Hotels Look to LEED to Boost Green Cred

Hotels Look to LEED to Boost Green Cred

Hotel operators have long known the value of incorporating green practices into their operations. As more hotels begin to make claims about their green policies, however, some hotel operators have begun to seek certification to add a level of credibility only possible through a reputable third-party verifier. While programs specialized for hotel operations such as Green Seal have the benefit of being customized for hotels, the LEED for Existing Buildings certification has an advantage of being internationally recognized across all industries and buildings types.

The LEED rating system was initially created by the U.S. Green Building Council to certify new construction of green buildings, but the more recent introduction of the LEED EB: Operations and Maintenance (LEED EB: O&M) addresses ongoing maintenance and operations practices, policies, and building systems efficiency. Business travelers, conference planners, and vacationing families are searching out green accommodations and conference facilities for many reasons. With a LEED EB certification, guests will have no doubt about a hotel's commitment to green practices.

Attaining LEED EB Certification

Like other LEED rating systems, one can attain credit in the LEED EB in the areas of sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. As opposed to other LEED certifications that focus on the design and construction process, however, LEED EB: O&M certifies that a facility is operated and maintained in a manner that is in keeping with environmentally sensitive policies. The power of the EB system is that proof of a facility's performance, not just its design, is required to attain many of the credits.

The first step in achieving a LEED certification is to determine where your property stands with respect to the LEED standards which are available on the USGBC website. After familiarizing yourself with the rating system, it is possible to complete a cursory run through the LEED EB checklist to see where you expect the property to rate with current practices. Keeping an eye on the prerequisites is critical because every project must meet every prerequisite in order to achieve certification.

In LEED EB, the biggest hurdle is the energy efficiency prerequisite (EA Prerequisite 2). If you are seriously considering a LEED EB certification, this is the first calculation to complete. The next step is to determine the level of certification you want to achieve and what additional LEED measures would need to be implemented to achieve the certification level. The initial checklist becomes the basis for creating a roadmap to achieve certification. A copy of the LEED Reference Guide will be invaluable to understanding what is required to achieve each credit.

It is helpful to understand that the credits in LEED EB can be classified in three general categories: credits related to physical property conditions (such as building layout, construction and location of parking, and elements of building systems), operations and maintenance practices and policies, and building performance measurements. The performance measurements of the property are taken during a "performance period" that lasts a minimum three months. Water usage and energy usage will be documented during the performance period. Evidence of the implementation of building maintenance practices and policies will also be tracked during this period. Therefore, it would be advisable to implement any planned improvements to energy or water using systems prior to beginning the performance period in order to get credit for them.

For those looking to improve their rating, the low-hanging fruit is in documenting and implementing the practices and policies that will lead to attaining additional credits. Although there may be some low-cost building modifications that can be undertaken, unless you already plan a property renovation, some of these credits may be difficult to attain in the initial certification.

LEED EB Challenges

There are two primary challenges to implementing LEED EB in a hotel. First, LEED EB was developed to apply across many different building types, and as such, it does not address the peculiarities of hotel operations.
The LEED EB system has various credits that require a calculation of full-time occupants which is assumed to be employees of the businesses in the building. The primary users of a hotel are guests, of course. Adding average daily guests to the full-time equivalent employees of the hotel requires some careful calculation. Another challenge can be planning access to guestrooms for implementation of some inspection and maintenance best practices. Finally, some practices unique to hotels, such as extensive laundry operations, are not anticipated by the LEED EB system. Fortunately, USGBC recognized that the system could never anticipate all possible "green" measures so it added an Innovation in Operations and Maintenance category. Water savings incurred by efficient washers and other policies and practices unique to hotels may be eligible for innovation credits.

The other challenge to attaining a LEED EB certification is not unique to hotels. Primarily, LEED certification requires a significant time investment even for a hotel that already has many green practices. It is important that management has realistic expectations of the additional workload required of their property management and maintenance team. Although a consultant can help speed the process along and take away a lot of the load, obtaining a LEED certification will still require additional time dedicated by staff.

LEED EB for Health and Environment

Due to the thoroughness of the LEED system, the environmental and health benefits resulting from a LEED EB certification are significant. The first hotel to achieve the LEED EB certification, the Ambrose in Santa Monica, Calif., already had a great reputation for its green policies before undertaking the certification process. Nonetheless, the LEED certification process was an eye-opener for them. Although the hotel achieved the highest number of points available for its energy efficiency, further enhancements to the HVAC system were identified to reduce energy use and improve indoor air quality. Among other things, striving to achieve the LEED certification also led to improved integrated pest management and landscape maintenance practices, both of which led to reduced chemical use and lower chemical exposure risk for guests and employees.

The Bottom Line

The LEED EB certification process is designed to drive efficient and healthy operations of buildings, but few would implement it without real improvements to the bottom line. The primary costs for achieving certification come in the form of the time invested by staff and any consultants needed for specialized tasks. One often criticized cost of LEED in general is that of performing building commissioning. Fortunately, in LEED EB O&M, there is no longer a prerequisite to complete building commissioning. Instead, commissioning has become an optional credit and the prerequisite has been replaced by the requirement to document building systems' best operational practices. Although this can be a time-consuming task, it does not require hiring an outside consultant. Other costs may result from investments in better air filters, natural fertilizers, recycled paper, or other equipment or system upgrades identified in the process. Fortunately, many of the hard and soft costs do prove to save money over time. On balance, the costs are minimal and the rewards more than outweigh them.

There is also no doubt that there is a real and growing demand among consumers for green accommodations. These consumers are becoming savvier every day. Hotels with a third-party certification will stand above the crowd. Hotel operators simply need to determine how many additional room-nights or conferences it would take to make it worth achieving a LEED certification. My guess is that if you do the math, the answer will be clear: LEED EB certification is in your future.

Greg Reitz is a principal of REthink Development, a green real estate development and consulting firm based in Los Angeles. REthink consulted on the LEED EB certification of the Ambrose Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif.