Case Study: A Perspective on Building A Green Office

Vestal Tutterow, P.E.

January 1, 2007

The Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) is a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting energy efficiency worldwide. Its move into a new office space in June 2006 was the culmination of nearly a year of planning and execution by the design team.

Prior to the move, the ASE had occupied a small part of a multistory office building since the mid-1990s, but as the staff grew, the ASE was unable to obtain more contiguous space in that office building. ASE management decided to secure a new tenant office space that could be built out as a showcase for building energy efficiency and sustainable design. The ASE used the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System as a guide, with a goal of obtaining LEED Silver certification.

The LEED Process

Over the past few years, the LEED rating system has emerged as the recognized standard for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings. The LEED rating system consists of a set of prerequisites and specific sustainable criteria with respective point values. A project registered with the USGBC may be awarded a rating of Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum, depending on the number of points earned. The points are obtained in the following general categories:

  • Sustainable site selection
  • Water savings
  • Energy efficiency
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality

Types of LEED Facilities. USGBC began with a LEED rating system for new construction (LEED-NC) in 2000. Since then, the USGBC has created rating systems for existing buildings (LEED-EB), commercial interiors (LEED-CI), core and shell structures (LEED-CS), along with the newly released programs for homes (LEED-H) and neighborhood developments (LEED-ND). Reference guides are available for each of these systems. These guides represent the best practices for sustainability as developed by leaders in the building industry. Under development are rating systems for schools, health care, new construction retail, and retail commercial interiors.

Why Bother?

Why should building owners, occupants, designers, or contractors care about green buildings—and the LEED rating system, in particular? There are many reasons, and the motivating factors vary depending on your point of reference. Businesses benefit from improved worker satisfaction and productivity, as LEED buildings and spaces incorporate features that enhance occupant comfort and health. Building owners benefit in the following ways:

  • Experiencing lower energy and water costs
  • Enhancing the asset value of the building
  • Obtaining a visible and marketable symbol of social and environmental stewardship

LEED-level standards are being adopted by government agencies at all levels. Federal government organizations (which account for over 10 percent of construction in the United States) are adopting or encouraging the LEED rating system. These groups are led by the General Services Administration (GSA), which requires that all building projects meet LEED Certified level standards. Many local governments (such as those in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.) require all new construction projects to use the LEED rating system. Other countries, such as Canada and India, have created similar rating systems for their own use.

Many universities and colleges across the country are adopting LEED as standard practice for new construction, as are several Fortune 500 companies like DuPont and Bank of America.

Green building design, sustainability, and LEED are key topics for architects throughout the country. (To see an example, visit the American Institute of Architects website at Green building design is quickly moving from what is perceived as the risky “cutting edge” to the mainstream. Building engineers and contractors need to become conversant and experienced in these areas to remain competitive.

The LEED programs for new construction and existing buildings are also applicable to industrial facilities. Of particular interest to the insulation industry is a LEED methodology for accounting for Combined Heat & Power installations in new construction projects.

The ASE’s Experience

Getting started. LEED-CI was developed for organizations that, like the ASE, seek to incorporate green building principles and features into tenant spaces. A successful LEED-CI project, like any other green building project, requires incorporating green strategies from the very beginning of the planning and design process. One of the first lessons the ASE learned is that LEED involves much more than just energy efficiency. Energy is but one component of a sustainable building.

The ASE began the process by selecting the site for its new office space, looking to remain in a downtown Washington, D.C., location convenient to the D.C. Metro (subway) system. Fortunately, the downtown area contains a variety of existing office buildings with ready access to public transportation. This allowed the ASE management team to shop around for the best available space within its modest nonprofit budget.

The documentation requirements for obtaining LEED certification can be quite daunting to the uninitiated. USGBC provides a template “scorecard” (in spreadsheet form) for projects registered with USGBC. This template is a valuable aid in tracking the potential credits for a project. Each credit sought must be fully documented, however. Having a project team experienced in green buildings and the LEED certification process is practically essential to navigate the LEED criteria and submittal requirements.

The ASE sought out an architectural firm with LEED Accredited Professionals on staff. It also selected a construction management firm that not only has LEED experience, but also has staff who are active in the local chapter of USGBC. Building commissioning is an integral part of the LEED process, so the ASE hired a commissioning agent with a substantial LEED commissioning background. Having this experienced project team certainly made the design, implementation, and documentation process substantially easier than it otherwise may have been.

Many of the products featured in the new space were donated or provided at a discount by various ASE Alliance Associates—businesses that have formed strategic partnerships with the ASE to promote energy efficiency. Since the ASE has a smaller budget, they could not have afforded to include all of these products without their generosity. However, the large number of contributors did make the documentation process more cumbersome.

Design Features. As a tenant moving into an existing office building, the ASE was unable to make any modifications to the building envelope, which is where the majority of the insulation points would have been assessed. Points for mechanical insulation are counted as part of the entire building envelope assessment. The ASE did make use of acoustical batt insulation to enhance soundproofing between walls in certain areas of the office. The changes to the HVAC system were limited to air-distribution modifications necessary to accommodate the reconfigurations within the space. Therefore, the energy efficiency features of the new space include primarily the ASE’s state-of-the-art lighting system (T-5 lamps, dimmable electronic ballasts, sensors, and advanced technology controls), and Energy Star–qualified office equipment and appliances.

The ASE is not a large consumer of water, but the group reduced water use by installing low-flow aerators on its faucets and placing instantaneous water heaters at its sinks. This has the double benefit of cutting energy use—eliminating the need to heat water in a large tank on a 24-7 basis—and reducing the amount of water people waste waiting for hot water to be delivered through hot-water piping to points of use.

An important component of the LEED criteria is the emphasis on recycling and materials reuse. Developing a program for recycling daily wastes of paper, cans, and bottles is a prerequisite for LEED certification. LEED goes well beyond this, though. The ASE received credit for diverting more than 50 percent of the construction waste from a landfill. This was no small task. The general contractor had to isolate the waste as it was generated to allow proper recycling and reuse. From the ASE’s 18,000 square feet of space, the following amounts of materials were recycled:

  • Four tons of wire
  • Eight tons of ceiling tile
  • Over three tons of carpet
  • Twelve tons of scrap metal

The space is just a bit less than one floor of a 12-story office building. Imagine the potential recycling opportunities in a complete building or manufacturing facility renovation. The ASE’s general contractor documented all of these recycling efforts, as required for credit under the LEED process.

Another aspect of materials reuse is keeping furniture from the previous office and using items left by the previous tenant of the new space. This accounts for over 90 percent of the furniture now used by the ASE. The only new furniture purchased was a limited amount of systems furniture, which has a “Greenguard” Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)–certified product label certifying recycled content and use of low-volatile organic compound (VOC) emitting adhesives.

The renovation required the purchase of many new construction materials, but when feasible the ASE installed materials with significant amounts of recycled content. Below are some examples.

  • The ceiling tile is 43-percent preconsumer recycled content.
  • The carpet has 19-percent preconsumer and 20-percent postconsumer recycled content, and is green label certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute.
  • The floor tile has 35-percent preconsumer recycled content.
  • The office kitchen cabinets are wheatboard, containing 40-percent preconsumer recycled content.
  • The sheetrock contains 28-percent preconsumer recycled content.
  • The steel studs contain nearly 25-percent postconsumer recycled content.

LEED also encourages the use of regionally manufactured materials, whenever possible, to reduce the energy and environmental impacts of transporting materials over long distances. The ASE’s project team located regional sources for the carpet, ceiling tile and grid, sheetrock, steel studs, and doors.

The indoor environmental quality components of the new office space include the use of low-VOC materials for all flooring (carpet and vinyl), paints, stains, adhesives, and sealants (needed for carpet, vinyl flooring, and baseboards).

Lessons Learned

The process of creating a green tenant space buildout was a positive learning experience for the ASE. It provided the group a dose of reality and perspective when advocating building energy efficiency and sustainable buildings. The following are some of the lessons learned in the process.

  • Close coordination with the architects early in the design process is critical. The preliminary design turned out to be far above budget, causing delays as a “value engineering” redesign ensued. Lost in the redesign were some of the HVAC zoning and control functionality, “green” hardwood flooring, and some other desired features.
  • Close coordination among the project team is also important. The team consisted of the architects, general contractor, subcontractors, landlord, and the ASE. Coordination was well managed by the general contractor, but the extent of the ASE’s involvement was more than had been anticipated going into the project.
  • Buy-in from the landlord is essential for a LEED commercial interior project. Landlord support and understanding of the LEED program and process is critical, even during negotiation of the lease. The landlord’s concurrence is necessary on everything from building policies to operations.
  • The geometry of the space affects the ability to receive credits for daylighting. While the new space incorporates glass wall panels on office walls and doors to allow daylight into interior hallways, the overall floor plan and the largely northern exposure are less than optimal for daylighting credits under the LEED criteria. (Nonetheless, the dimmable ballasts and daylight sensors allow the lighting in each office to be reduced depending on the daylight available, further reducing energy use.)
  • Material lead times need special consideration in a LEED project. For example, new doors constructed of wood certified as being from a properly managed forest were not readily available and were deleted from the final project. The fixtures became a critical path item affecting move-in.

The ASE is a nonprofit organization that was able to improve commercial office space to achieve the LEED Silver certification under fairly rigid circumstances. Imagine the changes possible when an organization has more flexible parameters and a larger facility. For a virtual tour of the ASE’s new office space, please visit