by: Marie Therese Santiano

Driving around Metro Manila, specifically Global City and Makati, we see more and more of the USGBC logo or some catch phrase that has LEED in it. LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a rating system developed by the US Green Build Council (USGBC) in 2000 to “provide building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions.” The rating system has been developed and tailored for different scale and uses. There is the New Construction, Core and Shell, Commercial Interiors, Retail, Health Care, Neighborhood Development, Homes, and even for buildings that are already operational — Existing Building Operations and Maintenance.

During the design or construction phase, the building owner or its representative will register the project. It means, there is the intent of using the rating system to achieve high performance in the identified key areas of human and environmental health, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, material selection and indoor environment quality. Registration of a building doesn’t make it LEED. It needs to be certified — which means, meeting and complying with the standards set by USGBC. The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) is the third-party institute that verifies, and awards the points/ credits based on the performance and documentation submitted during the course of certification.

If it is developed by U.S., can it work here in the Philippines? A lot of people are saying that since we are in the tropics, then it is not applicable and appropriate here. However, if you look at the United States, there’s Hawaii, Florida, California that have similarities to our climate. The LEED rating system is broad and covers a lot areas. It puts a lot of importance on sustainable sites. It discourages the development in previously undeveloped lands, encourages native landscaping, rewards use of public transportation or other alternative transport system, controls water runoff, promotes the reduction of erosion, light pollution, heat island, and construction related pollution.

What interests me most in this area is the construction-related pollution. It is bothersome to see construction sites that have dust all over, no protective cover to prevent silt in going to the drain, soil eroding to nearby lot, and massive areas of land stripped of top soil. At present, there is no requirement for construction sites to control and prevent stormwater and soil erosion.  This then results in siltation of bodies of water such as Pasig River, consequently contributing to flooding. 

Many people who have heard of or are familiar with Green Building would know that water and energy efficiency are important. If one claims that their building is energy-efficient, can we compare the energy and water performance between  “normal” and “green” so that we can learn from that project? Do we just focus on a piece of a puzzle like air-conditioning system instead of looking at the performance of the whole building envelope — the walls, the insulation, the windows, the shading devices, and the roof? LEED also promotes the use of natural ventilation. The end goal is energy reduction and efficiency. The more one saves on energy, the more points one can get. The use of renewable energy such as solar panels is a separate credit called On-Site Renewable Energy. Having solar panels without energy efficiency is not LEED because it requires a minimum of 10% energy savings.  Contrary to what others are saying, pursuing energy efficiency is something that we should really practice. We can’t give it lower importance just because the Philippines use less energy compared to the U.S. We need to veer away from fossil fuels regardless of how much we consume.

There had been some questions on the credibility of the certification process. To address this, LEED requires submission of energy and water consumption for the first 5 years of operation to validate the assumption that there is really savings on those aspects. Any LEED-certified building can be audited and stripped of its certification if found to be not truthful to its submissions and performance. 

The other key area of LEED is Materials and Resources. LEED looks into reduction of construction wastes by promoting re-use of buildings or even parts of it. It requires projects to divert construction wastes from landfills. It rewards the reduction of waste at a product’s source. It also encourages the use of sustainably grown, harvested, produced and transported products and materials.  At first, I thought that this can be a challenge here in the Philippines. Many of our construction materials are imported from China or some other countries . Few suppliers can provide documentation as to the material composition, in terms of how much of its content is recycled material. However, when I went to Worldbex 2012, I’ve met a few suppliers who boast of their products that have high recycled content, and are almost 100% extracted and manufactured in the Philippines. Sadly, when I asked some suppliers if there’s recycled content in their product, they immediately assured me that it has no recycled content. Apparently, there is still the misconception that the use of recycled content makes the product inferior.  

In the area of Indoor Environment Quality, LEED promotes strategies to improve indoor air as well as that provide natural daylight and views. Indoor air quality means using materials that have low or no volatile organic compound (VOC) content or other harmful emissions.  While at Worldbex, some paint and sealants, and  flooring suppliers asked about LEED and how to make their products compliant – they didn’t know what the standards are. Very few products have the Green Seal, Green Guard,  and Carpet Rug Institute labels. These are the organizations that conduct tests to determine if  the limits were met. There is still hope, however, for local suppliers. If they can have an independent third party that will test it according testing protocols recommended by GBCI, then the materials may be considered.  With the growing number of LEED projects outside U.S., GBCI has been working with practitioners by getting their feedback to enhance the guidelines and take into consideration other standards developed by other countries as well as conditions that are unique locally.

With just a few LEED buildings already certified in the Philippines, and a dozen or so in the process of certification, there is still a lot of challenges and limitations that we have to face and overcome.  However, we cannot just write-off LEED just because it is a standard developed by some other country. Many projects in Europe, Middle East and Asia are going for LEED certification. Not because it is a marketing tool to make the building owner look environmentally responsible, but because it is a standard that is known to and accepted by many. According to USGBC, 40% of LEED projects are outside the US. It can’t be that bad, right? 

LEED professionals here in the Philippines face the daunting task of making LEED certification a tad easier. We have to scour discussion groups, review various credit interpretations, and develop our database of suppliers and allied professionals.  We need to find specialists and like-minded people who can help in this endeavor. There’s a need for commissioning agents, DENR certified waste haulers who really divert construction wastes away from landfills, and suppliers who are willing to have their products tested and certified. More than these, we need the right mindset from architects, interior designers, landscape architects, engineers, contractors, and building owners — that we need to work together from the start. It is important and practical to have an integrated design process at the start of the design phase wherein everyone will contribute to the goal of having a high performance, environmentally sustainable, and healthy building. We can’t just play catch up when the building is already being constructed. It is more costly and time-consuming. 

I’m happy that there’s a growing interest in LEED. I do wish that more people will look into LEED in its entirety and see its merits, before they start writing it off. It is not a perfect system, that’s why they keep enhancing it to respond to different applications, conditions and situations. If we look at it closely, we can also see how we can also develop and improve our laws and policies on the environment and green build. In the meantime, maybe for starters we can institute, apply and implement the new ideas it presented in our daily lives and in our work.