Friday, August 25, 2006

Engineers and Green Buildings by Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP

The green building industry is going nowhere but up. In 2005, the green building industry had a significant expansion and growth in the U.S. For the first time ever, new LEED-NC (New construction) project registrations topped 1,000, adding more than 130 million gross sq.ft. of project area, and more than 150 LEED-NC projects were certified, topping 100 for the first year ever. The U.S. Green Building Council’s annual Greenbuild conference and trade show expects to attract nearly 12,000 people to Denver in November, making it the world’s largest, and the number of LEED Accredited Professionals (LEED APs) exceeds 24,000. LEED-NC version 2.2 has been successfully introduced, along with a simplified documentation and project management system, LEED Online.

Many external events continued to work to promote green buildings. Oil prices surged above $75 per barrel in July and threatens to stay at elevated levels for a long time. In November 2005, the U.S. government’s hyper-conservative Energy Information Administration published its long-term forecast for oil prices and estimated oil prices in 2025 at $54 per barrel in 2005 dollars, up 65% from its year-earlier estimate of $33 per barrel. Increasing oil (and natural gas) prices, the drumbeat over global warming intensified by the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and the prospects of uncertain supplies because of volatile geopolitical factors have changed the psychology of the public for the first time in a generation, toward a concern for energy conservation in buildings.

Even President Bush and the Congress got into the act, passing the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT), providing for dramatically increased incentives for solar and wind power, along with strong support for energy conservation in new and existing buildings. Although the incentives are scheduled to expire at the end of 2007, many seasoned Washington observers expect them to be extended in 2007. In 2006, President Bush went on the road in mid-February to tout his new focus on ending America’s recently discovered “oil addiction.” (“My name is George Bush, and I’m an oil addict!”)

Just to show that architects get the message that, as captain of the ship, steering buildings toward less energy use is their responsibility, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) issued its most ambitious policy statement yet, declaring in a December 2005 position statement supporting sustainable design that new buildings should reduce currently consumption levels by 50% by 2010. The problem, as anyone who works daily in building design will acknowledge, is that architects and engineers have few clues how to accomplish this goal, within current building budgets. And, with costs for ordinary buildings exceeding $200 and even $300 per sq.ft. in major metropolitan areas, most construction budgets are stretched to the breaking point. Absent new financial and institutional arrangements there is simply no more “upfront” money for building energy conservation.

What might all this mean for consulting engineering firms? A recent survey of market growth projections, conducted by McGraw-Hill for the U.S. Green Building Council, predicted that education and government sectors, followed by institutional and office buildings, would show the highest growth rates, from 48% to 65%, over the next year.

External factors continue to have a dramatic effect on the construction industry and indirectly on the financial viability of green buildings that carry higher initial costs. Commercial construction costs escalated dramatically in 2005, led by 20% higher costs for concrete and steel, owing to higher fuel costs and dramatically increased construction demand in China, India and other Asian countries. This means that engineers are going to have to embrace integrated design approaches, to provide higher-performance buildings on the same or less construction cost.

Many engineering firms seek to differentiate their services by increasing the number of LEED APs on staff, aiming at 40% to 50% or more of their professional staff. Each firm in the design and construction industry that wants to stay competitive in the green building market arena needs to move in this direction. Having a strong sustainability program in-house will be one of the few ways consulting engineering firms can hope to attract new talent and to keep ambitious engineers on board.

The main sticking point for rapid LEED project growth continues to be the perception that these projects cost a lot more. In 2005, Turner Construction repeated its initial 2004 green building industry survey, with similar results. In this survey, 68% of 665 executives surveyed believed that higher construction costs were the major factor discouraging construction of green buildings, while 64% cited lack of awareness of benefits. In terms of the cost and complexity of LEED documentation, 54% cited that as a contributing factor, while 51% cited short-term budget horizons of clients, 50% cited long paybacks (average eight years), and 47% cited difficulty quantifying all the benefits of green buildings.

Clearly there is a lot of work to do, in the world of architecture and engineering, to start making buildings more efficient. However, the “perfect storm” is now in place, for the first time in a generation, for building owners and developers to listen to the message of energy-efficient building design. It’s time for professionals to start getting the tools, products and techniques in place, using the process of integrated design, to tighten up the energy use of buildings.

An earlier version of this column appeared in the April 2006 issue of HPAC Engineering magazine, References:”Green Building Smart Market Report,” McGraw-Hill Construction, November 2005, 44 pages, available from, p. 12.See “Engineering a Sustainable World,” available from Interface Engineering, for an example of how a Platinum LEED project can be designed with less initial MEP costs. Order a copy from


  1. Green is going up and it's about time. I expect to see a major increase in green related construction in the schoolfacilities sector, especially in Florida.

  2. Informative article. Is Jerry the publisher of the 2006 Update? I read a copy of it and found it very useful too.


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  4. As an Licensed Electrical contractor in the state of California I've been interested in energy savings for quite some time. I can agree with the author regarding increasing the amount of LEED AP designers on their staff. And although this bucks the "LEED Certifying" bandwagon, there are no compelling reasons for Electrical sub-contractors to become LEED certified with the present system. Unless the USGBC changes in a meaningful way how contractors, notebly Electrical contractors are granted LEED AP certification.