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COVID occupancy and your existing building LEED certification

The green building industry has shifted from predicted performance to actual performance when assessing an existing building’s sustainability.

July 20, 2021 |
Abundance: The Paladino Blog

I’m happy to report that even as the world took a left turn during the pandemic, the interest in sustainability and optimized buildings has stayed on course. One strategy we continue to see is the use of LEED certification as a powerful back-check on sustainability efforts, validating achievements and creating a common language to understand a building’s performance.

The green building industry has shifted from predicted performance to actual performance when assessing an existing building’s sustainability, which we’ve covered extensively on this blog in our posts about LEED certification and the Arc platform.

But in 2020 most office workers went home. In fact, US office occupancy losses totaled 84 million square feet in 2020. Even as workers sheltered in place, buildings continued to operate – in some cases at higher energy output to achieve the ventilation rates needed to improve COVID safety.

Building operators ran into a big challenge, though – existing building performance ratings using the Arc platform rely on a math equation that calculates performance in relation to energy use, water use, occupancy, building size, hours of operation, etc.

Consequently, a building that might have previously been LEED Gold or Platinum now faces a plummeting performance score as the building uses a similar amount of energy with dramatically fewer occupants.

Here are a few ways that the actions to protect occupants from COVID were in conflict with the scoring methodology for Arc:

— Energy: Increased ventilation was recommended to protect building occupants, so buildings had higher energy output for fewer occupants because they had to heat and cool that extra air.

— Water: Many building operators also flushed water to prevent legionella, again resulting in higher water consumption across fewer building occupants.

— Transportation: Transportation scores are typically scored only by people who travel to the building. During COVID, mass transit use plummeted as single-use vehicle use rose because of safety and transmission concerns. The Arc platform rewards the use of mass transit, so this score took a major hit, even for buildings that are transit-oriented.

This is a big problem for buildings that need to renew their LEED certification! What should you do if your certification is set to expire?

Thankfully, USGBC has released guidance for these building operators. The guidance has two key features:

1. A performance period may be chosen for energy and water using pre-COVID data, for example, Jan – Dec 2019. And a separate (current) performance period can be used for the waste, human experience, and transportation categories.

2. USGBC added an Impacted by COVID box to Arc to explain unique circumstances. For example, an owner can conduct a transportation survey of existing occupants, then use the Impacted by COVID box to inform USGBC about its unique situation.

For example: Consider a building that normally has 1,000 occupants, but only 50 are currently coming to the office regularly, and they each drive a single-occupant vehicle while the other 950 occupants work at home. USGBC will factor in the zero carbon emissions of the 950 not commuting at all.

Recertifying existing buildings is an important part of the sustainability effort, and no one wants this strange moment in time to discourage hard-working building operators from maintaining their LEED certifications. These adjustments from USGBC will be a temporary fix before occupancy gets back to its new normal. I’m pleased to see that USGBC is working to be nimble and continue to offer solutions that match our times.

Abundance: The Paladino Blog

Paladino and Company is a sustainability consulting firm that works with organizations seeking to make a difference through their buildings and people. Abundance, written by our team of architects, engineers, building scientists, commissioning agents and business analysts, reflects our rigorous business and building technical analysis centered on the concept of abundance as a driving force for change.  Our consultants offer insights, expertise and vision on sustainability and how to realize its business value. For more, visit http://www.paladinoandco.com/blog/.

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