LEEDing the way

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LEEDing the way
LEEDing the way
Providers were given a prime opportunity to flex their ecology-conscious muscles in 2009 when the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Healthcare rating system was introduced.

It became a way seniors housing operators undergoing new construction and major renovations could more formally proclaim their commitment to environmental sustainability and the wellbeing of their residents, staff and community.

The results since have been mixed.

Although long-term care LEED projects have been slowed by a sluggish economy, a number of facilities have successfully navigated the certification process. Moreover, experts say they're seeing an uptick in operator interest, thanks to greater accessibility of capital and a push to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

“[Operators] do benefit from a marketing perspective,” assures Matt Tinder, a spokesman for the American Institute of Architects. Aside from being able to display good will — and a LEED certificate in the lobby, which can be a strong selling point — he says operators that incorporate energy-efficient systems and design features will log long-term savings.

Still, Tinder and others caution that it's not a process to be approached lightly. Becoming LEED-certified can take many months — even years — not to mention a significant time and capital investment that doesn't always offer an ironclad guarantee of a hefty or rapid return. Put simply, while LEED certification can offer big rewards for some operators, experts agree it might not be a worthwhile or even wise pursuit for others.

“LEED certification is a useful selling point and may reduce energy costs, but the cost to obtain LEED certification may outweigh the benefits for long-term care operators,” says Trent Cotney, a Florida Bar Board-certified construction lawyer.

While there's no one “right” approach to LEED certification, experts say that facility location, configuration and community demographics can play a big role in determining whether an operator should seek the distinction.

Laying the foundation
“Choosing to pursue LEED recognition would be a worthy endeavor if your community placed a high value on certification, and local government, businesses, schools, and non-profits had utilized these standards in their construction process,” reasons Mark Hanson, Ph.D., LEED AP, director of sustainable services for Hoffman LLC, and a founding board member of the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance.

In these cases, he says, operators may feel pressure from some residents and their families to follow sustainable practices for new construction projects and renovations. 

Utility costs and a state's commitment to rewarding businesses for their sustainability efforts are also key factors to consider. Utility rates in Ohio and Indiana, for example, tend to be far lower than in other states, such as California, which might make LEED certification less attractive to some operators. Some states, such as Wisconsin, however, promote sustainability efforts and LEED certification, and offer tax breaks and other incentives to those who seek and attain it.

LEED certification makes the most sense, both financially and operationally, in new construction and major renovation projects, says Alan Wynne, a LEED-certified partner at the law firm Epstein Becker & Green PC.

“For facilities that do not fall into the category, owners and operators may want to consider pursing certification under the existing buildings operation and maintenance rating system, which places less emphasis on design and focuses more on operational programs, such as recycling, use of chemicals, exterior maintenance, and upgrades of building systems,” Wynne says.

Facilities hoping for certification after the fact for recently completed construction or renovation projects may wind up disappointed, he adds, because projects that have been completed relatively recently might not satisfy all of the LEED requirements or gain enough credits required for LEED certification.

Often, the decision to seek LEED certification stems from a facility's past project experiences, however small. Such was the case for Pennswood Village, a LEED Gold-certified senior living community in Newtown, PA. It began with the development of environmentally focused programs, such as the resident Environmental Concerns Committee in the early 1980s, which prompted a resident volunteer to initiate recycling at Pennswood.

That has since led to “many baby steps” toward LEED certification — including an award-winning storm water management system and the installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system. Most recently, it embarked on a $7 million LEED Gold renovation of the Barclay House, Pennswood's personal care residence.

The facility is one of only two personal care residences in Pennsylvania to earn the LEED Gold rating and among only 75 organizations in the state to receive any type of LEED certification. LEED ratings are based on a point system, with accumulated points determining the facility's LEED category (Certification, Silver, Gold or Platinum).

Golden nugget
Pennswood originally sought a Silver rating but achieved Gold status by accumulating points in sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy, atmosphere, materials, resources and indoor environment. The process was neither difficult nor challenging, says Pennswood's chief financial officer Ben Hoyle.

He attributes that ease to advance planning that involved top management staff, architects, engineers, construction managers and others. They also relied heavily on a LEED consultant to help steer the process and ensure that the facility earned as many LEED points as possible.

“The work of the consultant was invaluable and essential,” Hoyle stresses. Engaging a LEED consultant before beginning the initial design process or project planning is essential for ensuring that the LEED process is understood, that regulatory and building requirements are followed to the letter and that any surprise expenses can be avoided, he says.

Being knowledgeable about current life safety regulations and other requirements that may affect the project also is critical. Questions or requests for exceptions also should be reviewed with regulators early in the design phase, he adds.

Hoyle also recommends having a key facility staff member become LEED-certified — a distinction that Pennswood's facility director attained in 2005. This allowed for more meaningful discussion with the LEED consultant and renovation partners.

“Most of the design and planning around LEED projects has as much to do with proper disposal and recycling of construction waste, materials selected for their content and location of manufacture, and documentation. We found little impedance to our project due to regulations,” he says.

Pennswood learned some valuable lessons from its previous renovation projects. In fact, the LEED Gold renovation process initially began with another project in 2002 — long before the renovation of Barclay House got underway.

“We were already well into the planning and design stages and felt that we could not designate this a LEED project without incurring substantial costs that could have been avoided with proper planning,” Hoyle continues. “When the renovation to Barclay House was decided, a commitment to LEED was without question.”

Although the Barclay House renovations were completed just last spring, Pennswood is already reaping rewards. Installation of daylighting controls that automatically dim and brighten lights according to available sunlight have cut dependence on electricity by half; switching to low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets has reduced water use by 43%.

Beyond that, the project has increased fresh air ventilation rates to all occupied spaces by more than 30% above the minimum rates required. More than 12% of total building materials were manufactured from recycled materials.

Also, all indoor adhesive and sealant products, paint and coatings, and carpeting comply with Volatile Organic Compounds limits.

Less than full effort OK
Facilities don't have to reach LEED status to reap significant operational benefits.

For resource-strapped facilities and others that decide LEED certification isn't a realistic or cost-effective option, Tinder says they can pick and choose which areas to focus their sustainability efforts based on their own vision and needs. Often, facilities begin by installing energy efficient windows and appliances, and then water-conserving toilets and fixtures. They might switch to recycled, sustainable, low-VOC or non-PVC materials, for example, and then move into planning for energy-efficient design features.

“Energy efficiency can absolutely be done halfway,” he notes, “but the same can't be said for LEED certification.”
Retrofitting outdated HVAC systems, or adding new energy-efficient lighting systems and roofing materials can offer the biggest rewards, according to Cotney.

In 2007, Pennswood installed a geothermal HVAC system with 150 500-foot wells that provide heating and cooling for the community's pools, laundry facilities, health center, kitchen and community building.

If budgets allow, installing power-generating systems also can pay big dividends, as The Silvercrest Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation discovered. The 320-bed nursing facility in Queens, NY, installed the Intelli-
Gen Power cogeneration system in 2006 and saw a return on its investment in less than five years. Operating-cost savings add up each year. The system provides power to ventilator-dependent residents to ensure continued operation, even during blackouts. Plus, waste heat from the power generation process generates hot water for the facility, including the kitchen where 180-degree water temperature is required.

IntelliGen President David Lesser says that facilities in colder climates tend to benefit more. Such has been the case for Silvercrest, which also relies on the heat produced by the cogenerator to warm the facility in winter. If the cogeneration plant undergoes maintenance or should fail for any reason, traditional gas heating automatically kicks in as a back-up.

“We're not LEED-certified, but we do try to go green with any renovations,” says Silvercrest Director of Facilities Management Farouk Abdool. “Living in the Northeast where there are very cold winters gave us a very compelling reason to adopt cogeneration for cost-savings, while also helping us stay focused on our green efforts.”