Water Efficiency, LEED, and the Attack of the Naysayer

Posted on July 2, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

“This LEED stuff doesn’t work, and it will cost you more!”

One of the challenges that campus sustainability professionals face is that we are charged to create change. Our very position requires that we suspend the status quo, and convince others to do so as well. Within any organization, there will always be those who are open to change, those who will go along if they sense others are doing so, and those will resist change altogether.

For some then, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system for green building must be downright threatening. That is, until they realize that it’s actually not.

A plumbing subcontractor for one of our LEED new construction projects announced at the beginning of a recent meeting to review water fixture submittals that “this LEED stuff doesn’t work, and it will cost you more.” I might have expected such a comment in 2004 or even 2005 when LEED was somewhat new to the Houston market, but the combination of a rapid shift towards green building by prominent facility owners (such as the City of Houston, NASA, Hines, Rice University, etc.) coupled with Houston’s recent construction boom has created a transformation in the green building capabilities across our local design and construction industry. In fact, a report released this past March ranked Houston second in the nation in total square footage of green development, ownership, and occupancy, behind only Los Angeles.

Entering the meeting, we had the three challenges. First, we wanted to achieve the LEED credit for achieving at least 20% water efficiency. Second, the specified fixture list that had gone out for bid met only the maximum water consumption threshold allowed by federal law. From a LEED perspective, we were starting with a 0% water efficiency. Third, we could not spend a single penny more above the bid for water fixtures. And then add on top of that, a critical team member had thrown down the gauntlet; that any change we wanted to make for LEED was not going to work, and it would cost us more.

While I’m not a plumbing expert, I had worked years ago as an engineer for a water and sewer utility, so I knew that the market for water-efficient fixtures was quite mature. Prior to the meeting, I had consulted three sources of information. First, the February 2008 issue of Environmental Building News featured a detailed cover article about water-efficient fixtures. (If you can only subscribe to one green building products publication, let this be the one.) Second, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched a labeling program for water-efficient fixtures called WaterSense. Think EnergyStar, but for water. Though the program is still nascent, the web site contains excellent guidance for several categories of water fixtures. Third, through the GRNSCH-L listserv, I had received an outstanding response on a query about experiences with water efficient fixtures from Nathan Gauthier, Assistant Director of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative.

I also ran some preliminary scenarios on a spreadsheet before the meeting to get a sense of where my best water savings opportunities might be. I had four fixture categories to consider, and I’ll present the maximum allowable flows in parenthesis: toilets (1.6 gallons per flush), showerheads (2.5 gallons per minute), bathroom sinks (2.5 gpm), and kitchen sinks (2.5 gpm). My fear was that if I had to rely upon changing the toilets I’d be sunk, as dual-flush and pressure-assisted flush toilets command a premium above the baseline 1.6 gallons per flush fixtures that we had specified. Fortunately, the numbers were showing that I could reduce water consumption considerably just through the faucets and showerheads. But would it be enough? And would it cost more?

As we began the review of plumbing fixtures, our plumbing subcontractor leapt right to the toilets category, saying that he’d have to provide plungers if we made him change the specified toilet. I asked that we table the toilets discussion and review our other fixtures first, and then see where we stood from a LEED perspective. So first, we reviewed showerheads. Our research suggested that 2.0 gpm showerheads provided high quality showers, and were readily available. The plumber agreed. Any cost premium? No. Next, we considered the bathroom sinks. While code allows up to 2.5 gpm, the types of functions performed at a bathroom sink – like brushing teeth – do not require large volumes of water. We asked if 0.5 gpm aerators were available, and if they performed well. The answer was yes. We suspected that this was so, based on the information that we had from Harvard. But was their a cost premium? No. Then, we decided to be somewhat conservative with kitchen sinks. Keeping in mind that our residents would be using their kitchen sinks to fill pots with water, we decided to try 1.5 gpm aerators. Any cost premium? None.

At this point, we ran our numbers:

  • Total water savings above the baseline: 21%
  • Gallons of water saved per year: 450,000, based on year-round occupancy.
  • Annual utility savings: $3,300
  • Increased cost to construction budget: $0

Jackpot! We had achieved our objectives without touching the toilets. Further, with everyone in the room having had the opportunity to run through the LEED water efficiency process together, it was clear that we could reduce water consumption by at least 20% through proven and accepted off-the-shelf plumbing products without impacting the budget. In fact, we all saw first-hand how surprisingly easy it could be.

I took away several lessons from this experience. First, do your homework. The internet is a great information equalizer. Based on the three key sources that I cited, I didn’t need to be an expert in plumbing to know that our goal was achievable. I just needed to understand where our best opportunities for water savings based on our particular building could be found. Second, don’t be afraid to disagree with an expert. If you have done your homework, then don’t be satisfied with a contrary opinion until you are 100% convinced. Third, you don’t have to spend more to save water. This should be self-evident by now. And fourth, consult with your fellow campus sustainability professionals when you have questions. This is a new profession, and many of us started within a year or two of each other. Chances are, if you are facing a particular question, several of your peers have encountered it too, and probably have experiences to share and guidance to offer. I have found that the campus sustainability professional community is quite unselfish when it comes to devoting time to assist others or to share knowledge.

This was a minor victory. We didn’t do anything particularly innovative regarding water fixtures. We could have even pushed the savings a bit further without impacting budget. But we did change the status quo, albeit modestly, and exposed the canard that LEED equates to increased cost and poor performance.

So given what we achieved in our water fixture review meeting, the question then becomes if we can cut water consumption by 20% with no increase in cost, why didn’t our consultants design the building that way from the beginning? Why is the default to design to the worst possible performance that is permissible under federal law? And why didn’t we as building owners already have stricter requirements incorporated into our standards? Blame the status quo.

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