Good news or bad news first? Actually, it doesn’t matter. “The good news is, green building has become huge,” says Rhiannon Jacobsen, vice president of strategic relationships at U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “The bad news is … green building has become huge.”
The green building boom is obviously good for the planet, but it has also created challenges, as organizations across a number of different industries struggle to apply sustainability principles to their own distinctive sets of needs.”
That’s where LEED User Groups come in. The groups—USGBC-hosted peer collaboratives where stakeholders from organizations within a single industry can share challenges, opportunities, and best practices around green building—are driving greater adoption of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system and spurring new thinking about sector-specific innovations.
“If you’re designing a green industrial manufacturing plant, it is not the same as an office space,” says Jacobsen, who oversees the user group program for USGBC. “It is not the same as a retail space, it is not the same as a hotel. We needed to meet organizations where they were, and they needed to meet each other where they were. They’re able to talk to their peers and collaborate directly with USGBC and [Green Business Certification, Inc.], and we’re able to build out a leadership bench within various markets.”
The LEED User Groups started in 2012 with the Industrial Facilities group. Based on that group’s success, the program has expanded to include half a dozen industries. The User Groups meet via conference call each month, and get together in person once or twice each year. Participants say the groups help them form new bonds within their industry, solve nagging problems, and amplify their voice.
“These are companies that are excited to be getting on the phone and talking with us, sometimes twice a month,” says Stephanie Mitchell, strategic relationships specialist at USGBC. “They’re excited to meet in person. They’re excited to participate in Greenbuild and participate in sessions that are directed to individuals in their sectors. It’s a different level of engagement.”
Around a decade ago, when Intel was first exploring ways to get its manufacturing facilities LEED certified, Taimur Burki says he had “no idea” what he was doing in regard to LEED: “I had taken some classes and read through the rating systems but the reality of trying to certify a semiconductor manufacturing campus, there was a huge learning curve.”
“It was much different than solely the normal focus of environmental engineering and compliance of focusing on air emissions, waste reduction and recycling, and water conservation and permitting, there was this huge section on energy and air flows which was not my background and I had to learn so much it was extremely humbling,” says Burki, now the global green building program manager for Intel.
At the same time, when project administrators came back to Burki with questions, he realized there were things they didn’t know, as well. Namely, Burki thought they seemed unaccustomed to working with industrial facilities. For example, Intel’s water conservation concerns centered mostly on things like wastewater reclamation and reuse, but LEED standards at the time were more focused on the efficiency of faucets and toilets.
“It was an ‘a-ha’ moment,” Burki says. “I realized they hadn’t dealt with semiconductor campuses that much.”
The experience gave Burki an idea. Perhaps the best way to learn about green practices for industrial facilities, he realized, was to talk to other organizations that built and operated similar buildings. At the 2011 Greenbuild conference in Toronto, Intel organized a dinner with around a dozen other organizations, hoping to kick off those conversations.
Now formalized as the LEED User Group: Industrial Facilities, the collective has been talking, learning, and sharing ever since. “The idea was, let’s share information and get better together,” Burki says. “One of the hardest things is getting hold of real data, real case studies, and being able to ask somebody, ‘Did that work as intended?’ We tend to know what we know, and we know how to do it well. But there’s all sorts of great information and new technology that other people try. If we all get together and share information, we can all get better together. That was the idea.”
Jefferson Thomas, director of Architecture and Technical Services for Virgin Hotels, says that participating in the LEED User Group: Hospitality and Venues is like having a “mini Greenbuild” every month, tailored specifically for the company’s industry.
“The USGBC staff members are out there to help you. They’re not trying to make it hard. Having direct contacts within USGBC that I feel I can call, and if they don’t know the answer, they can connect me to the right person. That’s invaluable,” says Thomas.
Thomas says he was also intrigued by a recent presentation on parking garage design. While attached parking is a necessity for most hotels being built today, Thomas says, those facilities may become obsolete long before the end of the useful life of a new hotel, depending how quickly car-sharing services and automation replace traditional car ownership. For this reason, some hotel chains are designing parking garages to eventually be adapted for other uses, or to serve many functions.
“If it’s incorporated into the hotel structure, you can’t demolish it, so you’d better put in the planning now,” says Thomas. “After that presentation, I’m changing our design standards. That’s the type of thing that a single corporation might not be thinking about, but the User Group opens you to new perspectives that would not typically come to mind.”
Collaborating with Competitors
One of the reasons that User Groups are unique is because organizations within a single sector typically see each other as competitors, and are reluctant to share insights with one another for fear of giving up a competitive advantage. But those walls begin to crumble when the conversation turns to sustainability, says Jacquelynn Henke, sustainability and innovation director for TD Bank, which participates in the LEED User Group: Retail and Restaurant.
“If we really all are working toward slowing climate change, why would I want to keep that a secret?” says Henke. “If I can share my lessons so someone else can scale their impact faster, that’s fabulous. We’re all working to reduce our environmental impact. If I can learn from you, and you can learn from me, that’s even better. I definitely feel a collaborative spirit.”
Thomas says that User Groups create a “common ground” for otherwise competitive companies. “When you have that common denominator,” he says, “it’s actually quite beneficial for us to learn from each other, rather than compete with each other.”
“When we did a kickoff event at Intel, our CEO came down to talk to us,” Burki recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t consider green technology to be intellectual property. We should all share and get better.’ I think all of us have that philosophy.”
“If you were going to ask us, ‘How do you make your products?’, no one’s going to give you that information,” Burki adds. “But if you say, ‘Have you tried off-grid solar light poles in your parking lots?’, we’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ve tried them out, and it’s been great!’”
Solving Specific Problems
“Peer-to-peer learning is the only way the industry really moves forward,” says Sara Neff, senior vice president of sustainability for Kilroy Realty, a commercial real estate firm based in Los Angeles. “You have to be interacting with other people in the trenches who have figured out how to make things work.”
Even some of the answers gleaned from the User Groups that seem small can be incredibly valuable, because they allow companies to get things right the first time. For example, in the LEED User Group: Commercial Real Estate, of which Kilroy Realty is a member, participants picked each other’s brains about whether air quality testing should be outsourced or done by in-house engineers.
“Calibrating the air quality testing equipment can be tricky, it’s actually quite difficult, and if it’s not calibrated correctly, the data is meaningless,” Neff explains. “It’s better to spend the extra money [outsourcing] and not eat up all of your goodwill with your engineers by making them waste valuable time on tests that aren’t valid.”
“Unfortunately, because we are so spread out across the country, we don’t see each other all that often [outside of User Groups],” Neff adds. “Yes, we could call each other up and ask these questions, but it’s hard to do with our busy schedules. The User Groups are just one more opportunity to do that kind of sharing.”