Devil's in the details
In October of 2012, we received word that the UniSource Energy corporate headquarters building in downtown Tucson, Arizona, had finally received LEED Gold status, more than nine months after initial occupancy. A good-looking, 270,000-square-foot office building in the downtown core area, the UniSource Energy (NYSE: UNS) building is designed to serve nearly 500 people working for southern Arizona’s main electric utility, Tucson Electric Power. The nine-story building provides improved working space for employees of Tucson Electric Power (TEP), the company’s principal subsidiary. It also includes nearly 11,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space as well as a conference center, meeting rooms and 500 parking spaces.
Yudelson Associates began work on this project in February 2010 as the LEED green building consultant, assisted by Nicole Isle of Brightworks, working with a team led by Ryan Companies of Phoenix, with architectural services provided by both The Davis Experience of Tempe, AZ and Swaim Associates Architects of Tucson. Ryan Companies was both the developer and general contractor, using a design/build approach to deliver the building according to UniSource Energy’s requirements.
To kick off the sustainable design aspects of the project, Yudelson Associates organized and conducted an all-day eco-charrette which resulted in a clear statement of environmental and energy goals for the project, most of which were realized in the course of the LEED certification. According to my friend, architect Nathan Good, an eco-charrette consists of general group discussions and presentations, followed by breakout group sessions focused on key topics such as energy, water and indoor environmental quality. While we used the LEED rating elements to guide our discussion, we didn’t introduce the LEED scorecard until the end of the day-long eco-charrette. At the end of the first day, we were pretty sure this project could achieve Gold certification, with an outside chance of achieving the Platinum level.
In this project, the constrained downtown site, adjacent to a streetcar line under construction, didn’t allow for any adventurous landscaping measures for stormwater management, but did help to garner a lot of LEED credits for sustainable site selection and low-impact development. In particular, the urban location helped to achieve 22 out of 26 total points for the LEED Site Selection credits, including location to existing transit and the new streetcar project, along with three levels of parking tucked under the building, reducing urban heat island effects and proper stormwater management through onsite detention.
The LEED certification effort showed me once again how easy it is to achieve a Gold certification on a conventional building budget. Interestingly, the project started with a goal of achieving LEED Platinum, before the eco-charrette. I think that, just as in high school everyone secretly wants to date the prom queen or the captain of the football team, every project owner wants to achieve LEED Platinum, at least until the reality of cost sets in! The eco-charrette quickly helped the building team ratchet down its goals one notch – to Gold. Given that we eventually realized 62 points, just two over the threshold of a Gold project, that turned out to be a timely and realistic decision.
However, the LEED goals did require the project to achieve a projected 24% lower energy use than the ASHRAE 90.1-2007 standard, reduce water use 30% from code levels, install a 100-kW solar thermal system for water heating, and a 150,000-gallon rainwater collection cistern for site irrigation. In Tucson, the heavy but very infrequent rainfall, mostly during the summer “monsoon” season, requires very large onsite storage, so as not to burden the downtown area’s antiquated storm sewer system.
What were the lessons learned? The first LEED lesson, which will come as no surprise to experienced green building professionals, is that the devil is in the details, and it’s all details! We were surprised near the end of the certification process to find out that our team had not yet submitted properly dated photos of the soil erosion and sedimentation control measures, a LEED prerequisite, and so we had to go back and resubmit those, otherwise the whole effort would have failed.
A second, related LEED lesson is that the LEED project management team has to be very proactive in getting busy professionals to dot all the “I’s” and cross all the “T’s” for documentation. The reviewers are very thorough and will question any details that aren’t 100% in order, regardless of the clear intention of the measure taken. After the first design review, we received a lot of comments on incomplete documentation that the team had to address in the final review.
Third, no matter how much LEED experience individual team members have and how competent they are as professionals, the LEED project team must ensure that every staff person, architect, owner, developer, consultant, or contractor team has a clear understanding of documentation responsibilities. The fact that a particular firm has done many LEED projects doesn’t guarantee that every team member understands documentation requirements. We received several reviewer requests for documentation that we thought had been properly submitted long ago.
Last, sometimes decisions are made for reasons of economy that really stretch out and complicate the LEED process. In this project, the owner’s decision to do some of the building commissioning work in-house did not work well, since the owner’s team had no prior experience in commissioning. This led to divided responsibilities, once they hired an outside consultant, and extended completion of the final report.
But in the end, one should always celebrate successes! The project was Gold certified, and was finished and occupied on time. It is designed to be reasonably energy- and water-efficient, employs healthy building materials, and creates an interior environment that should work well for employees. Ultimately, that should be the end-game for any LEED project.
Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED Fellow, has been working on LEED projects since 2001. For eight years, he was a national LEED faculty member and trained more than 3,500 building industry professionals in the LEED system. He is the founder of Yudelson Associates, a green building and marketing consultancy in Tucson, Arizona. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.