construction, it’s little more than a feel-good standard that doesn’t deliver promised energy savings.

“Everybody’s talking about green, everybody says they’re doing it,” said Ujjval Vyas, a Chicago-based attorney and sustainable building consultant. “But if you look at the data and you look what’s being presented (in support of LEED), frankly … well, it just doesn’t pass basic muster, period, in terms of the level of analysis they’ve done.

“The question is, does anybody care if the money is misspent? It’s being misspent, there’s no question about it.”

Savings unknown

Supporters say LEED isn’t perfect, but has advanced improvements in school design by emphasizing air quality, acoustics and lighting.

But Ohio has staked its case for LEED on a specific type of green: money.

Studies of LEED buildings in other states have shown wide-ranging results, with building operations playing a huge role.

“It’s a design standard that sets up the building for effective, efficient operation,” said Mark Frankel, technical director for the Washington state-based New Buildings Institute. “But unless you pay attention to the owners, and the occupants are motivated by the same goals, the outcomes are not necessarily going to be the same.”

So is Ohio saving money on green schools? It’s impossible to tell right now. OFCC does not require school districts to monitor and report energy use from LEED buildings.

Without the energy data, the state can’t verify the savings or identify problems with operations, said Lisa Laney, who oversees OFCC’s green school program.

Commission staffers are trying to figure out how to get local schools to voluntarily report energy use, she said.

“Hopefully they will provide us that, based on (wanting to make) their buildings perform as well as possible,” Laney said. “But we don’t have a big stick to swing and say, ‘give us this.’ ”

‘Green’ takes off

The U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington-based nonprofit comprised of builders, architects and other industry groups, introduced LEED in 2000 as a way to promote sustainable building practices in the private sector.

Thanks in no small part to government action that required or at least encouraged it, LEED emerged as the most widely used green construction standard. Today, 20 states, including Ohio, require some or all public buildings to achieve some level of LEED certification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

LEED works by awarding points for design features that promote reduced energy use, sustainability and improved indoor air quality, among other categories. Points are awarded for features ranging from the simple — such as bike racks and parking spaces for energy-efficient cars — to the high-tech — such as cutting-edge HVAC systems and solar panels.

Once a project gets enough points, it can be be LEED-certified at four levels: “certified,” silver, gold and platinum. Certification can cost between $3,000 and $35,000 in fees paid to the council, depending on a building’s square footage and other factors.

The USGBC’s Center for Green Schools estimates there are 140,000 green schools across the U.S. The center makes a case for green schools as a way for districts to be safe and efficient while promoting sustainability and environmentalism to students.

Ohio nation’s leader

Ohio’s huge number of green schools originated with a September 2007 decision from the OFCC, which provides state funding to build and renovate public K-12 schools. It required all commission-funded projects to get at least silver LEED certification.

Around the same time, the state began an ambitious school construction program, using a $4.1 billion windfall from the national tobacco settlement.

As a result, the number of LEED schools in Ohio has skyrocketed.

The first state-funded school to receive LEED certification was Pleasant Ridge Montessori in Cincinnati, which received a silver rating in October 2009, according to commission records. In 2010, only one additional school was certified; in 2011, 16 were certified and in 2012, 41.

As of last month, 90 commission-funded Ohio schools were LEED-certified, including 19 in the Miami Valley. Another 200-plus statewide are awaiting certification.

In January 2013, the USGBC found Ohio had more green schools than any other state — in fact, more than the next three states (California, Pennsylvania and Texas) combined.

“(Ohio) is the national example, because it is by the numbers leading in terms of the number of schools,” said Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools. “It’s not San Fransisco, it’s not Portland, not the people you would assume would be leading necessarily in an environmental movement.”

The state LEED requirement came in the midst of Dayton Public Schools’ 10-year, $627 million school capital improvement program, which received 61 percent of the funding from the state. Today, DPS has 11 LEED-certified schools, the most of any school district in Ohio.

John Carr, DPS’s chief construction officer, said the buildings send a positive message to the community.

“It gives a positive environmental image to the community, that we are sensitive, and we’re taking steps to hopefully improve the environment in schools so teachers will want be there and kids want to be there,” Carr said.

Cincinnati Public Schools has seven LEED-certified schools, the second-most in the state. That includes Taft High School, which is one of three Ohio schools with a platinum certification. The $20.4 million school features a 40,000 square-foot vegetable garden on its roof.

Besides providing educational opportunities, LEED is expected to bring greater efficiency, said Robin Brandon, CPS’s manager of facilities, planning and construction. The school district plans to pay off its share of LEED expenses in 15 years through reduced utilities use.

Brookville Local Schools Superintendent Tim Hopkins said he is happy with how Brookville Elementary turned out. It was built with state funds and LEED-certified in July 2012.

“I don’t see how you cannot appreciate or be in favor of trying to seek out, A, environmentally protective measures when you build and, B, most importantly maybe things that are going to save your community money over the long haul,” he said.

Dayton and Cincinnati school officials project their schools will save around 30 percent on energy savings compared to typical schools.

DPS has not finished analyzing whether its buildings are saving energy, but Carr said Dayton’s schools, with one exception, have performed “at or around” projections.

Not a sure thing

While LEED’s parent organization promises energy savings, there is a lack of scientific data to back it up, some say.

A primary criticism: LEED rewards efficient design, but not actual reduced energy use.

“LEED points are from hitting a checklist … but they’re not driven by performance,” said John Scofield, an Oberlin College physicist. He compares the process to awarding a football championship based on preseason rankings.

And many buildings — including government buildings — are reluctant to share data showing their energy use. Without that data, no one can confirm the buildings are actually saving money. As a result, studies of LEED that do exist are from buildings that volunteered to take part, which results in “cherry-picking,” Scofield said.

In 2005, Washington state legislators began requiring all new state buildings to be LEED-certified. A resulting 2011 audit found that some LEED buildings saved energy, but others actually used more.

And more still didn’t track energy use well enough for officials to figure out whether they saved money. State agencies told auditors that people who had been responsible for tracking energy use had lost their jobs due to budget cuts.

In 2008, the New Buildings Institute studied energy use by 121 new LEED commercial buildings that volunteered to take part in a survey, finding they used 25-to-30 percent less energy than the national average.

But Scofield studied the same data and found the buildings used no less energy than their non-LEED counterparts by a different measure he said is more important.

Scofield has since emerged as a prominent critic of LEED, testifying last year in Washington against government LEED mandates. He calls green buildings a political “third rail” that people are afraid to touch.

“LEED brought sex appeal to energy efficiency,” Scofield said. “But what I see now is that it’s all sex appeal and no substance.”

David Orr, an environmental studies and politics professor at Oberlin, disputes his colleague’s appraisal of LEED. He said in an email the program, while not perfect, has “changed the game in design and construction much for the better” and has been revised over the years to address shortcomings.”

Any program as big and successful as LEED is bound to attract critics, Gutter said.

“Can you dig up that one-in-a-thousand or one-in-ten thousand critic? Of course. But at the end of the day, we are saving Ohio an estimated $1.4 billion in energy costs over the next 40 years, and that’s just the first 250 (green schools),” she said.

Study underway

Although advocates insist it’s a given that LEED saves money, an effort is underway in Ohio to use the state’s unprecedented number of green schools to bolster their case.

The Central Ohio chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council is organizing a study that will evaluate energy use, student performance, attendance and discipline at Ohio’s LEED schools to see if those outcomes differ from non-LEED schools.

“Nobody’s ever done a test like ours, because there hasn’t been this type of unique data set that Ohio has to offer,” said Scott, the Columbus environmental attorney and vice-chairman of the USGBC Central Ohio chapter.

Scott’s group has received a grant from the U.S. Green Building Council, as well as the Columbus Foundation for the study. Scott said there should be results within the next three years.

Despite the study’s ties to LEED’s parent organization, Scott said it will be scientifically rigorous, and that he’s going in with an open mind.

“We don’t know what the answer is going to be, and at the end of the day it could be that there is no benefit, in which case I’ll have to do something else with my free time,” Scott said.