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

<p>The healthcare provider has mandated that all new buildings -- more than 100 over the next 10 years -- must meet LEED Gold standards.</p>

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.

Image credit: CC license by tedeytan/Flickr

Mandating LEED doesn’t come without significant challenges. We have learned through experience that guidelines, no matter how rigorous, are not enough. Our project managers must not only understand LEED and its various categories themselves, but they have to be able to use the tool effectively with the design and construction contractors they hire. 

We solved this by putting more than 100 of our people though the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Green Associate training, with another 100 signed up to complete the credentialing process this summer.

The truth is that unless you make LEED a requirement from even the earliest stages of a building’s acquisition process, costs may increase and you can lose valuable opportunities to make sustainable choices. Site selection -- such as brownfield versus greenfield -- and proximity to public transit are perfect examples. Offering LEED training to everyone from our real estate mangers to facility engineers puts everyone in the habit of thinking about buildings more holistically. It sets up our project directors to hire and manage contractors effectively, requiring LEED solutions as part of their bidding proposals.

Kaiser Permanente’s first LEED Gold hospital, the Westside Medical Center, is set to open in August, just outside of Portland in Hillsboro, Ore. Green features that helped it earn its LEED points include:

  • 100 kW solar photovoltaic array on the roof of the parking structure
  • 70 percent of power used comes from clean energy
  • Giant vertical gardens covering the parking structure are irrigated with rainwater, and will drape the structure with mossy green succulents when mature
  • Products and materials are free of formaldehyde with minimum use of lead, copper, PVC and mercury
  • Easy access to public transit stops and lockable bike storage to encourage active transportation

Westside is another example that green building -- even to the level of LEED certification -- does not have to cost more. In fact, the Westside Medical Center earned LEED Gold for a net additional cost of less than 1 percent of the total cost of construction. Those additional up-front costs are expected to pay back fivefold in operational savings over the medical center’s lifetime. 

Most important, building greener hospitals to meet LEED standards ensures the sector is contributing to the health of patients, staff and communities. In Kaiser Permanente’s case, this new mandate will help us meet our pledge to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020 (from 2008 levels).

An increasing number of hospitals are embracing LEED because the program provides strict direction for reaching energy and sustainability goals. We hope that as more health care facilities carry the plaque, momentum will build for healthier buildings of all kinds, and that will encourage owners to measure building decisions not only by their economic value, but also their effect on people and the environment.

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