Targeted for LEED Silver, the building combines low-tech principles of passive solar design with innovative modular construction techniques, emerging technologies, and sustainable materials, resulting in an ultra-efficient structure with a small carbon footprint. It was a no-brainer that some of the strategies we employed would go a long way toward greening the building, such as siting the building on an east/west axis to take advantage of passive heating, natural ventilation, and daylighting; specifying materials with a low VOC and a high recycled content; and using high-efficiency lighting fixtures and automated controls.
Such strategies were standard fare LEED points that were easily defensible to the USGBC.
Non-traditional sustainable features
It was the building’s non-traditional features that would be a harder sell. Such features as being factory built versus site built, having the new hospital’s central utility plant (CUP) serve as the base case for the building’s energy modeling, and assessing the indoor air quality of a building that did not have a typical flush out given that it was factory built, were aspects of the project that didn’t fit neatly into the USGBC’s process for rating green buildings.
As such, advocating for LEED points for these features would test the limitations of the LEED checklist to deal effectively with a building born of out-of-the-box thinking.
The current LEED rating system does not reward buildings that start off as highly efficient. The credit for construction waste, for example, rewards projects for a percentage of change. So projects as this one, where the construction waste was negligible and consisted largely of lunch debris and cardboard shipping boxes resulting in little total waste, are not properly rewarded under the current rating system.
Likewise, having a highly efficient CUP serve as the base for the energy model leaves few options for improving energy performance, as the chillers and boilers are a given and fixed.
The new ASHRAE standards also leave few choices for improving the building’s performance, short of increasing the amount of insulation in the building envelope itself, and for commercial buildings the return on investment for this strategy just doesn’t make sense from a lifecycle cost perspective.
In establishing the rating system for green buildings, the USGBC could not anticipate every scenario. As it is now, it certainly doesn’t speak to buildings as this one, and hopefully it will in the future.
The promise of modular
Modular construction has historically been thought of as cheap and fast, and rarely innovative. In fact, the rap on modular buildings is that they are “dumb boxes.” As such, modular construction has not been widely embraced by architects interested in producing buildings of high design quality.
It was not until recently that modular buildings acquired a “cool factor” thanks to a younger generation of architects who put them on the map designing mid-century modern homes that could be mass produced. With modular in the spotlight and sustainability on the front burner, now is the time to give modular construction a closer look, particularly as the method holds great promise for the future.