January 26, 2010

LEED Certification Becomes New Mantra for Design Education

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In the midst of a booming “green” culture with hybrid cars, reusable bags, countless recycle bins and the ever-present friendly reminders to adopt eco-friendly habits, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has found its place. As part of a growing effort to bring ecological awareness and sustainable features to design, the United States Green Building Council developed the LEED rating system in 1998. This green building rating system, all too familiar to architecture students here at Cornell, has transformed the way architecture and design is taught.

What started out as an initial effort to incorporate environmental-friendly practices into design has slowly become an almost required practice in the field of architecture. Jaimee Estreller, President of the US Green Building Student Chapter here at Cornell, noted that “sustainability efforts on every level are a growing trend [and] LEED is definitely a way to distinguish a green building.” The LEED system certifies buildings that have accumulated a certain number of points based on multiple energy-efficient factors such as water efficiency and choice of materials. Above a degree of certification, the Green Building Council can reward Platinum, Gold or Silver ratings.

Along with several other universities, Cornell has adopted practices that have made newer buildings LEED certified One such example is Gold Certified Weill Hall, designed by renowned architect Richard Meier ’57.

But this new measurement of environmental design has evolved and now found its way into the classroom. A decade ago, little about ecological impacts of buildings and construction was known; today, it is a familiar topic of discussion to architecture and engineering students.

As a part of the curriculum in environmental design classes, architecture students are exposed to the various factors that affect a building’s LEED rating. The first of such courses stemmed from graduate field work spearheaded by the director of graduate studies for the College of Human Ecology, Prof. Jack Elliot, design and environmental analysis. In the spring of 2002, Elliot’s class was asked to help design the new headquarters for the environmental compliance office, with the goal of making it the first LEED building on campus. While the project never resulted in a building, he found it to be a useful educational tool as his class did research to help the designers of the project achieve LEED certification. Since then, Elliot has continued to teach LEED as a part of sustainable design, of which he remarked, “all of our students graduate with a sound base in.”

Elliot called LEED an “important tool to launch the transformation” of the way we view design in the light of its environmental impact. But Elliot, who was among the first design academics to become LEED certified and the first professor at Cornell to earn such accreditation, has mixed emotions about the new system.

“Part of the problem with early versions was that it was so tedious and time consuming,” Elliot reflected. The newer versions of LEED documentation have expedited the process and made it more user-friendly. Information on the various design aspects of a building that are evaluated and the weighted points system is now more readily available.

But are LEED and sustainable design practices truly being used to make a positive environmental impact? Or are they, as other terms associated with the Green movement, simply buzz words?

“I have been told many times that it’s now an ‘in’ thing to be sustainable and those who chose sustainability are just going with the trend in order to gain marketability,” Alice Lin ’10, president of the American Institute of Architecture Students at Cornell, said.

Additionally, Elliot explained that LEED certification has become a dangerous method to “justify the building process.” The past ten years have seen an exponential increase in new buildings with what Elliot described as a “notion of infinite growth.” Large construction companies are now seemingly using LEED status and minor design changes to justify further construction.” Elliot said, “Construction can be part of the solution, but we need more than corporate goodwill.”

Though LEED encourages construction, the new standards can prove to pose challenges for designers. “LEED standards can stifle innovation because most people, in order to save money and time, will choose a minimum standard” said Barry Beagen ’11, founder of Cornell’s Design, Engineering, Education and Development club.

Though Elliot worries about the lack of real environmentally-responsible change, he acknowledges that LEED has set an improved standard for the degree of sustainability in building design. Whether at Cornell or elsewhere, “we can either bring about changes or [they] will happen through forces we can’t control. Designers have to learn to design for a different world.”

Original Author: Nipun Bhandari