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The Growth of Green

The Growth of Green

Building to LEED Specifications Can Reduce Operational Costs and Strengthen Community Connections


The two-story center will serve more than 1,000 kids between the ages of 2 and 11 each Sunday, but Lake Hills’ leaders say the new building will do more than strengthen the church’s ministry to children.

Designed to meet certification requirements from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the children’s building will further the church’s mission of being good environmental stewards and will save the church money in the long-term, says Mike Valiton, chief financial officer of Lake Hills.

“God tells us to steward our resources, so spiritually this makes sense,” Valiton says. “And then practically it makes sense because of the operational cost reductions associated with running a building that’s more efficient and conscious of its energy usage.”

Members of the worship community say that examples of LEED buildings are not widespread among churches, but they agree with Valiton: Environmentally friendly facilities can offer a powerful array of benefits, from a smaller carbon footprint and lower total cost of ownership to the chance to capture the hearts and minds of a population for whom environmentalism is of ever-growing importance.

LEED Background

Developed by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council more than a decade ago, the LEED program provides thirdparty verification that a new or majorly renovated building was designed and built to operate in a sustainable manner. The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) awards LEED certification on four levels; in order from lowest to highest, the levels are certified, silver, gold and platinum. Buildings are awarded points based on a variety of factors: energy and water efficiency designs, the use of recycled materials during construction, methods to improve indoor air quality and access to local transit are just a few of GBCI’s many evaluation points. A new facility must achieve at least 40 out of a possible 100 points to achieve the certified level; the platinum rating requires at least 80 points.

LEED certification also is available for an existing building’s operations and maintenance programs. For this, GBCI evaluates a facility’s chemical use and recycling programs, among other criteria; a building is not required to have undergone a major renovation to receive certification in this area. Furthermore, GBCI accredits experts in green building design and construction with its Green Associate and Accredited Professional (AP) programs.

The Financial Benefits

It’s unclear exactly how many churches are LEED-certified but industry experts say that sustainable building has yet to become an urgent priority of the worship facility community. Those who aren’t building environmentally friendly structures are missing out on some notable benefits. According to McGraw-Hill Construction’s “Green Outlook 2011: Green Trends Driving Growth” report, new buildings that incorporate “green” design and construction techniques reduce their operating costs by an average of 13.6% and increase their return on investment by 9.9% when compared to other buildings.

Indeed, Valiton says that Lake Hills’ children’s building will benefit financially from its adherence to LEED principles. The building’s environmentally friendly features—which include the use of improved insulation and special glass to reduce the demands on the facility’s heating and cooling systems—increased the church’s upfront construction costs by about 15%, according to Valiton. But he adds that those same features also will reduce the facility’s operating costs by approximately $100,000 annually, meaning that the church will recoup its investment in less than seven years.

Although the children’s building is designed to meet LEED Silver certification requirements, the church chose to not actually obtain certification because of the cost and time of the process, Valiton says. Similarly, the other three existing buildings on Lake Hills’ western Austin campus were designed to achieve LEED Bronze certification but they aren’t actually certified. Nevertheless, Valiton is an enthusiastic proponent of LEED principles.

Brady Smith, a Sacramento, Calif.-based architect and a LEED AP, says Lake Hills’ decision is not uncommon. “Most of my church clients usually are more interested in the high-performance aspect of the building, the energy efficiency of the building, because that really helps their bottom line,” he says. “It provides more money for their ongoing ministry.”

Smith says he often designs what he calls “LEED-equivalent” facilities for churches— buildings that, like Lake Hills’, would qualify for LEED—and then the church can decide whether to pursue actual certification. Such churches can increase upfront costs by 2%-5%, but are designed so that churches can recoup that investment through lower utility bills and operational costs within five to seven years, he adds. “The costs associated with the processing of the certification, sometimes [churches] don’t see a real benefit to that,” Brady says.

With energy costs likely to continue to increase, sustainable buildings could become more and more necessary to a church’s financial health, says Ray Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for Joplin, Mo.-based JCDM Church Builders. “Our position is that sustainable buildings are the future and that churches really need to start looking at the benefits of LEED facilities and start incorporating them before it’s too late,” he says.

Spiritual Benefits

Besides the financial benefits, building LEED-certified or otherwise environmentally friendly facilities provides churches with

“LEED buildings are not easy. It’s a very complex process and you want to make sure that you’re doing it in a cost-effective way…. ”

“Will [LEED] guarantee a high-performing building? No, it’s more in-depth than that, but it’s definitely a stepping stone…. ”

a chance to show leadership on a critical issue and to appeal to those members of a surrounding community who are passionate about environmentalism, those in the worship community say.

“I just see a marvelous opportunity for churches and worship centers in embracing sustainability as part of their mission,” says Howard Williams, a LEED AP and the vice president and general manager of Lebanon, N.J.-based Construction Specialties’ Pennsylvania Division. “Sustainability truly is stewardship. In making sure there are enough resources for now and future generations, we honor people. And in honoring people, we honor God.”

Valiton says Lake Hills’ LEED-equivalent facilities should resonate with the residents of Austin, a longtime bastion of environmentalism, and could therefore draw new people to the church. “We wanted to make a statement that says our campus is going to steward the resources that God gave us exceptionally well,” he says.

Swinging into Action

For churches looking to build LEED-certified facilities or buildings that at least incorporate LEED specifications, working with LEED APs during the planning process is critical. Their expertise is needed because, as Smith says, “LEED buildings are not easy. It’s a very complex process and you want to make sure that you’re doing it in a cost-effective way—that you’re not just spending money to get certain LEED points that really have no return on your investment.”

Churches that obtain LEED certification for new construction should also remember the importance of staying on top of their building’s energy, mechanical and other systems, says Troy Gibson, marketing coordinator for Omaha, Neb.-based Reward Wall Systems and a LEED Green Associate. Otherwise, the operational advantages promised by a facility’s design and construction may not pan out.

“LEED is a great tool to help you get a high-performing building,” Gibson says. “Will it guarantee a high-performing building? No, it’s more in-depth than that, but it’s definitely a stepping stone to get [facilities] where they’ll eventually need to be to slow down our energy consumption in buildings and create healthier environments.”

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