CITY HALL — Parents wanting to trim their food budget will often go for the generic store-brand cereal or cough syrup instead of shelling out more for the nationally recognized name brands.

There might be some temper tantrums in the morning as it takes time for youngsters to adjust to eating Tootie Fruities instead of Froot Loops (“What happened to Toucan Sam?), but the switch can shave on average 25 to 30 percent off the final bill.

It appears that some developers with housing and office projects before the Santa Monica City Council are looking for that same savings by opting for a generic green-building certification instead of the brand name one known as LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in the mid-1990s, LEED certification is done by an independent third-party that makes sure new and existing buildings incorporate environmentally-friendly materials and features that dramatically reduce water and electricity usage. For years it was the only player in the game, developing strict standards that have served as blueprints for cities developing their own building standards.

LEED continues to be the most popular green building system in the U.S. and is growing abroad, and it doesn’t come cheap, depending on the project being certified (size and use matter) and what level of certification the developer is going for (there’s silver, gold and platinum). A typical fee for a 30,000-square-foot mixed-use building would run just over $30,000. A larger project, like a shopping center, could have a final price tag of over $1 million.

Concerned about that cost, at least one developer of a mixed-use housing project on Second Street in Downtown has asked for and received permission from the City Council to go for LEED equivalent, which means they would have to build according to LEED standards, but would not have to go through the formal third-party certification process. In theory that could save thousands of dollars.

There are many other projects that may request a similar arrangement and that has some city officials sounding the alarm. There is no alternative review process in place at City Hall and currently no employees with the training necessary to ensure a project is LEED equivalent. In a time when budgets are tight, adding more staff or paying for training is unlikely.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Dean Kubani, who heads City Hall’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment. “We don’t have the system in place to do it and there’s already a third-party system in place that is relatively inexpensive.”

And making the switch wouldn’t achieve any significant cost savings for the developer, Kubani said, because city employees doing the work would still need to be reimbursed.

The real cost is in the materials and technologies. Since Santa Monica’s building codes are already so green, developers are going to be making the investment in sustainability upfront. Paying a few thousand after that for certification is further securing a sound investment, said Dominique Smith, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council — Los Angeles Chapter. Building by code in Santa Monica means being LEED silver. They just need the plaque to hang on the wall that says so, which helps in marketing the building to future tenants who want to rent a space they know is helping protect the environment, not destroy it.

“[A]s far as I can tell, the savings to a developer for ‘LEED equivalent’ compared to ‘LEED certified’ is the difference in cost between having the government do a task and the private sector do the same task,” said Brenden McEneaney, former Green Building Programs manager for City Hall who now specializes in the resiliency of buildings following extreme weather events like a hurricane or flood. “Most people would think that the private sector can do it for cheaper.”

Competition in the private sector is one way to bring costs down, theoretically. More groups are working on alternative certification programs that cover a niche, like single-family homes or buildings that are reused, and their fees tend to be lower than those charged for LEED certification.

One such system is Green Globes. (The Living Building Challenge is another that is growing in popularity, however it sets a much higher bar than LEED by focusing primarily on implementation of net zero energy, waste, and water measures and therefore, has only been achieved by a handful of buildings.)

This is where branding comes into play. Green Globes, developed by the Green Building Initiative, hasn’t been around as long as LEED and until recently allowed self-certification. Therefore, it wasn’t considered as robust as LEED. The Green Building Initiative is trying to change that perception. It now has a third-party doing the reviews and has hired a new director with green building credentials to lend it more credibility. In 2012, Green Globes was recognized by the federal government as a reputable certification system. Because of that, governmental buildings have been the focus of the initiative.

On whether to go with Green Globes and possibly save thousands, or stick with LEED depends on whether or not you really crave that brand name, said Jerry Yudelson with the initiative.

“It’s a question of do you want it for your own use, or for marketing an office space to a Fortune 500 tenant,” said Yudelson, who spent the last 15 years on the LEED side. “We don’t have the brand name for that, but we provide an equal service and a lot more direct one-on-one information how facilities can be built better and be more sustainable.”

Yudelson said competitive pricing is starting to happen and costs are going down, but the key is to maintain the integrity of the assessment process so it ends up meaning something.

Raising Green Globes’ profile seems to be working.

“With Green Globes recently increasing their standards, it may be time for another look,” Kubani said. So, City Hall may be able to offer developers an alternative to LEED after all.

If that happens, don’t expect folks aligned with LEED to cry about it. In the sustainability market, anything that encourages more developers to go green is a good thing. It’s not seen as competition as in other industries.

“We’re just happy to see people participating, so if having more options allows that, we’re all for it,” Smith said.

In the end, worrying about whether to go Green Globes or LEED may not be worth the energy, McEneaney said, because sooner rather than later there will be a push for even more low-impact construction and a new certification standard could become the preferred choice if the old ones don’t evolve. Buildings are going to be called upon to perform better.

“LEED certification is the least of the worry,” he said. “Aside from this month, it didn’t rain much in the west did it; how will these developments address that? How will they be resilient in times of increased wildfires, increased drought, increased intensity of rainfall that flushes the storm drains into the bay? We need to ask our buildings to be more than de minimis — to give back to the community, to be examples of what’s possible.”

 

kevinh@smdp.com

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