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Update to Estimating Projects Seeking LEED® Certification
“Four years and what have estimators learned?”
By Joseph J. Perryman MRICS MAPM LEED-AP

There is no doubt that, encouragingly, the LEED certification system is here to stay. Construction projects of all different types are now LEED certified and so many projects currently about to start design, and those already in design, are registered with the USGBC for certification. So what have I learned from budgeting for LEED certification during the design stages over the years on numerous projects?

It has proved to be crucial that a LEED consultant be engaged as early as the concept design stage. The earlier the LEED consultant can engage the Owner, the Design Team and the estimator to meet to discuss the LEED goals and opportunities the better especially from a cost perspective. Certain points can be ruled out immediately based purely upon the project’s location and nature. For example, point opportunities exist for renovation projects such as reusing the façade etc. which, of course, can be ruled out completely if your project is a brand new building on an open site. Similarly, a site location in a rural area cannot seek the points that reward a dense downtown location with established public transportation nearby. An experienced team with LEED experience can very quickly ascertain the points that can be ruled out immediately based upon the project’s inherent characteristics.

It is after this first session that the Owner’s expectation of a certain level of LEED certification can somewhat be confirmed as being at least achievable. The next steps are to establish whether the costs to reach that particular level of LEED certification are attainable within the Owner’s budget!

The result, or deliverable, from that first LEED session should be a preliminary LEED checklist that records the Owner’s and Design Team’s first pass of potential and realistic available points for the Project. At this time, the experienced estimator can take the checklist and start to analyse and establish relaistic cost implications of pursuing each point.

It has become clear that the cost of certain specific building elements are influenced more than others by the LEED system. Mechanical, plumbing, landscape, and interior finishes are four examples of building elements that are likely to be considerably affected by LEED certification. Therefore, we have learned that instead of just applying a percentage to your overall projected construction cost to cover the cost of seeking LEED certification, we can now start to evaluate exactly what elements, and by how much, are affected by the selected LEED points. The experienced LEED estimator can also now advise on what points will likely cost more than other points. One should think of the cost of seeking LEED like a menu at a restaurant where prices vary for each meal – the appetizers are the landscape items with all different costs, the entrees are the mechanical all with differing prices etc. – and at the end of the meal, depending on what you decided to eat, it can turn out to be either been an expensive meal or an economical meal. The experienced LEED estimator will ensure their Owners always eat economically! Once the estimator takes the LEED checklist and sorts the points into the relevant construction elements it starts to become easier to see how each building element may be affected in terms of cost.

When this early analysis is complete, the estimator can start to allocate real values to relevant sections of their estimate and at the earliest stages of design. This makes for a much more manageable and realistic estimate during the ensuing design stages instead of just always revisiting an arbitrary percentage on your front page summary sheet of your estimate.

Many LEED points relate to the materials used on a project and we have found that experienced design consultants have started to select their materials much earlier in the design process than perhaps they would if LEED was not part of the project. Materials such as stone (for interior and exterior application) are being finalized earlier in design due to the need to utilize local products if those points are being sought. Other interior finishes such as carpet, paint, millwork etc. are also being specified earlier all of which helps the estimator not only price the cost of LEED certification but also allows for the estimate to be established with more cost certainty much earlier in the design. We have seen stone and brick materials selected as early as Schematic Design on certain LEED projects compared to much later in the design stage on Projects in years gone by. Who would have thought that a potential benefit of LEED would be that estimates can be more certain and realistic at an earlier stage of the design!!

Constant communication and collaboration with the Design Team during the design stages will ensure that the Client can be constantly made aware of how the budget can be affected by dropping or adding points. As such, the estimator should ideally participate at all meetings that review the LEED checklist as the design progresses.

As the LEED system constantly evolves with new versions being released by the USGBC so evolves the estimator’s experience and approach as to how LEED can be realistically allowed for in estimates at early design stages. Estimators can now also compile their estimates in such a way that the LEED costs are managed throughout the design process from the earliest of stages.

Joe Perryman MRICS MAPM LEED-AP is Principal at Donnell Consultants Incorporated, a firm based in Tampa, Florida providing professional construction cost management services on performing arts and museum projects all over North America. Joe can be reached at joseph@dcicost.com or 813.875.8074.

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