Behind Kaiser Permanente's $30 billion commitment to green building

As patients visit hospitals and clinics to seek healing treatments, they might be surprised to learn that these facilities are often big contributors to climate change. In fact, health care facilities in the U.S. use roughly double the energy of office buildings of comparable size. At the same time, the health care sector is in the midst of the largest boom in construction and renovation in history.

A growing number of hospitals and health care systems are reducing their energy use through green building strategies and innovative new technologies that can also save them substantial amounts of money. They are looking at water and energy use, and also focusing on indoor air quality, avoiding potentially harmful chemicals and creating health care facilities that operate in harmony with the surrounding environment.

Kaiser Permanente has joined this movement and announced last week that all of its new hospitals and major construction projects must meet, at a minimum, LEED Gold standards. The organization plans to spend roughly $30 billion over the next 10 years on hospital and medical office construction, meaning this commitment to building green hospitals likely will affect 11 million square feet of real estate, or more than 100 buildings in the next decade.

Kaiser Permanente is not going down the LEED path alone. As of 2012, 28 hospitals -- from Maryland to Texas -- had met LEED Gold or Platinum certifications. To accelerate this process, the U.S. Green Building Council, working with the Green Guide for Healthcare and Health Care Without Harm, formally launched its LEED standard for health care last year.

With LEED for Healthcare now available, and finding through other sustainability projects that building green doesn’t have to be expensive, Kaiser Permanente has embraced LEED as a tool for all new major construction projects. We’ve used various other green guidelines and tools over the years to encourage sustainable design and construction, with much success. But, when sustainability goals compete with safety, cost and schedule demands, results can be inconsistent.

LEED makes it easier to build green on a large scale. The certification provides an established structure to sustainability goals while removing some of the ambiguity for project teams and contractors who have been tasked with building green but given only general guidelines to follow.

As an organization, we have begun to realize that although construction costs can be hefty, they are only a small portion of the overall costs associated with operating a building over its lifetime. So, it makes more sense to take the kind of life cycle approach that LEED advocates.

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