By Patrick McCarron
By one measure, Virginia is ranked third nationally in the percentage of buildings that are environmentally friendly, or “green.” But while local builders and institutions support environmental friendliness, they aren’t eager to contribute to the state’s ranking.
The ranking came from the United States Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainability in building construction and operation. The council sets a standard for green buildings called Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED.
LEED rates buildings — including homes, commercial buildings, entire neighborhoods, and schools — on a points system that considers site development, water use, energy use, materials and indoor environmental quality.
But many builders in Lexington say they can build green without LEED certification.
“I’m a practitioner of the goal, but I don’t feel the need to meet the specific standards,” said local architect Lee Merrill. None of Merrill’s homes are LEED certified.
Heidi Schweizer is a local architect whose houses are all green certified — but not by the Green Building Council and its LEED standards. All of Schweizer’s homes are EarthCraft certified, a separate program that focuses on energy use specifically. She built the first fully certified EarthCraft home in the state on Taylor Street in Lexington.
And if builders aren’t following LEED or EarthCraft certification, they must still follow the Virginia Energy Conservation Code, according to Lexington Code Enforcement Officer Steve Paulk. The code encourages energy conservation through efficiency in design, mechanical systems, lighting and the use of new materials and techniques.
Terry Harrington, Lexington’s director of planning and development, agrees that actual green certification is still a rarity for homebuilders.
“I haven’t seen a lot of green being proposed by private builders,” Harrington said. “Where I have seen it is when there’s financial incentives to do that.”
Paulk said Washington and Lee University has taken the lead in green building certification.
“Most of Lexington’s green buildings are on W&L’s campus,” he said.
But Chris Wise, environmental management coordinator at W&L, says the university has also abandoned LEED certification.
“The whole certification process is very expensive, and sort of a bureaucratic nightmare,” Wise said. “We’ve pretty much decided that we’re going to go away from LEED Certification but still build the buildings to the level that it would take to get the LEED designation.”
Wise thinks Virginia was ranked so highly by the Green Building Council because of the amount of federal government infrastructure in the commonwealth, not because of any “green” fervor.
“The federal government is a huge presence, and they’ve got all sorts of requirements for military bases and buildings to be LEED,” he said.
Wise said LEED certification is hard to keep up with because its standards change from year to year.
“The problem is, they want to make it harder and harder and harder,” he said
Wise says that even without official LEED certification, following some standards proposed by the council makes buildings last longer.
“I think that’s the way we want to look at green buildings. It’s because we’re in it for the long-run.”