As a LEED-driven state, Arizona’s future looks bright.
WRITTEN BY Jeff Harder

Green buildings are thriving in Arizona. The evidence—more than 479 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified projects—can be found around the state, from college campuses to corporations’ headquarters to spring training clubhouses of Major League Baseball (MLB) teams. And after years of hard work, the Grand Canyon State is building a more sustainable future.


Arizona continues to emerge as a sustainable force with 47 projects achieving LEED certification and more than 6 million square feet of LEED-certified space around the state in 2015; Arizona has 0.95 square feet of LEED-certified space per capita, a sign of a changing approach to the built environment in the American southwest.


“Historically, Arizona wasn’t a place that embraced [LEED] for many, many years,” says Gonzo Gonzalez, chair of the USGBC Arizona Chapter. “Now, it’s great to see that there are so many organizations and institutions at all levels that have made it their basis of design.”


The ascent of Arizona, the sixth-largest state in the country, to becoming a LEED-savvy destination was nearly a decade in the making. In February 2005, when then-governor Janet Napolitano issued an executive order mandating new guidelines for energy efficiency and renewable energy in new state buildings in Arizona, a cornerstone of the order required those buildings to meet LEED Silver standards or above. Arizona wasn’t the first state to enact such an order, but it was a galvanizing moment: In time, cities from Scottsdale to Phoenix to Flagstaff ran with Napolitano’s decree and set their own LEED-based efficiency standards for municipal buildings. “Energy, water, and waste are huge issues for us in Arizona,” says Dorie Morales, editor-in-chief and publisher of Green Living magazine, noting the city of Phoenix’s ambitions of achieving a citywide waste-diversion rate of 40 percent by 2020.

Above: Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat. Opening photo: Peoria’s Municipal Courthouse was LEED Gold certified in 2011. Photos: Fawn DeViney

Top: Gonzo Gonzalez, chair of the USGBC Arizona Chapter. Photo: Fawn DeViney. Above: Mick Dalrymple is the director of University Sustainability Practices at ASU.

From one city to the next, the successes of LEED had a viral effect. “Everyone started to see that not only is having spaces that are energy efficient and green the right thing to do, but it helps our bottom line,” Gonzalez says. “The universities, the cities, the state all realized that it’s going to save us money at the end of the day, and because now there’s so much more efficiency in the design, we’re not going to pay the costs for energy and water we were 5 or 10 years ago, plus we can help the environment.”


LEED’s success in the public sector trickled down to a private sphere that had begun thinking about buildings in terms of their entire lifespans, instead of solely their upfront costs. Gonzalez, a veteran of the world of real estate development, says he noticed LEED-certified buildings selling and leasing better than their ordinary counterparts, a trend that fostered broader acceptance of the third-party certification system. “The conversations we had always started with ‘Yes, there’s going to be a higher capital expenditure, and yes, it’s going to be more difficult to initially build this, but you’ve got to consider the big picture: We can make up what we paid up front with lower operating costs,’” he says. Some of the biggest national brands that have set up shop in Arizona heard that message loud and clear: Intel’s headquarters in Chandler and US Airways’ headquarters in Tempe both achieved LEED Gold, for example, while Kohl’s owns and operates three LEED-certified stores in the state. In the process, Arizona has developed a common array of sustainable features to its buildings: underground parking garages that help occupants bypass sweltering ambient temperatures, overhangs, shade trees, and alternatives to traditional four-sided architecture.

At Arizona State University (ASU), the school practices the same message of sustainability that it preaches. Along with being the home of the first degree-granting School of Sustainability in the country, ASU owns the most LEED buildings in the state —45 all together as of July 2015—and holds the honor of constructing the first LEED Platinum building in Arizona. “Universities generate and disseminate knowledge to their students and communities,” says Mick Dalrymple, director of University Sustainability Practices at ASU. “By practicing green building and LEED, ASU is helping build awareness and skills that are vital to building resilience and sustainability in the local design and construction industries, as well as the broader community.”


While ASU (as well as its sister institution, the University of Arizona, which has its own impressive assemblage of LEED buildings) fell under the 2005 executive order, its campuses quickly began exceeding those expectations. Over the next several years, ASU enacted its own comprehensive sustainability plan aimed at carbon neutrality and zero waste, drawing on initiatives ranging from composting programs to community gardens to innovative solar shade structures. LEED projects remained integral to the approach; in 2007, ASU’s Biodesign Institute B in Tempe became the first LEED Platinum facility registered in the state. At last count, ASU possesses 4,103,943 square feet of LEED buildings, or 16.5 percent of the university’s total square footage.


Most recently, ASU achieved LEED Gold certification for College Avenue Commons, a five-story, 148,829-sq-ft mixed-use building that’s home to the Sun Devil Marketplace and ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. The building was designed to encourage the use of stairs rather than elevators, says Dalrymple, and serves as a living lab for engineering and construction education. College Avenue Commons uses a double-skin that shades the building from intense sun while also shading the public sidewalk below (promoting walkability), and includes thermocouple sensors throughout the various layers of the building envelope so that students and researchers can track how the building envelope responds to varying climate conditions.

ASU owns the most LEED buildings in the state—45 all together as of July 2015—and holds the honor of constructing the first LEED Platinum building in Arizona.

Just as Arizona State University has been a boon to elevating the profile of LEED in the state, the LEED rating system itself has helped validate the university’s environmental aims. “LEED provides a comprehensive third-party tool for and verification of ASU’s efforts to design and construct buildings that are better for our environment; healthier for our students, faculty, and staff; cost less to operate; minimize our carbon footprint; and maximize our productivity,” says Dalrymple. “We are educating tomorrow’s leaders and we want to show them how to do it in a more sustainable manner.”


Peoria, a sun-drenched city of 154,000 that straddles two counties, illustrates how good intentions and years of persistence have helped transform LEED in Arizona from an anomaly into a fact of life. Peoria was hardly a pioneer in weaving USGBC’s signature certification program into its municipal building standards. In fact, for a fast-growing city with comparatively inexpensive land, going green was an afterthought, if considered at all. But that changed in 2006 with the arrival of deputy city manager Carl Swenson, who had proven himself an ardent advocate for sustainability at previous posts in Washington and Illinois. “Carl asked the question of whether we were doing LEED at about the time when we were just hearing about its use by larger entities like the State of Arizona and the City of Phoenix. We still didn’t fully understand what LEED was,” says Ed Striffler, architectural services manager for the city of Peoria.


But Swenson (who USGBC’s Arizona chapter later recognized as a Green Champion) convinced city leadership that the principles of sustainability create more livable communities. And after he was named city manager in 2008 and the Great Recession took hold, LEED’s attention to fiscal responsibility became attractive to city officials and a populace seeking to streamline operating costs. It was also a mode of inspiration. “We were trying to use LEED building innovations to become a leader, so that others out there in the community might see it as practical, convenient, and creative, and use the city as a model for improving their energy efficiency and construction practices,” says Susan Daluddung, Peoria’s deputy city manager.

Carl Swenson is the city manager of Peoria. Photo: Fawn DeViney

In 2009, Peoria acquired $1.3 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Along with a slate of other green measures, including converting municipal office buildings and parks to LED lighting systems, the funds paid for LEED Green Associate and LEED AP training for 16 city staffers. Credentialed as a LEED AP in 2008, Striffler recruited other development- and operations-focused city employees to understand LEED as a language, an ethos, and a new, disciplined way of thinking about building design, construction, and operations. “In our extreme desert climate, there are only so many strategies that the electrical and mechanical engineers can implement within the limits of current technology,” Striffler says. “Under LEED, when passive building envelope strategies are implemented in combination with the technology, buildings begin to meet the mark in the LEED rating system. These strategies yield results, month after month.”


In short order, Peoria had become one of only three communities in Arizona, along with Flagstaff and Tucson, to implement a sustainability action plan, one key aspect of which mandated all of the city’s new construction projects and major renovations to meet LEED Silver standards, at minimum. The city began putting LEED principles into action by embarking on a two-year, $11 million upgrade of the 20-year-old Peoria Municipal Court, a renovation that involved adding 19,000 square feet of courtroom and administrative space. When the courthouse was LEED certified in 2011, it surpassed all expectations. “We achieved LEED Gold on our first try,” Striffler says. “And we looked at it and we said, ‘Wow—there’s a lot of design decisions we made that aren’t very different from what we’ve been doing.’ So we did it again, and again, and again, and now we have four LEED Gold buildings.”


The San Diego Padres head to Arizona for spring training each year. The sports complex they practice in is LEED Gold certified. Photo:

The San Diego Padres head to
Arizona for spring training each year. The
sports complex they practice in is LEED
Gold certified. Photo:

Those other projects include a complete renovation and expansion of a multigenerational community center and a pair of clubhouses at Peoria’s Sports Complex (both LEED Gold) for two MLB teams that head to Arizona for spring training: the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners, the latter of whom chose to outfit their facility with a 345-kw solar array that stretches across the building and parking lot. “There was a competitiveness that developed between the Mariners and the Padres,” Striffler says. “We built both buildings identically from a systems standpoint, but the Padres facility remained just shy of the threshold of achieving a Gold rating. We found the Padres asking questions like, ‘Will it help if we get ENERGY STAR laundry equipment? Will it help if we adopt a green cleaning practice?’ That competition between two MLB teams in the arena of sustainable buildings was fascinating to watch.” Now, in designing a stadium for the Sports Complex from the ground up, Striffler is aiming for LEED Gold from the outset. “It’s a little bit contagious: When you achieve high [standards] the expectations remain high, so you continue to have to move the bar and perform,” Striffler says.


Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat echoes that sentiment. “A priority of the city of Peoria is to advance our already outstanding quality of life for citizens, now and in the future. We have a responsibility now to our residents to use their hard-earned tax dollars in the most efficient way we can, but we also have a responsibility to our future residents to set the example and establish a culture of forward-thinking stewardship of our resources.”


Today, Arizona’s embrace of LEED shows no signs of abating. In fact, as part of a larger sustainability movement, it’s essential for life. “Sustainability needs to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” says Gonzalez, the chair of USGBC Arizona. “We have finite resources, and we need to make sure that future generations can benefit from living in the state.” But in a place that sees 300 days of sunshine a year, if becoming a LEED-driven state is an indication of what’s to come, Arizona’s future looks brighter than ever.