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LEED or get out of the way

Secondary roads building causes heated debate

By Lori Lindner
Solon Economist
JOHNSON COUNTY– Building facilities is not an easy task when building consensus is equally difficult.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors came to loggerheads during their Nov. 7 discussion of specifications for a proposed Secondary Roads department building at 4810 Melrose Ave. that will replace the facility destroyed by fire on March 25.
Under consideration for the board’s approval is a 34,285 square foot building with seven bays for vehicle storage, three mechanics’ bays and a central location for personnel offices, with an upper-level mezzanine to be used for county record storage, a function also served by the previous facility. Hundreds of records from the county auditor’s, attorney’s and treasurer’s offices were damaged in the March fire, along with eight county maintenance trucks and a sign truck.
Five of the fire-damaged trucks were repaired and returned to the county. Three replacement trucks were purchased in May.
On July 2, the board approved a contract with Ament Design for $203,000 to draft a design and site plan for the replacement building. Al Varney of Ament estimated the project as drafted would cost $3,689,710. While the overall concept and footprint has met with general board approval, the supervisors have yet to nail down specifications in order for the plan to be put out for construction bids.
The supervisors were at odds last week over the energy-saving features of the proposed facility; not whether to include them, but how far they should go to verify them.
In 2009, Johnson County adopted a sustainability plan to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the county government’s day-to-day operations. Since then, two of the county’s newer facilities– the Health and Human Services building on Dubuque Street and the Conservation Department offices at Kent Park– were built using LEED (Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, and both were certified in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, indicating the structures contain a specified level of energy-saving and environmentally-sound features.
The certification process ensures that materials and mechanical systems meet minimum design, building and operational standards to reduce energy and water usage over the life of the building’s use.
It also costs a significant amount.
Josh Busard is the county’s assistant planner and sustainability coordinator, and he estimated the certification application and process for the proposed secondary roads building could cost $30,000: about $10,000 for an energy model study, $16,000 to commission a third-party inspection– a LEED certification requirement– and around $4,250 for the LEED application fee.
The building design contains several energy-saving features already, including daylight windows near the top of the structure, in-floor radiant heat powered by small, energy-efficient boilers, a tight building envelope, and concrete and steel from recycled sources. Busard is already working with MidAmercan Energy to conduct an energy model to establish the building’s baseline energy use, and then determine most appropriate equipment to heat, cool and light the facility.
And obtaining a LEED certification does not bring additional rebates, Busard noted, beyond what might be received from MidAmerican Energy company.
“Whether or not we do LEED will not affect the rebates we are going to get,” Busard said.
That led supervisors Pat Harney, John Etheredge and Terrence Neuzil to question the wisdom of applying for LEED certification if there was no monetary gain. Supervisor Janelle Rettig asked Busard to explain the advantages of LEED certification.
“It sets an example,” Busard said. “We are a leader in sustainability.”
Busard said when he attends conferences with his peers across the state, Johnson County is held up as an example as practicing sustainability. Busard said there are other sustainability rating programs, but LEED is held in the highest regard. He said conducting an energy model study gives a good picture of the heating and cooling systems’ functionalities and how they can be tweaked for best efficiency. The commissioned inspection is also a big benefit, Busard said.
“It means you have an independent, third party verification, so someone comes in and checks all the systems to make sure they are installed correctly, achieve maximum efficiency and that they are set right,” Busard said.
Rettig felt the LEED-required inspection was an important reassurance.
“I don’t want to build a $3.6 million building that is not LEED certified. I think in the long term, in the financial interest of the people of Johnson County, it makes sense,” Rettig said.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan agreed.
“I think for $30,000 it’s worth it,” Sullivan said, noting that the county has several LEED certified buildings, but does not do enough to let the public know. “We have to do a better job of getting the word out.”
Etheredge and Harney both said they felt $30,000 could be better spent.
“I don’t think it is worth the money,” Etheredge said. “I am not for LEED certification because we don’t get any more money.”
“I have the same issue. I think if we do a LEED-qualified building we don’t have to spend the $30,000. I would rather spend it on something else in the building,” Harney said, suggesting that taking the same energy-saving measures without seeking certification would be sufficient. “We’d still have a product equal that of LEED-certified.”
Neuzil said he was hesitant to move forward with the actual certification as well.
“Typically when we have gone through and identified LEED or not, it is beneficial and advantageous because of the potential rebates. In this case, I’m not hearing that,” Neuzil said. “I think additional storage is a better investment than the actual certificate. I am not interested in moving it forward without getting that investment benefit via dollars back.”
Rettig stood fast on having a commissioned inspection.
“If the building isn’t commissioned you can’t guarantee that everything you put in is actually green in the end,” Rettig said.
Neuzil noted the Health and Human Services building was LEED certified and commissioned, but has experienced numerous problems with its heating, cooling and lighting systems.
“Tell me about all the successes of the building across the street– which is LEED certified– and all the things that need to be replaced. I could come up with a whole list of things that aren’t working,” Neuzil argued.
Rettig shot back.
“You are either for sustainability or not, and having LEED-quality buildings are a litmus test,” said Rettig. “Sustainability has been identified as a strategic priority, and our failure to pursue LEED for a nearly $4 million building shows me that is no longer a strategic priority,” Rettig said.
Harney asked why the county shouldn’t expect, as a matter of course, that the contractor would install the proper equipment and make sure it functions properly.
According to architect Varney, commissioning the building would be an added level of surety.
“These (heating and cooling) systems are extremely more complicated than they used to be. There might be some inherent problem that might be caught in the commissioning process,” Varney said. “The building control is probably the toughest thing. There has to be training provided so the owner understands how to operate the system efficiently.”
Busard agreed.
“If you have a bad contractor, they are just going to tell you what you want to hear. They want to make money and move on,” Busard said, whereas in the LEED process, “you actually hire someone who is an expert in mechanical or electrical engineering, and they check everything. It’s a small investment to ensure that everything is correct, and you move forward with knowledge that everything will work as spec’ed and as optimally as possible.”
Since the discussion took place in the supervisors’ informal session, no action was taken on the LEED certification issue, but Rettig noted the unofficial 3-2 opinion against it.
There were additional bid alternates to discuss, including the possibility of installing solar-powered panels or fitting the building so solar arrays could be added later. A study to determine the feasibility of using solar power in the facility would cost between $13,000 and $15,000, Varney estimated, based on a recent municipal project of similar size.
“I think we should pursue solar,” said Rettig. “We don’t have to replace all the electricity with solar to get some advantage from it, but I think we have to be ready to either put our own money into it or take advantage of grant opportunities that come and go.”
Busard said either way, a solar study would be important to determine what the proper size solar array would be, and whether or not the facility would garner the best rebates and rates from MidAmerican Energy.
“When we get energy model back week after next, we will have more information. We are not going to be able to rely on MidAmerican to give us a thumbs up or thumbs down that solar is good,” said Busard.
Etheredge asked Busard and his staff to contact other county maintenance directors who have solar-powered facilities and inquire about maintenance costs and ongoing upkeep of the systems.
County staff and the Ament Design team will continue to refine the specifications over the next two weeks, Parker said in an email communication, and will prepare a final proposal for board approval.
“First, we will finish the project labor agreement and incorporate it into the final specifications,” Parker said. Then we will complete design plans and formalize the construction cost estimate.  We are planning, at this time, to go back to the board in two weeks to set the public hearing.” After the public hearing, notice to bidders can be issued.
Neuzil offered a parting shot before the discussion turned to other aspects of the project.
“It’s good to see that we can pursue all these green alternatives without certification,” he said.