In a recent blog, we talked about the journey of a sustainable building from the idea stage to decommissioning. One of the characteristics of a sustainable building is one or more third-party certifications, such as LEED, WELL, Fitwel, NGBS, or Enterprise Green Communities. 


Third-party certifications don’t just show up -- they take planning and effort. For example, LEED certification for all project types undergoing renovation or new construction requires fundamental commissioning and energy modeling. Required documentation for fundamental commissioning is a 50% review of construction drawings (CDs). That is one reason why it is important for owners, design team members, and contractors to understand the best practices of sustainable certification management. Rather than presenting a laundry list of potential missed opportunities or mistakes, we will highlight here the sustainable building certification process and the best practices for making it strategic and efficient.


Establish a Certification Strategy in Idea Phase 

Understand the Why 

Ensuring each project team member clearly understands why an organization is pursuing certification for its project is the most important first step. When the Why is clear, the pathway to the goal is illuminated.


For example, if the goal is simply to attract a specific type of financial incentive, the Why is dollars-and-cents related –- the team then knows to find a low-cost approach to the strategy. If the goal is to meet corporate commitments to emissions reductions or to comply with a corporate reporting requirement, the strategy will likely include design elements and scopes of work that both reduce emissions and articulate the initiatives being undertaken. A clear Why from the get-go helps the team present informed options and clarify decision-making criteria that align with the owner’s goals.  


Document the Why in RFPs 

The Why should be captured in the Owner’s Project Requirements and clarified in requests for proposals for A/E services. The great thing about sustainable certifications is that they provide a framework to guide design –- the longer a team waits to explore a certification strategy, the less strategic the investment in the process becomes.


All too often the words “LEED Silver” or “Two Green Globes” is in a project’s RFP with zero commentary about what’s important to get there, or what optional criteria may be desired. Without clarity, the design team’s response could miss the mark when it comes to including the right services that are needed to support the owner’s goals. This fact is increasingly important for any owner with climate goals and reporting requirements –- or for those responding to RFPs absent direction on what the owner wants. 


Refine the Strategy in DDs with Modeling & Calculations 

Design development is the best stage of a project to refine the strategy by running calculations and using modeling to clarify outcomes. For example, many sustainable certifications require certain percentages of concepts –- energy and water efficiency,  EV parking spaces to standard spaces, permeable vs. impermeable pavement –- to be documented with calculations. If there is an interest in minimizing the heat island effect and maximizing on-site stormwater mitigation, design development is the time to run calculations on the planned pavement to see how different material options support these two distinct, but interactive design (and credit) goals.


Energy modeling helps clarify HVAC design options, and embodied carbon analysis (building lifecycle analysis) demonstrates the embodied carbon of structural and envelope choices. Modeling and calculations show that maybe a portion of points available for a design and credit concept are available, whereas the current design shows others are not. This clarification helps the team focus on other design options in support of the owner’s goals.


WELL, Fitwel, and The Design Phase 

WELL and Fitwel certifications are gaining interest from project owners. Both rating systems focus on human health and wellness and have requirements and optional compliance paths that extend beyond the building design. These two certifications require much more interaction with the owner’s team, and property management, compared to others like LEED or Green Globes. To that end, once the team clarifies which design credits matter most for WELL and Fitwel, the owner team can start working on the required documentation and operational policies that fall outside the team’s purview.


For example, if there is a cafeteria or vending area in a building, there are optional points for the food choices within them. The design team can design the space, but the operational policies will define the food selections. Another example is building staffing –- the design team may design an office or station for an individual with CPR credentials, but the owner’s team must hire or train that person and provide documentation to confirm that person’s credentials. 


The Design-Build Delivery Method

The design-build delivery method is known for its ability to deliver an efficient and effective project, leveraging team expertise in a collaborative environment, and achieving both time and cost savings compared to design-bid-build. For design-build projects, modeling and calculations become even more important tools in this fast-paced and dynamic process. Because of the rapid and collaborative approach, starting early and actively seeking feedback from modeling and calculations to evaluate design options is critically important. 


Document the Certification Strategy on Drawings and Specs 

If the certification strategy has CO2 and VOC monitors as a “maybe” on the certification strategy at the end of DD, pending cost analysis, but they are not shown on the drawings, they will not be part of the estimate. Just as it is critical for the owner to clearly articulate the project goals with specificity, it is also critical for the drawings and specs to reflect the strategy –- even if a concept is still being evaluated.  


Submit for Design Phase Review 

Not all building certifications require a design-phase submittal. Enterprise Green Communities and Green Globes do. For LEED, it is an option, but it is impossible to address design-phase certification compliance issues once the building is built.


For that reason, we highly endorse the split review when given the option. The other benefit of having a project reviewed during the design phase is an additional chance to refine the construction-phase certification strategy. For example, some projects may have ‘stretch goals’ for the project to earn a higher level of certification, or they may have ‘eliminate goals’ to reduce costs where not absolutely necessary. Clarity from the design review process helps the team during the construction phase by informing final decisions on how to use the certification process to achieve the owner’s goals.   


Monitor and Track During Construction 

Unlike design requirements and credits that are demonstrated by the drawings, specs, narratives, and calculations, the construction-phase requirements are performance-based. It’s not enough to say that the project has a construction waste management plan –- it also needs to show how much waste was diverted. It is not enough to specify environmentally friendly products –- the project must show how many products it used and at what value, to achieve optional credit points in most of the rating systems.


Contractors are required to track and document performance during construction and to complete documentation in most certification portals. While there may be a sustainability consultant on the design team, unless it is a design-build project, that consultant may not have the scope to do the contractor’s work. It is important to make sure the contractor understands certification requirements and has expertise on the team to track and document sustainable construction practices. 


Submit for Construction Phase Review 

Once a project is granted occupancy and the last dumpster haul occurs (among other end-of-project milestones), the team prepares documentation for construction phase review. Each certification is different in its approach -- WELL, BREAM, NGBS, and Green Globes include an on-site visit by an accredited professional, while LEED and Enterprise Green Communities accept documentation via a portal.


In all cases, documentation is reviewed and comments are provided. The team responds to comments, provides modified and clarified documents, and resubmits. Assuming there are no issues, the project is then granted certification. 


Process Differences for Existing Buildings 

BREAM, GreenGlobes, LEED, and WELL all have rating systems for existing buildings. In this case, the phases are different –- instead of Idea, Design, and Construction, the phases are Intent, Assessment, and Documentation. While the phase titles differ, the concepts remain: 

  • The project benefits from a clear Why 
  • Instead of modeling, the team calculates and analyzes current performance 
  • Documentation is prepared and submitted to the reviewers 

Get Started on the Right Track 

Whether or not the Why is super clear, a sustainability consultant can help project teams clarify the Why and set the strategy for a certification project.


Emerald approaches all of our projects the Emerald Way, our four-step process that delivers results. We always start with listening and strategizing –- to clarify the Why and the strategy. Then we evaluate and plan –- i.e., model and calculate –- and ensure drawings and specs reflect the strategy. Then we implement them, supporting the team in the documentation for certification and tracking during construction. At the end, we test and measure –- commissioning or conducting duct and blower door testing –- to ensure systems were built as designed.  


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