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Do Green Design Strategies Really Cost More?
By Scott May

The concept of building “green” has certainly moved out of the realm of the theoretical and into the mainstream of current construction practices, and as with many economic models, familiarity and general acceptance drive down the costs of new technology. But the question remains, “Are the costs of building green marginal or extensive?” Certainly many sustainable design strategies cost no more than conventional building techniques, but the real goal of interdependence between strategies, sometimes called holistic design, makes determining the true cost difficult to determine.

In addition, the returns on sustainable design are often measured by intangibles, such as worker productivity, health, and resource economy. But building owners and designers are more likely to make determinations on sustainable design strategies by first cost of construction, or by a short return on investment. Hopefully, the preponderance of data supporting sustainable design has generated enough momentum to get past the “why” of green buildings and onto the “how” to accomplish a successful green project.

One measure of analyzing the cost of green construction is to use the LEED® Rating System as a benchmark of success. Each level of certification will carry increasing costs, but empirical market data suggests that the “Certified” and “Silver” levels carry little or no premium over traditional building costs for most building types. Specialty project types, such as healthcare or research, often have program criteria that are at odds with the principles of sustainable design, primarily in environmental constraints and energy usage. 

Windows at Furman University’s James B. Duke Library, located in Greenville, South Carolina employ digitally controlled, mechanically operated shading systems to control daylighting and save energy.In the first category of the LEED® Rating System, Sustainable Sites, costs for sustainable design can vary widely. Site selection is often made without regard to sustainable design principles, so LEED® points related to selection are often gained as a result of the intrinsic properties of the site. Site design points, such as storm water control or reduction, also often come without costs, as many of the criteria for these points must be met for the standards of local or state authorities. Other strategies, such as minimal irrigation requirements, green roofs, or light pollution reduction can carry additional construction costs, and are often substantial.

In fact, some studies suggest that conventionally constructed buildings can often qualify for 12 or more LEED® points by virtue of current building standards and inherent design qualities. In many cases, between 15 and 20 additional points can be achieved with little to no additional costs, qualifying most buildings for the minimum rating classification. Additional studies have concluded that the cost of achieving Silver certification can vary between 2%-6% above conventional construction. The higher levels of certification, Gold and Platinum, can be significantly more expensive, primarily due to the costs of increasing efficient technologies for water conservation and energy performance. These higher costs can result in greater returns on investment, but the laws of diminishing returns often hinder the implementation of extremely efficient building strategies.

As with most projects, making early decisions on building strategies, and sticking with those decisions, can result in the most efficient cost models for building. Implementing a goal-setting session at the beginning of each project to determine appropriate strategies and levels of cost and time investments can result in lower sustainable design construction costs. Many of these strategies come with little or no costs, making green design an easy sell.

A note about the author: Prescott D. (Scott) May, AIA, LEED-AP, is a Principal with the firm of Neal Prince + Partners Architects in Greenville, South Carolina. Mr. May has over 25 years of experience in the design and construction industry and gained LEED® accreditation in 2000. His firm is currently involved with several LEED® registered projects and incorporates sustainable design principles in all projects regardless of formal project LEED® participation.


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