Benefits & Challenges of Going Green: A first-hand look at the impact on one local LEED project

Published on May 12, 2008

Cashman has joined the ranks of other businesses impacting the state of our global environment, but there are significant challenges associated with sustainable, or green, building. It begs the question, what is compelling more and more Nevada business owners to see the (green) light?

The most glaring stop sign on the road to sustainability is the price tag. According to the USGBC, LEED requirements increase the cost of a project as little as 1% for the LEED Silver or Gold designation and as much as 3% for the highest certification level, LEED Platinum. However, “going green” is such a new endeavor for Nevada’s construction industry, the total expense rises even further, hitting percentages as high as 4% for LEED Platinum. Roger Thomas, Burke & Associates’ Senior Project Manager for Cashman’s headquarters, attributes the price hike to simple inexperience in multiple areas. “Las Vegas needs veteran contractors and subcontractors. While we are making considerable progress, the industry still needs extensive communications and education for every person involved in the LEED process.” Training for an entire company, from executives to front-line laborers, is the key ingredient for efficiently meeting LEED building requirements and submitting the appropriate documentation to the USGBC. Thomas also cited a need for even more LEED Accredited Professionals (AP) to help mold the construction industry to its most productive level.

With the country’s economy teetering on the verge of recession, the cost factor can be a considerable barrier to green building. Yet, there are more than 75 LEED projects currently registered for LEED certification in Nevada. So, how are CFOs being talked into sustainable building? According to the USGBC website, an upfront investment of 2% in green building design, on average, results in life cycle savings of 20% of the total construction costs more than ten times the initial investment. Cashman Equipment’s CFO, Jim Moore agrees, stating, “When you look at the big picture, the tax incentives and ROI [return on investment] make this a sound business decision as well as an environmentally positive one.” The geothermal energy aspect of the project is a major contributor to Cashman’s qualification for Nevada’s property abatement tax, which stipulates a yearly property tax savings of 30% for LEED Gold certified buildings. These savings, combined with the 45% energy savings Cashman expects, make the cost of installing 65 miles of underground pipe for the geothermal system an easy hurdle for CFOs to conquer.

While the finance department has been appeased, other executives struggle with planning, design, and construction challenges. To effectively achieve a LEED designation, two architectural schematics must be created, thus increasing a project’s overall timeframe. A standard building model must be
crafted first, using conventional building systems, then a sustainable design must be created. As this will determine a project’s attainable LEED points, this is a vital but time-consuming process. In addition, the sustainable design is not a finite document, it can and will be changed several times before the completion of the facility. Las Vegas in particular generates design dilemmas that require multiple alterations. Thomas explained, “To gain LEED points for indoor quality of life, there must be outdoor views for 90% of the employees. Yet, because of our climate, too many windows increase the heat to a point where the A/C energy expenditure rises. We then infringe on our LEED energy efficiency credits. A delicate balance must be maintained.” The trick is to refine the plans until both areas are covered… in Cashman’s case, three redesigns were necessary to rectify this conundrum.

However, there are many design elements that outweigh these concerns, most notably, natural resource preservation and employee retention. The very concept of LEED serves to minimize the impact of our industrial progress on the environment through water conservation, energy efficiency, and recycling requirements. A healthier employee atmosphere is also encouraged by LEED indoor environmental quality standards, which call for increased natural light, 30% more air ventilation, and low volatile organic compound (VOC) gas emissions from adhesives, sealants, paint, and carpeting. “The abundant environmental benefits may be the most apparent reason for a company to ‘go green’, but it was not Cashman’s only consideration. The benefits to our employees’ well-being were also of paramount importance,” stated MaryKaye Cashman, chairman and CEO of Cashman Equipment. The combination of all these elements elevates employee productivity and retention, improves the customers’ experience, and sets an example for the construction industry.

The positive benefits engendered by LEED are not strictly for customers and employees however, but for the community at large as well. LEED requirements needed to earn a point for regionally manufactured material require that at least 10% of a project’s building materials are extracted and manufactured within 500 miles, with an another LEED point awarded for using 20%. Cashman’s project goes well beyond this mark, achieving an additional point for Exemplary Performance by hitting the 40% mark and utilizing regional concrete, gravel, drywall, and native plants. These LEED points not only save fuel and limit emissions, they also support the local economy. “Why get something from the East coast when our region provides for us abundantly?” Thomas queried. “This is an opportunity to save natural resources while strengthening our area’s job market.” Other LEED requirements encourage beneficial changes in the community, who wouldn’t enjoy less traffic and smog? Facilities such as Cashman’s are providing optimal parking spaces for employees who carpool or drive fuel efficient vehicles. The reduction of traffic and emissions are a benefit for anyone in a major city, but particularly the residents of Las Vegas, a city with ongoing road construction and a steady influx of drivers.

While the challenges of sustainable building are both tangible and intangible, close examination reveals more significant benefits. While going green will likely never be simple, U.S businesses appear to be fully investing in changing traditional construction paradigms. Despite the obstacles, more than 1,400 projects have received LEED designations across the world since March 2000. Cashman Equipment is looking forward to attaining LEED Gold and making their own impact on the global economy in early 2009.