No Difference in Occupant Satisfaction and LEED? Not so fast!

Associate Director
The Center for the Built Environment (CBE) at UC Berkley recently released a study in May 2014 suggesting that there is no difference in occupant satisfaction for LEED and non-LEED buildings.  Unfortunately, results like these can be easily taken at face value and are often misinterpreted by general audiences.
Upon further investigation and consideration of the study, there are a couple of important questions that should be raised about the construct, and ultimately the results, of the study.
Of the 15 IEQ parameters that the study assessed, only three are substantively addressed in the 2009 LEED for New Construction and Commercial Interiors credits: amount of light, air quality, and temperature.  The additional parameters center on cleanliness, maintenance, spatial design, and aesthetic, among others.
Light, air quality, and temperature are primarily addressed as credits in LEED, and not as prerequisites.  The CBE study does not indicate if the credits related to these attributes were achieved in the buildings evaluated in the study.  The study also included some buildings certified under the Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance rating system, which would include some additional parameters (e.g. building maintenance, workspace cleanliness), but even these attributes are a bit of a stretch.
Of the three areas that could arguably be addressed by LEED, responses were somewhat unfavorable related to amount of light in LEED buildings (likely related to energy conservation efforts), favorable for air quality (potentially due to ventilation and healthy materials credits that are included in LEED), and mostly neutral on temperature (which makes sense because thermal comfort is a key focus for any mechanical engineer who wants to cover his/her back on callbacks from unhappy owners).
So the first question is, “Is LEED even designed to affect occupant satisfaction?” I would argue that it is not.  LEED is primarily designed to 1) increase energy and water efficiency, 2) to encourage responsible site selection and development, 3) reduce impacts related to materials and 4) to create healthierbuildings for occupants.  Healthier is not the same as satisfied, as the two often include different factors, design solutions, and metrics for success.
A second point about methodology is that the researchers were primarily comparing Class A offices and institutional buildings to other Class A offices and institutional buildings.  One would argue that Class A design, is, well, Class A design.  That means that the starting point is already a pretty nice building, with decent designers and good mechanical systems.  Our experience on over 50 LEED projects would suggest that the pursuit of LEED generally doesn’t have much effect on decisions around furnishings, finishes, office layouts, etc. These types of design decisions are often dictated by programming and budget, and to a much lesser extent by LEED.
At the end of the day, I’m more concerned that the headlines and blog posts on this study will give people the wrong idea.  LEED really isn’t designed to affect the 15 IEQ factors that were measured in the CBE study.  LEED is, however, a great tool for adding focus and accountability for project teams to track and meet a whole host of relevant green building strategies.  Good design should not start with LEED; but through good design, prestigious certifications – and more importantly highly effective buildings – naturally follow.
A complete copy of the article published in Building and Environment can be found here.

The Urban Lab and a Living Wall

By: Colin Day
Sustainable Building Associate
In 2014, the City of Fort Collins launched and initiative called “Nature in the City” with the goal of ensuring every citizen has access to nature close to where they live and work. The focus of the project is to determine how the built environment contributes to how nature is perceived within the City. One of the deliverables of the project is a set of design guidelines that will support the successful implementation of various techniques that enhance access to nature in urban environments. While most of these approaches are well understood and tested, some have not been attempted in the arid West. One such approach is a living wall.
The Nature in the City initiative has contracted the Urban Lab to coordinate the design and installation of the first living wall in the Rocky Mountain region. The project will be a high profile case study on the feasibility and creation of green walls in arid climates. The wall will be designed to demonstrate what plants work best in a vertical setting and how habitat can be enhanced on site through use of green wall systems. Beyond these immediate project goals, the potential to better understand the variety of benefits that green walls are known to deliver will be the subject of ongoing research and observation.
Green walls are well documented for providing a w
ide variety of benefits: they improve both indoor and outdoor air quality, they provide buildings with insulation from heat and cold while protecting the building envelope from water and sunlight. They help to lower summer temperatures in cities by reducing the urban heat island effect. The vegetation green walls add to the urban environment provides habitat for urban species. Social psychologists have shown that by viewing and interacting with vegetation, stress and mental fatigue decrease as feelings of neighborhood security and overall health increases.
The confirmed site for the Nature in the City and Urban Lab’s living wall is at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. Students from the Colorado State University Dept. of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture have worked with the City of Fort Collins and The Institute for the Built Environment to produce compositional and planting designs for panels that will established in the CSU greenhouses. The Urban Lab has connected the CSU USGBC student chapter with the project. This student group will install the panels on site, thereby furthering the project’s educational impact. The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery was selected as the ideal site to locate the project for a variety of reasons. Because of the existing public-private partnership between the City and the Museum, maintenance issues will be streamlined through the City Parks Dept., the project proximity to the Mason Corridor aligns with the Urban Lab’s mission to enhance smart development between the University and Downtown Fort Collins on this mixed-use corridor, and the well established reputation of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery as a venue for educational displays that are equally accessible to children and adults. The living wall will serve as an exhibit at the Museum, and will be sited adjacent to the new endowment garden, to be designed by local firm Earthborn Landscape Design. The location will have high visibility and public access, while the plant selection will include species that support pollinators, have a variety of seasonal interest and are tactile and aromatic.
If successful, the first living wall in the region will contribute to a better understanding of the feasibility of using these types of systems in our urban environments. The benefits that are connected with living walls are well worth exploring as a part of a suite of techniques that increase biodiversity, resource savings and overall well-being in cities. With any luck, you might see more vertical greenery in your city in the coming years.