Insight and analysis on the data center space from industry thought leaders.

Sustainable Building Certifications: LEED

Sustainable building certifications have been gaining momentum, and often data center operators are unsure of which to pursue. Ron Vokoun, of Gray Construction, details the LEED certification and its benefits and drawbacks in Part 1 of a two-part series on certification.

Industry Perspectives

August 22, 2012

6 Min Read
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is Mission Critical Market Leader, Western Region, at JE Dunn Construction. Ron was previously Director of Mission Critical for Gray Construction and also served in leadership roles with Qwest Communications and Aerie Networks. You can find him on Twitter at @RonVokoun.

Ron Vokoun, Gray


JE Dunn

Sustainable building certifications have been gaining momentum for several years now and data centers are jumping on board in increasing numbers. You have seen data center operators such as RagingWire, Apple and Digital Realty achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Certifications and/or the EPA’s Energy Star for Data Centers. Many data center operators aren’t sure which certification to pursue, or if they should pursue one at all. In order to make this decision a little easier, I have provided a synopsis of each certification and their pros and cons to help guide you toward your sustainable goals.

This column dives into LEED, and in Part II, I will cover the pros and cons of Energy Star for Data Centers.

What is LEED?

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a third-party certification program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 2000. It has undergone many iterations and is now operating under LEED 2009. The certification process provides independent validation of a project’s green features and verifies that the building operates the way it was designed.

LEED Certification Process

LEED uses a points based system to achieve certain certification levels recognizing the effort and commitment by the owner and project team. There are four LEED certification levels with point requirements ranging from Base (40-49 points) to Platinum (80+ points).

At last count, there were 13 data centers that had received LEED Platinum certification.

LEED points are weighted by impact on energy efficiency and CO2 reduction. As an owner/end-user, your first decision is which LEED rating system you intend to pursue your certification under. Data centers will fall under one of the following rating systems:

  • New Construction and Major Renovations: Includes new buildings and projects in which the majority of the building will be modified.

  • Existing Buildings-Operations and Maintenance: Addresses whole building cleaning and maintenance issues. This is generally applied to a building that is in operation, but wishes to make their operational processes more sustainable.

  • Commercial Interiors: Intended for tenant improvements within an existing structure. At least 60% of the gross building area must be modified to the intended use to qualify for this rating system.

  • Core and Shell: This system is complementary to Commercial Interiors and deals with the structure, envelope and HVAC system of the building.

Other rating systems that are not applicable to the data center industry are Schools, Retail, Healthcare, Homes, and Neighborhood Development. For the purposes of data center certification, Commercial Interiors is most frequently used.

Once your rating system is chosen, points are earned through implementing green measures in each of several categories. Each category has prerequisites that must be achieved before any points are earned. The categories are:

  • Sustainable Sites: Focuses on areas related to the overall building site such as storm water run-off, pervious pavement, and availability of public transportation.

  • Water Efficiency: Measures are established related to water conservation.

  • Energy and Atmosphere: Energy efficiency measures account for most of the points in this area, which also has the largest number of points available of any category.

  • Materials and Resources: Points are awarded in this category for using rapidly renewable materials and for sourcing materials that are manufactured within 500 miles of the site.

  • Indoor Environmental Quality: This category focuses on human comfort factors such as the ability to adjust temperature and supply fresh air.

  • Innovation in Design: This is the area in which innovation is recognized for new sustainable applications.

As you see, it is critical that the decision to pursue LEED Certification is made at the beginning of the design phase to eliminate redesign associated with tailoring materials and methods to LEED standards. During design, the project is registered with the USGBC ($450 for USGBC members and $600 for non-members) indicating your intent to pursue certification.

Also during the design phase, a worksheet indicating the credits you intend to pursue is completed. As the design progresses, credits are approved toward certification. This process continues during the construction phase as the sustainable measures are implemented and documented.

Clearly, documentation is the key to gaining credit for all of your efforts and requires constant attention. This effort should not be taken lightly and must be overseen by a LEED Accredited Professional, preferably with a specialty in the rating system you are pursuing. Documentation may take 50% or more of a team members’ time during the duration of the project.

When construction is complete, the project must be commissioned to ensure that the building operates as it was designed. Given that all data centers perform this task, no additional effort is required. Upon completion of the commissioning, all documentation is submitted for final approval and a fee is paid for certification.

The USGBC states that the average cost of certification across all rating systems is $2,000, but can be as high as $27,500 for a large project. After the submission is approved, your building can be included in the LEED registry and you receive the plaque for your building.

Pros of LEED Certification

With this amount of effort, there had better be a payoff, right? There are multiple benefits of LEED certifying your data center such as:

  • Validation of Building Performance: The implementation of energy efficiency measures will result in operational savings.

  • Greater Green: Blends environmental, economic, and occupant oriented performance measures. It does more than just save on energy by speaking to the triple bottom line concept of financial, social, and environmental responsibility.

  • Financial Rewards: Evidence suggests lower operating costs and increased asset value are a common result.

  • Marketing/Branding: Never underestimate the value of branding in sustainability. Most Fortune 500 companies have a sustainability program. Not having some form of sustainability program in place may prevent them from leasing space in your data center. LEED appears to be the most recognized yardstick for sustainability.

Cons of LEED Certification

There are trade-offs with regards to LEED Certification, especially in the data center world. These include:

  • Added Cost: Registration and certification fees add cost. Some argue that the LEED requirements add cost, but I won’t open that can of worms here.

  • Undesirable Facets: Certain credits are not desirable in a data center. Day light in the interior of the builiding is one that comes to mind, along with certain human comfort factors.

  • Greater Green: Blends environmental, economic, and occupant oriented performance measures. LEED does more than just save on energy, but energy efficiency is where the sustainable rubber meets the road. Considering anything more may be fluff.

  • Not Data Center Specific: Today LEED does not have a data center specific set of criteria. Data centers are not your average building, so lumping them in with general building design and construction is challenging. Good news is on the horizon in that LEED for Data Centers is scheduled for release in November of this year.

The next installment will cover the benefits and drawbacks of Energy Star certification, and some guidance on which to chose for your project

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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