Green digs

John Dwyer, a founding partner of Shelter Architecture on Clifton Avenue near Downtown, recently spoke with the Downtown Journal about green building and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
Dwyer’s firm, formed in 2004, designed three of the first LEED-certified homes in the nation, as well as the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing center in Crookston, Minn.

SWJ: What is green building?
Dwyer: It’s a move toward making environmentally conscious decisions with regards to the way we build.

Why all the sudden demand for sustainable building materials and practices?
Dwyer: It’s really a phenomenon. I’ve been trying to figure that out myself.
I guess I hope that it’s just because people are beginning to see the long- and short-term benefits of it — that you can save money through easier maintenance, through energy efficiency and then there’s also a long-term benefit of resources being a little more possible in the future.

What makes a home or building green?
Dwyer: Well, there are a million components.
I would say if it would come down to a few key things, one would be energy efficiency. The length, the extent to which it’s energy efficient, the extent to which it’s green.
I think the durability of the house, of a building is what makes it green also. So, it’s ability to not require major rebuilding. The act of building is not ecologically sound no matter how you do it, but if you can build a building so that it doesn’t have to be rebuilt, then that’s a very sound thing. I guess recyclability is a little bit of that, too.
The other components — one big one would be where the building is, too. So how close it is to amenities, how much it shares its services, the relative density. The more densely populated an area is, in theory, the more green it is.

What is the LEED rating system and why does it matter?
Dwyer: It’s put together by an organization called the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), so it’s their own work in creating a standard for green building.
I think it’s significant in that there really is no other legislation or anything, any kind of standard for what’s green and what isn’t green, and theirs is pretty much it. So LEED certification is really the only way to really quantifiably show that a building has some standard level of greenness to it.

SWJ: Who is involved in the LEED rating process?
Dwyer: There’s the builder, and then there’s a rater and then there’s a provider.
The provider is typically a nonprofit organization that is authorized by the USGBC to review LEED certification — the forms that the builder would fill out.
The rater would be somebody who would test what the builder is saying they’re doing. So, for example, if the builder says they are installing HVAC to a level where there is very minimal air leakage and that would give them a certain amount of points in the LEED rating system. The rater would test to make sure that that’s actually what was done.

What are the basic steps in the LEED approval process?
Dwyer: There’s a preapplication checklist. So when the design is completed, you go through a checklist and you give it a preliminary rating based on what you think the design should be rated at if it’s built the way it’s designed.
And then throughout construction there are a series of checkpoints where there are signoffs that have to happen between the builder and the subcontractor and the rater. And then when the construction is complete, then all the documentation is put together into a binder and it’s sent to the provider. The provider reviews it, and then submits a recommendation to the USGBC for a rating, and then the rating is given out.

SWJ: What are the benefits of using green building practices and getting a project LEED certified?
Dwyer: The best advantage is a certain amount of long-term economic benefit. If it’s designed right then it will have a long-term economic benefit. I think the other benefit is to a homeowner’s health. In theory, a green home has cleaner indoor air and is a safer environment to live in.

What are the disadvantages that prospective homeowners and builders should consider?
Dwyer: As the green movement has become a market, people, a lot of businesses have learned that they can basically up the price of things if it’s labeled as being “green.”
So I think cost has become an issue. I don’t think it should be or was never supposed to be, but I think cost has now become an issue also because I think it’s a relatively small business market but there’s a relatively high demand right now. So the people who are doing it are charging a little more than probably the standard stuff.

What are some common misconceptions people have about green building?
Dwyer: One thing is that it has to cost more — that’s one common misconception. We try and a lot of times stay away from the materials and products or systems that cost more just because they’re green, and we try to look at things we feel are better products and more fairly priced.
I suppose the other misconception would be that it’s a major lifestyle change, which it can be, but it’s not about necessarily making a lifestyle sacrifice as much as it just making your life better.

Why should people invest in getting their home or building LEED certified?
Dwyer: I think it has to be a personal value decision to do it. I think a good reason for someone to do it would be just peace of mind — that what they wanted to have built is actually what was built. One of the big advantages to a homeowner in getting LEED certification is to get your home tested, to go through all that rigorous testing to make sure it is actually performing the way it’s supposed to.
That’s probably the best thing; kind of cheap insurance I guess.
For someone seeking out a builder to construct a green home, is it important to have a LEED-accredited professional aboard the design team?
I personally don’t think it’s that important because I think that, in the end, the obligation of any designer or builder is to fulfill the will of the client. So I think it’s more important that the client leads that conversation than the builder. I don’t put a lot of weight on it, but you know I guess it’s a perk.

SWJ: How can people get started with getting their building project LEED certified?
Dwyer: The best thing would be to call an architect who has done it before, who has gone through the LEED-certification process before and then work with that architect to put together a good team to begin designing the home in an integral way.

Do you have any advice for people once they get started with that process?
Dwyer: I think the biggest advice that we give every client is figure out what green means to you because it can mean a lot of different things.
It can mean you want the best health for your children because they have asthma, or you want to have a house that accommodates your elderly parents, or you want to lower your energy bills significantly. There’s just a long list of what green can mean to someone.
I think it’s important, going into the process, to be honest with yourself about what it is that you want to see, what your goals are in going green.