WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

In office worker who’s stopped getting headaches when she comes to work, now that she spends her days in a place with adequate lighting and airflow. An executive who buys an electric car, now that his company provides charging stations. A classroom full of kids who get hands-on experience learning about sustainability, now that their school has a recycling program and vegetable gardens.

There are more of these stories every day. The growth of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), especially over the last five years, has been nothing short of astonishing. At the end of 2009, a total of 632 projects had attained LEED certification in California, for example. Today, that number stands at 3,289. Over the same span, the number of certified projects in Texas rose from 227 to 1,353; in Ohio, from 111 to 755; in Maryland, from 83 to 668.


And the list goes on.


Developers, business owners, sustainability professionals, public officials, and even a church president—in five of the country’s hottest markets for green development—are just a few of the forces behind the millions of square feet of sustainable office, retail, residential, transit, and institutional spaces.


Those profiled here are doing some amazing things, but the truth is, the LEED boom has produced more dazzling, innovative, energy-saving buildings than could possibly fit inside a single story.


The truth is, this is only a small sampling of the many, many people and projects that make up the “Best of LEED.”


The large corporations headquartered in Chicagoland are helping to drive sustainable practices in the city and region—and throughout the country, too.


In Evanston, Illinois, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, sits a Walgreens pharmacy with 850 solar panels on its roof, a 550-foot-deep geothermal system, and two wind turbines.


The Walgreens, which opened in the fall of 2013 and is believed to be the nation’s first net zero energy store (producing more energy than it uses), is a bold statement. But as the practices and lessons from that store filter through the company’s other 8,000 locations, that bold statement will turn into a deep impact.


Walgreens (based in Deerfield, Illinois) is one of dozens of large corporations headquartered in and around the centrally located Windy City, and many of these businesses have active sustainability programs and have taken a leadership role in green building and other environmental practices in Chicago. But that influence doesn’t stop at the shores of Lake Michigan. Fortune 500 companies have tentacles that stretch into far-off corners of the country, and what’s learned in Chicago often ends up lowering the electricity bill, reducing emissions, and providing healthier workplaces in locations from coast to coast.


Walgreens, for example, only has the single net-zero-energy store, but the company has been working on solar panel projects since 2007 and now has 150 solar installations in California, Illinois, Oregon, Ohio, Connecticut, and New Jersey.


“Illinois is a national leader in green building in large part because of corporations headquartered in Illinois who have made sustainability a big part of their business plan,” says Brian Imus, executive director for the Illinois Chapter of USGBC.


Ari Kobb, the Illinois Chapter board chairman and the director of sustainability and green building solutions for Siemens Industry, Inc., sees power in the partnership between Chicago’s green building professionals, big businesses, public officials, and nonprofit organizations. “For me, there’s a certain Midwestern nature of things, which is collaborative,” Kobb says. “There’s this connectivity. It’s about working together to achieve things.”


Last spring, Motorola Mobility moved its headquarters nearly 40 miles south from suburban Libertyville to the historic Merchandise Mart building in downtown Chicago. The 600,000-square-foot space, which takes up most of four floors of the building, is the largest LEED Platinum site in the city, says Bill Olson, the company’s director of sustainability and stewardship.


“This isn’t just an office space,” Olson says. “We relocated all of our labs and engineering. It was quite the move. It wasn’t just people.”


Construction crews gutted the space and used reclaimed materials to build parts of the offices. They painted directly over the concrete, even leaving a few holes in the walls—an intentional move, Olson is quick to point out.


“It would have been cheaper and easier if they’d just put a bunch of wallboard up, but they kept as much of the original walls as possible,” he says. “They did that to celebrate the history of the building, and also to not use a lot of extra material. It gives the space a lot of character.”


“There are also payoffs from an employee perspective,” Olson adds. “They get to come in and enjoy this world-class environment. We think that employees will be more productive, and happier, and enjoy this space more, than if we’d come in and just put up wallboard everywhere.”


On a more global scale, Motorola was the first company to use recycled content plastic in cell phones, a practice that is now widespread.


Olson says it’s a “misconception” that big businesses don’t care about the environment. “Motorola has always cared about the workplace, and their employees, and the communities they live in,” he says. “When you become operationally more efficient, it costs less money to heat and cool your building. That’s a good business practice.”


At the Lake Forest, Illinois-based W.W. Grainger, Inc., which distributes industrial supplies, executives are also hoping that sustainable practices give them a business edge, in addition to aligning with the company’s values. Jeff Rehm, senior manager of corporate facilities and global sustainability, says that clients often ask about the company’s green practices during the bidding process.


“It’s difficult to quantify [the business impact],” Rehm says. “But it’s something that we get asked about, and we feel like we have a really good story to tell.”


Part of that story is how Grainger pursues LEED certification for all of its newly constructed buildings, including the first data center in the world certified under the new LEED v4 guidelines. The LEED Gold facility at the company’s headquarters uses about half as much energy for cooling as comparable data centers.


Certainly, that results in an operational cost savings for the company, but Rehm says Grainger’s commitment to sustainability goes deeper than that.


“Grainger has been around for 87 years,” he says. “We want to be around for another 87 years, and then some. This is the planet where we plan to do business, so we want to take care of it.”

Katrina Rodriguez is an engineer for Greater Denver Regional Transportation District.


An investment in public transit has helped launch a cluster of green development in the Mile-High City’s Union Station neighborhood.


When Katrina Rodriguez, an engineer for Greater Denver’s Regional Transportation District, moved into her office at the downtown Union Station four years ago, the historic building housed only a few other offices, as well as the city’s Amtrak stop. Outside her window was a field.


“There were no people,” she says. “There were a few families of foxes that we watched run around.”


Over time, Rodriguez watched that field transform into a huge hole, and then into a below-ground bus terminal. Eventually, she saw a commuter station rise up from the earth, and then she had to move her office as the historic train station itself was renovated.


Today, the LEED Gold Denver Union Station is the city’s transit hub, bringing together Amtrak, buses, commuter rail, light rail, shuttles, taxis, and bike and pedestrian traffic. The nearly $500 million transit center, which opened in May, has also become the center of the hottest neighborhood in the city. The site itself includes a boutique hotel and a number of retailers and restaurants, and around a dozen other LEED-certified or registered buildings have popped up around the station.


Evelyn Baker, deputy director of community planning and development for the City of Denver, says she’s heard Union Station called “Denver’s living room.”


“It’s one of those places where we take our out-of-town guests to visit, and it’s showing up on the tourist map,” Baker says.


Anyone who’s traveled across the country by bus could be forgiven for guffawing at the idea of a bus terminal anchoring a hip new neighborhood. And a below-ground bus terminal? In many cities, that would simply be a euphemism for “public toilet.”


Planners in Denver took pains not only to reduce energy and water consumption (resulting in one of the few LEED Gold transit centers in the U.S.), but also to create a pleasant place that would leave a lasting impression on visitors to the city and encourage residents to spend time there, as well. Although the bus concourse is below ground, it’s been lit with skylights, and some people say it reminds them more of an airport terminal than a dingy bus station. (“When you walk down there, it still feels like you’re outside,” says Sharon Alton, executive director of U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC] in Colorado.) The historic train station’s Great Hall has furniture where people can sit and mingle, and also three shuffleboard tables. In the plaza outside, kids play in the dancing water fountain in the summertime.

People aren’t flocking to the area just to sit in nice chairs and play shuffleboard, though. Union Station was designed to be the hub of the multibillion dollar FasTracks transit initiative, which is adding new transit lines and facilities over a number of years, and planners had hoped the station would activate the previously dormant surrounding neighborhood. So far, it’s working. In particular, the area seems to be attracting businesses, residents, and shoppers who value sustainability.



Denver Union Station has been transformed into a LEED Gold transit hub and is at the center of the hottest neighborhood in the city. Its light-filled interiors remind visitors more of an airport terminal than a bus and rail station.Photos: Mark Osler

Mercantile Dining & Provision, located inside the station, is a farm-to-table restaurant and store that composts food scraps for its farm, repurposes burlap coffee bags into gift bags, and uses compostable flatware. “We wanted to be a part of Union Station because it is such a great redevelopment project for Denver,” says Alex Seidel, the owner and chef. “It really fit in with our concept for our market.”


Although Denver doesn’t have zoning bylaws or other regulations that require development to achieve LEED building standards, virtually all of the projects in the surrounding neighborhood are pursuing certification. When USGBC Colorado asked the developers why they were building to LEED standards, they all had different reasons.


“One of them had investors who wouldn’t purchase anything less than LEED Gold,” says Alton. “Another had been hearing that young employees wanted to be in a green building. They knew that, to be competitive in the future, they had to prioritize these things. Another said, because of how green that neighborhood is becoming, and how the Millennial generation is flocking there, it was a must-do.”


James McGibney, president of First Century Development and the development manager for the LEED Gold North Wing Building at Union Station, says that green building is “more than a financial play.”


“It’s a good business deal, but it’s more than that,” McGibney says. “It’s making sure that the city’s built in a way that will be here to serve our kids and serve their kids. It needs to stand the test of time, and it will.”


David Zucker is principal at Zocalo Community Development, the firm that developed the Cadence Union Station high-rise residential building. Zocalo is seeking LEED Gold certification for the building.


Zucker says that the Union Station neighborhood is an example of public investment successfully driving private development. He likens the transit center project to a train line extension built nearly a century and a half ago that linked the city to the rest of the country.


“Had Denver not done that 140 years ago, it would have just been a dusty outpost,” Zucker says. “Union Station echoes that [project] to a degree. It’s tremendously pioneering.”

Shawn Hurley is executive vice president and regional manager for Skanska.Photos: Eric Roth


A religious organization’s green headquarters is one of the newest residents of “Boston’s 21st Century Neighborhood.” For Rob Molla, picking out office furniture is a religious act.


Molla is human resources director for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UAA), and he led the association’s design team as it sought to move from its cramped and aging headquarters in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood into a rehabbed LEED Platinum site in the city’s Seaport District. The sustainable building itself was in keeping with the church’s values and reputation (UUA President Peter Morales jokes that he didn’t drive a Prius when he was a minister because he wanted to be able to find his car in the parking lot), but even the chairs and desks proved an opportunity to “live out our faith values,” Molla says.


Molla wanted the furniture to embody the church’s Seventh Principle (“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”), the same way the energy-efficient light fixtures and a focus on recycling construction materials did. But he also wanted to stay true to the church’s First Principle (“the inherent worth and dignity of every person”) by allowing employees to work however they wanted. So, Molla found a vendor who supplied customizable workstations made with recycled materials.


“Human resources is about how people work, and I wanted to have a strong hand in how we designed our workplace for the next 100 years,” says Molla. “We didn’t envision moving again for many, many years, so we really wanted to make sure we designed a healthy, green, accessible, welcoming, flexible, beautiful workplace.”


“On many levels, this building was an expression of not only who we are, but who we aspire to be, and where we’re going,” says Morales. “It’s an expression of our values, living in harmony with the planet.”


The association moved into its $10 million, 34,000-square-foot headquarters in May, and Molla and Morales believe that the space may be the first LEED Platinum religious headquarters in the world. But in the Seaport District, green building is hardly unique.


Until the Big Dig infrastructure project was completed in 2007, the Seaport District (officially, but infrequently, called the South Boston Waterfront) was cut off from the downtown by the elevated I-93 roadway, and the neighborhood was occupied largely by enormous, low-cost parking lots used by downtown workers. The Big Dig moved the interstate underground and replaced it with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, taking away a major psychological barrier between the downtown and the Seaport.


In 2006, the Institute of Contemporary Arts moved into the district, and the next year, the Boston Children’s Museum unveiled its renovated and expanded headquarters in the district. The neighborhood is also home to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which opened in 2004, as well as the Harpoon Brewery, a comedy club, and a number of restaurants. Many visitors to the district drive in, park in one of the enormous lots, visit one of the attractions, and then immediately drive back home.

But now, a number of large developers have swooped into the neighborhood, hoping to turn it into a place where more people live and work. In part because the Seaport is one of the first neighborhoods to see major development since the city enacted new green zoning regulations in 2007 (and since the economic downturn), the neighborhood has the chance to become home to the densest cluster of LEED development in Boston.



Rob Molla is the human resources director of the UAA.

“You bring in this infrastructure and open up the waterfront, all of a sudden it’s like a palette that we get to use to paint and create,” says Shawn Hurley, executive vice president and regional manager for Skanska Commercial Development. “I think that this mix of uses allows for the potential to have a true 24/7 neighborhood. It’s Boston’s 21st century neighborhood.”


Skanska has two projects underway in the Seaport District, with another in predevelopment. At least one of the buildings is targeting LEED Platinum certification, and all of Skanska’s projects target a minimum of LEED Gold.


The Skanska buildings are part of the 23-acre Seaport Square Master Plan project, an effort led by Boston Global Investors. That plan is targeting a Gold rating under LEED for Neighborhood Development.


Andrew Albers, director of sustainable development for Boston Global Investors, notes that the entirety of the plan site was previously made up of parking lots. He attributes the interest in green building in the area not only to city regulations, but also to a changing market. “I think the real estate industry was starting to move in that [green] direction,” he says. “It was entering the general lexicon.”


Bryan Koop, senior vice president and regional manager for Boston Properties, agrees. “The amount of customers that we have that are focused on occupying sustainable workspace, it has definitely grown over the last five years,” he says. “I think companies are seeing others that are performing very well that have commitments to sustainability. There’s a war for talent, and companies want to create a great environment for the people who want to work for them, and sustainability fits into that strategy.”


Boston Properties developed Atlantic Wharf, Boston’s first LEED Platinum skyscraper (the building sits just across the Fort Point Channel from the Seaport District, but is often lumped into the neighborhood). The building’s green roof houses beehives, and Boston Properties gives away the honey to tenants in the building. “It’s been a hit,” Koop says.


Since the UUA began looking to move to the Seaport District a couple of years ago, Molla says, the change in the place that the church plans to call home for the next hundred years has been impossible to miss. “Empty lots are getting bought up. Vacant parking spaces are getting developed,” he says. “The development is phenomenal.”


In the country’s densest market, green design is helping to connect the built environment with the great outdoors. New York City has some of the best parks in the country, but that’s not the only reason residents flock to them. Without the occasional trip to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, many New Yorkers’ worlds would consist of nothing but steel and concrete.


“It can be claustrophobic,” says Pam Campbell, a senior associate at COOKFOX Architects. “It’s hard to find a space that’s not full of people, not full of cars, not full of noise. In a city like this, people can spend months without walking in some grass or amongst some trees, or seeing some wildlife, and that disconnect is very problematic. How can people even begin to care about things like biodiversity if they haven’t experienced it?”


The architects at COOKFOX try to create designs that bring a bit of the natural world into the buildings New Yorkers inhabit. A prime example is the firm’s design for the LEED Platinum Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, completed in 2009. A bamboo canopy at the building’s entrance extends into the lobby, establishing a connection between the indoor and outdoor space. Inside, the Urban Garden Room gives visitors a place to sit and relax in an almost-outside environment.


Even the round tables and lightweight, portable chairs were chosen to mimic those in Bryant Park. “The idea was to have a place at the pedestrian level that would bring in some natural landscaping, some greenery that would connect visually to the park,” says Campbell.


The firm also designed the adjacent LEED Gold Stephen Sondheim Theatre, leaving a through-block pedestrian passage between the buildings. The passageway, another nod to the congestion of Midtown Manhattan, is meant to give pedestrians an option besides the crowded sidewalks. It also serves as a gathering space after shows, when theatergoers wait outside the stage door to get their playbills signed.


The firm’s architects also incorporate outdoor space in their smaller residential and office projects, although these spaces aren’t open to the public. The design for an office building at 300 Lafayette Street in Soho—formerly home to a gas station—includes spacious balconies with natural plantings, which all together will cover more square footage than the site itself. “We’re providing more outside space than if it was just a clear site,” says Campbell.


Campbell says that cities like New York are “inherently sustainable” due to their density and extensive public transportation networks, but she notes that many features that pop up at LEED-certified building sites in other markets—such as wind turbines, constructed wetlands, and massive solar panel installations—are difficult or impossible in a city with so little open space. “The building has to do a lot more, because the landscape around it can’t,” she says.


James Stawniczy is vice president and head of sustainability for Lend Lease, which managed construction for the September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center. He says there’s a “dire need” for more outdoor space in the city, and that developers and public officials have begun to respond to that need.


Stawniczy points to the proliferation of rooftop restaurants and bars, which give people a place to gather outdoors, away from the bustle of city streets. Often, he says, parts of rooftops are also set aside for green space. “We’re creating people places, finally, but we’re also creating biodiversity places, where birds can nest and have a home.”


He also expresses excitement about buildings that interact with the High Line elevated park, a master plan for Columbia University that emphasizes open space, and the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which was created in the last decade out of former industrial space.


There are tricks designers can play to temporarily transport people away from the chaos of the city, Stawniczy says. The waterfalls at the World Trade Center site, for example, drown out car horns and fire engines.


“I brought a coworker there from Nashville and said, ‘Do you hear any cars?’” remembers Stawniczy. “And she said, ‘I don’t hear anything but the waterfall.’ It’s a whole other dimension.”

Bottom left: Pam Campbell is a senior associate at COOKFOX Architects in New York City. Photo by DBOX
Top and Top Left: 300 Lafayette Street and One Bryant Park—the Bank of America Building—are just two sustainable projects designed by COOKFOX. 
Photos: © COOKFOX Architects

Washington, D.C.

The nation’s capital is bursting with sustainable workplaces. The next frontier? Green apartments. When Washington, D.C., passed 100 million square feet of LEED-certified building space in September, it became only the fourth city in the United States to hit the benchmark, and by far the smallest, joining the ranks of New York, Chicago, and Houston.


As in those markets (and in virtually all others), commercial development has fueled the green building boom in Washington. But some observers say that residential development is finally poised to take off, too.


“In the commercial market, you have many LEED-certified or [otherwise certified] green buildings, and if you’re not going for LEED certification, you’ll be left out,” says Fulya Kocak, chairwoman of the USGBC National Capital Region Chapter and director of sustainability at Clark Construction Group, LLC. “Now, for residential, we’re seeing the same thing.”


“The new grads who are just starting their careers, they’re looking for these types of apartment buildings, where you don’t have to buy a car, and there’s great air quality,” Kocak adds. “They like living in the city, walking, going to restaurants. And developers are very aware of this, and they’re building for that demand.”


“There’s huge demand for projects that are in walkable and transit-type areas of the city,” says Bill Updike, green building specialist for the District Department of the Environment. “There’s no denying that.”


Pam Askew, senior vice president for the Washington, D.C., development and property management company WC Smith, says that the market for green residential space is “absolutely” picking up. “I think people appreciate green features within their apartment and within the home that they’re renting. There’s more awareness of the impact to the environment.”


Residential is the third most active sector in Washington, D.C., for LEED registrations, trailing only office and education. The number of LEED registered residential projects in the city (115) still lags far behind the number of registered office projects (852). But this gap is smaller than in many other markets, where residential trails sectors like retail, healthcare, and public assembly and religious worship.


A newly adopted green building code gives residential green building a further boost. Adopted last March, the code applies to multifamily residences greater than 10,000 square feet and at least four stories tall.

There are several reasons why commercial green development had outpaced residential, both in the capital and across the country. For one, public green building standards have often exempted residential space. (Washington, D.C.’s, pioneering Green Building Act, passed in 2006, helped drive much of the sustainable development in the city, but it didn’t apply to residential buildings.) Also, businesses tend to be more sophisticated than residential renters when calculating their costs, and are likely to pay close attention to their utility bills, in addition to their rents. Longevity is also a factor. A business moving into a new space might plan on staying for 30 years or more, while a 25-year-old renting a one-bedroom apartment might move on after a year or two.



Fulya Kocak is the chairwoman of the USGBC National Capital Region Chapter and director of sustainability at Clark Construction. Top: Blair Towns dog and bike washroom. Left: Sri Velamati and Eugenia Gregorio of the Towers relate that in 2004, Blair Towns were the first LEED-certified apartments in the U.S. and in 2011 Blair Towns became the world’s first ever multifamily residential LEED Platinum under EBOM.

“Part of it is the psychology of transience with apartment moving,” says Sri Velamati, vice president of development for The Tower Companies, a real estate developer based in Rockville, Maryland. “You feel it being temporary. They’re not necessarily thinking about their health and well-being as much as if they were in a condo or single-family home.”


The Tower Companies built, owns, and manages hundreds of LEED-certified apartments at its Blairs residential campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, and will construct hundreds more at the site in the near future.


Velamati says the company’s motivation to develop green buildings stems from its philosophy, as well as its long-term interests—but not from higher rents in the near term. “It’s the right thing to do,” Velamati says. “We want to be on the forefront of it. We think there’s a message there that has a stronger value. These changes take a long time. Our view of the world isn’t five years, it isn’t ten years. It’s relatively infinite.”


Eugenia Gregorio, director of corporate responsibility for The Tower Companies, holds out hope that residents will begin to demand green living spaces in the same way that companies have come to expect green offices. “Especially in the D.C. area, there’s more of a sustainability mindset among companies and individuals and it continues to  become more common, where people are interested in working and living in green buildings,” she says. “But location, amenities, and cost seem to be the three things that people are interested in the most. Hopefully, the residential market will continue to demand “green” as a standard, like it is already on the commercial side, and residents will come to expect it.”


Kocak, the regional chapter board chair, says that some green features—like bike storage, car shares, and green space—can help developers attain LEED certification while also providing amenities to residents. “While [developers] are getting three points [toward certification], their tenants are getting this feature that they appreciate,” she says. “When you have a checklist that you’re running through, it’s sometimes easier to realize those opportunities that exist. You don’t have to go and think about these creative ideas. They’re there for you.”


LEED makes an impact across the U.S.

This per-capita list highlights states throughout the country that are making significant strides in sustainable building design, construction, and transformation—using less energy and water resources, saving money, reducing carbon emissions, and creating a healthier environment for residents, workers, and communities.


Now in its fifth year, the per-capita list is based on 2010 U.S. Census data and includes commercial and institutional green building projects that were certified throughout 2014. Illinois retained its top position for the second year in a row, with 174 LEED certifications representing 3.31 square feet of LEED-certified space per resident.


Two newcomers to the list, Georgia and Arizona, show that 2014 was a year of major growth for LEED in the South and Southwest regions of the country, while the continued strong performance of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have helped the mid-Atlantic region remain the epicenter of green building across the country. Washington, D.C., which is not included on the Top 10 States for LEED list due to its status as a federal territory, is notable as it continues to lead the nation with 29.44 square feet of space per resident certified in 2014. Maryland and Virginia finished third and fourth respectively, and both states increased their per capita totals to 2.70 and 2.33 square feet of LEED space per resident in 2014.


The 2014 list had the highest average (2.34) of per capita space certified per resident per state since 2010, and the second highest average to date. Six of the eight states (Illinois, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Hawaii), which were also on the list in 2013, increased the amount of square feet of space they certified per resident in 2014. Illinois and Colorado are the only two states to make the list every year since 2010.


2014 was a historic year for the LEED green building rating system, globally with the 675.9 million square feet of space certified in 2014 representing the largest area ever to become LEED certified in a single calendar year. 2014 saw a 13.2 percent increase in the square footage certified over 2013 (596.7 million square feet), further expanding the rating system’s impact as a global bulwark for environmental sustainability.