Is Bulk Certification Next for LEED?

PNC Bank wants 'volume LEED approval' for all its new branches, but hurdles remain for retail rollouts seeking one-stop LEED shopping.
August 11, 2010

If you've seen one bank branch, have you really seen them all? Not if it's a PNC Bank green branch office.

Banks, retailers, chain restaurants, and other fast-growing businesses put up scores of new buildings each year. Many would like to construct environmentally friendly structures and be LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, but the approval process is complex and the administrative cost of submitting a new application for each new building has deterred retail companies from applying for certification.

But PNC Bank, a Pittsburgh-based financial services company and the nation's 15th-largest bank, is trying to change that with a new Gensler-designed green prototype that it wants the USGBC to "volume-approve" for 90 or more branches it plans to construct in the next three years. Under the current system, it costs PNC $2,200–$2,800 to apply for certification for each branch.

If PNC's volume-rollout concept is approved, that cost could go down to that of certifying a single building. Volume certification could vastly increase the number of LEED-rated buildings in the U.S. Since 2000, the USGBC has certified 281 projects under LEED for New Construction, Existing Buildings, and Commercial Interiors.

PNC has already opened two of its brick-and-glass green branches, in East Bradford and Southmont, Pa., using a compact construction delivery schedule developed by Philadelphia-based Clemens Construction, the construction manager, and Paladino and Associates, a New York-based environmental construction consulting firm.

 

Starbucks and Target have been involved in USGBC-related studies of volume-build certification. The University of California is working on a separate volume-build proposal that would certify all structures on a campus site in one submission.

The biggest issue the USGBC and its Retail Development Council (a group with building representatives from major corporations) face in deciding whether to accept bulk submissions is how to ensure that each separately constructed building conforms to the prototype yet also fits in climates ranging from Maine to California. Some in the USGBC favor IRS-style audits of new branches certified in bulk. Others believe extra documentation for buildings that depart from a prototype design will suffice.

"The challenge is modeling the prototype for different climate zones, to make the design flexible enough for all areas it will be used in," said Brendan Owens, RDC staff liaison and LEED program technical support manager at the USGBC. "What we're trying to do now is come up with an approval process that's flexible enough for what PNC is doing and what the University of California is doing and any other volume-build process."

Creating design flexibility

PNC Bank's green prototype in East Bradford, Pa., was designed to achieve 30-33 LEED credits. Features include anti-UV glazing, pre-cast masonry walls, and a contractor training program to recycle jobsite waste. PNC wants volume LEED approval of 90 branches based on the prototype. Photos: Gensler

To guarantee each new branch conforms to its prototype, the Building Team created seven variations of Gensler's original design to account for smaller sites, side entrances, and flipped building orientation. The prototype was specifically designed to, and should deliver, 30–33 LEED credits.

"The team evaluated the worst-case conditions for the design that were likely to be met in different locations," said Alan Traugott, a founding member of the USGBC and a principal at CJL Engineering, Moon Township, Pa., which developed a building model and computerized daylighting analyses to evaluate the impact of design features in different geographical regions. Specific attributes can be deleted or added depending on the certification level or budget requirements requested by PNC, although the overall footprint of the branches will never change. The branches are constructed of seven-foot-wide, 14-foot-high concrete and epoxy panels that will be built in a factory and trucked to each site.

To accommodate local architectural styles, the team created variations on the prototype with peaked, gabled, flat, and historic roofs, as well as one with brick columns that can replace the prototype's steel columns, according to Lance Bogge, the Gensler architect who did the designs.

PNC is bulk purchasing the curtain wall, HVAC rooftop units, interior office fronts, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, low-VOC carpet, and other materials to save costs. Clemens, the construction manager, will build most of the branches and Paladino will train local contractors in how to recycle at least three-fourths of all construction waste by gathering it from multiple sites and recycling en masse. Clemens will bid out branches to local general contractors in states where it has no presence.

Gensler and PNC will oversee the construction permits and documentation by utilizing Gensler's regional offices. "Our design team utilizes the same engineering consultant team for all the PNC branch projects who are also licensed in those states," said Eric Brill, the Gensler associate overseeing the branch project. "We have a Gensler team or representative in each office who will be responsible for the documents and administration in their regions."

The prototype design reduces construction time, taking only 3–5 months to build. Pre-purchased materials will allow construction to continue under adverse weather conditions. Each new 3,650-sf branch will cost $1.3–$1.4 million to construct. PNC says there is no extra cost attributable to the building's green features.

"We wanted to design the buildings around the idea of being green," said Gary Saulson, PNC's director of corporate real estate and chairman of the Green Building Alliance's board. "We wanted to build something customer-centric, that can be built quickly and efficiently and will have a good impact on the communities it serves."

Saulson said he hopes to have a verdict from the USGBC's Retail Development Council on volume certification for his branches as early as this month, but he is not the only one eagerly awaiting an answer: 21,300 new stores are built in this country every year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Volume-build certification would drive an exponential increase in LEED-approved buildings, and not just in banking and retail. University classroom and administrative buildings, city and county libraries, and other public buildings that are part of a larger network would have an even greater incentive to look at LEED.

"The potential multiplier effect could result in an unprecedented wave of green buildings that follow in PNC's wake," said Traugott. "Each building and the aggregate rollout would create ripples at all levels."

At LEED Central in Washington, D.C., the USGBC must weigh maintaining the integrity of the LEED certification process in the context of potentially massive building volume. There could be a greater opportunity to circumvent LEED requirements in a volume certification, especially when multiple contractors work on projects in different states without the oversight of a nationally networked design team such as PNC's. The USGBC could also stand to lose considerable revenue in LEED certification fees if owners were allowed to cover many buildings with one prototype.

A possible compromise, advocated by M. Arthur Gensler, Jr., chair of the eponymous firm, and others involved with the PNC rollout project, would be an audit approach similar to a tax audit by the IRS. Under this approach, the USGBC would select random branches from volume-certification projects every year and check the paperwork and physical makeup of the building to ensure compliance with the approved prototype.

However, audits aren't in the RDC's immediate plans. "Currently we're not pursuing an on-site audit certification process," said Owens, the RDC liaison. "We're moving forward with requiring an initial submission for the prototype and additional submissions for each variation on the prototype."

Owens also said the RDC expects to have a pilot program for volume certification in place by late summer and plans to hire pilot program managers this month.