Emerging LEED: A Look at Innovation and Inspiration in Sustainability

Originally published in USGBC+
February 26, 2015

If  you threw a dart at a map of the U.S., chances are good you’d hit a city with some innovative green projects in the works, yet some urban centers stand out more than others. They’re emerging as leaders in specific areas of sustainability that are likely to change the character of their city and the way they’re viewed nationally, even internationally. Seattle, Houston, and Atlanta exemplify some of the ambitious green endeavors underway in the country. We’re betting they can offer inspiration to green champions elsewhere.


Seattle isn’t likely to come to mind when you think of an emerging sustainable city in 2015. You could argue Seattle emerged on the green scene more than 20 years ago, long before most other urban centers in the U.S. were even thinking about how they could embark on sustainable endeavors. And yet, the city on the (Puget) Sound is at it again—pushing the green envelope in new ways that once again raises the bar on reimagining our urban eco-experience.

“There was this combination of a creative city with lots of economic vitality and set in a beautiful and somewhat wild setting that created tension and opportunities 20 years ago,” says Tom Paladino, founder and CEO of Paladino and Company, a Seattle-based green building and sustainability consulting firm. “LEED (the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system) emerged from that.”

“Today that continues in Seattle with a focus on carbon reduction at the city level, a wave of building renovation based on seismic upgrades and great interest in older structures, and a heightened focus on the wellness of the people that live and work in the buildings,” says Paladino, who is considered one of the pioneers of the green building movement and one of the original creators of the LEED green building rating system.

New kinds of green building experiments are underway in Seattle that will likely redefine the boundaries going forward. Architects, engineers, consultants, and interior designers are collaborating on new structures that are more mindful than ever of energy and water consumption, building materials, and air quality. There’s also a lot more emphasis on how people working within those buildings interact with their surroundings for a more healthful, positive experience.


Tom Paladino is the founder and CEO of Paladino and Company, a sustainable consulting firm in Seattle. Photos: Paladino and Company

In addition, there’s provocative design work taking place that is finding new uses for older buildings and new design strategies that emphasize how workers use the space.


As older cities—including Seattle—reinvent themselves, there will be lots of renovation of older structures because that’s where the creative types want to work, asserts Paladino. “People want soul and character to a building so there’s a renewed appreciation for the randomness and grittiness of the city that they find in these older structures.” His firm continues to work on projects on that cutting edge of excitement in green building.


The Union Stables renovation project, now under construction and nearly completed, is a great example of a Seattle structure being transformed to meet those new workspace expectations. The 1909 building was originally a parking garage for horses, filled with stables for the animals when they were off the streets. The historic landmark, which had been vacant for the last 15 years, had a brick exterior and timber frame interior, explains Paladino, whose firm was a consultant on the project. Tenants for the four-story building will include Weinstein A+U, the Seattle architectural firm that redesigned Union Stables, a technology company, and a pub.

There are many challenges renovating older buildings and incorporating the latest iterations of green building design. The Union Stables team had to decide what to save and what to take out. “This is a building that has a beautiful set of old bones, but you have to find a way to elegantly mesh modern people patterns to the historic bones of a different era,” says Paladino.

Architects redesigning the windows on the Union Stables building, for example, had to adhere to strict landmark designation rules to preserve the exterior look. They had to simultaneously meet tough city energy codes with a well-sealed window design. And the windows had to be operable so they could be opened during the day and meet wellness standards of fresh air circulation for employees who work there, explains Paladino. “You need a much more complex brain to operate these kinds of building systems, especially when there’s a higher interaction of people with the building systems.”


Seattle has become a testing ground for an innovative green design concept called the “Abundance Approach.” Developed by Paladino and his colleagues, the concept encourages designers and architects to first look at what is present on the project in abundance, and then figure out how to put that resource to work. He used the new 10,000-square-foot Seattle headquarters office renovation of Paladino and Company in 2014 as an experimental opportunity to apply that design technique.

So lots of bicycles become art on the wall instead of gear that requires a closet. High concrete ceilings became part of the cooling system rather than a rough surface that needed to be hidden, he explains.

In another example, employees there spend a lot of time collaborating on projects during the day so they decided to designate more of the office footprint to the group space instead of the individual desk areas, says Paladino. A huge box of “we” space was created within the central area of the full-floor office that included collaborating rooms with floor-to-ceiling glass whiteboards and another wall with a stickable pinup surface. The rooms come in different sizes to accommodate different size groups including those with two, four, or eight people. There is a larger 24-person room and a 40-person version as well.

There also are spaces within the office that have access to more sunlight and open work areas with walls that are brightly painted; there are other work spaces with colors that are more subdued to appeal to different moods of the staff at any given time, he explains.


“We give people the ability to move their location in the office rather than placing a lot of technology to change the thermostat or increase air flow at their stationary desk,” he explains.

As a result, the individual “me” spaces are smaller than the average office cubicle and the open “we” or communal workspace is much larger. “We said: What’s the smartest use of our people and let’s configure our space to that,” says Paladino. “That’s the new formula for green design. Before, we would measure and tape the work space and put people in it.”

Paladino’s office renovation garnered a LEED v4 Gold rating from the USGBC, a relatively new upgrade to the organization’s rating system. That rating is difficult to achieve because of its rigorous requirements, including inclusion of wellness standards for employees in the building. The Paladino office renovation project was only the seventh certified LEED v4 Gold rating in the world and the first one in the Pacific Northwest.

These kinds of office designs are going to be essential to attract creative millennials to work for certain types of companies, insists Paladino.

“When you have a digital native and you hand them a laptop, cell phone, Skype, and the ability to work remotely from anywhere, you have to create an effective workspace that makes it a better place for them than working at home or at a coffee shop,” he says.



Houston is often considered synonymous with the big oil and petroleum companies that are headquartered there. But if Roksan Okan-Vick has her way, very soon more people will think of the “Bayou Greenways” and alternative transportation when Houston is the topic of conversation.

Indeed, an ambitious $220 million public/private partnership now underway is radically transforming and creating 300 miles of greenways throughout the bayou waterway system in Harris County that leads into Houston and criss-crosses throughout the city. The plan is to create a continuous path of biking, running, and walking that will touch just about every community in the city, according to Okan-Vick, executive director of the Houston Parks Board, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the city of Houston on parks and other green spaces. The initiative will connect mismatched pathways and build new ones where none exist. Some 4,000 acres of new green space up and down the corridors alongside the bayous will be created as well, she says.

“The bayous already are part of the fabric and quality of life we have here,” explains Okan-Vick, who also is an architect and urban planner. “They drain the lands all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. But they also are the most beautiful natural happening in our city with bayou corridors that are incredibly rich ecologically.”

Many other U.S. cities are undertaking their own flavor of off-road trails as alternative means of transportation for residents to get around for both work and play. The Houston initiative, however, is more ambitious than most in the sheer magnitude of the pathways that will be created and interconnected. City planners also were intent on making sure that every neighborhood in Houston benefits from this project instead of just carving out neighborhoods with high real estate values for the benefit of a smaller fraction of the population.

What’s more, city officials intend to tout this project as a reason for people to move to Houston. The city won’t just be about oil any more.

“We’re growing so fast as a city and we want to make sure we can attract the best and brightest to come live here,” says Okan-Vick. “Environmental leadership is something we need to pay attention to in a real way and the Bayou Greenways project is a way to use our natural assets as a draw to our city.”

Big population boosts can offer both a blessing and a curse. The greater Houston area has close to four million people today (about 2.2 million living within the city limits) and is on track to double in the next 30 years, says Okan-Vick. From an urban planning standpoint, there was some urgency to create solutions for the projected congestion of so many more cars anticipated on the roads that go hand in hand with population growth. The Bayou Greenways will hopefully inspire many people who work relatively close to where they live to ride bikes to work and leave their cars at home, she notes.

“We are so in love with our cars in this city that it will take a mind shift to get people out of their cars to use the greenways instead,” she suspects. “But we have a few counters in some spots and the numbers of people using the greenways there are staggering. When we build more of it, I’m sure more people will use it.”

Houston is known for having a decent amount of green space but much of it is clumped together in big parks. Many underserved communities in Houston have relatively little or no green space at all, explains Okan-Vick. An important element that got city officials and some private donors on board with this project was the underlying equity factor: The greenways would be equally distributed throughout the county and all neighborhoods within the city of Houston, says Okan-Vick.

“Some parts of the city are park-poor and that population doesn’t have access to nature where they can get exercise and stay healthy,” argues Okan-Vick. “The need for these greenways is more important in these neighborhoods where there are higher obesity rates. By bringing those green assets closer to these residents, there’s an incentive to take a dog on a walk or go for a run. This is really important for the health of our city.”

When the entire project is complete, it’s expected that more than half the population of Houston and Harris County will be within 1.5 miles of a greenway path.

Another impetus to get this project off the ground was an analysis that determined more established greenways alongside the bayous will aid in flood control of storm water, and overall water quality enhancement. More land next to the bayous will absorb more water during major rain events and could prevent floodwaters from heading into nearby neighborhoods, she says.

“By virtue of having green, spongy land next to the bayous, the stormwaters slow down and filter into the water, which improves the overall quality of our water,” explains Okan-Vick. Besides, “It’s harder to build in a flood plain so it’s not likely that highrises would get built on that land any time soon.”

The initiative for this mammoth green project started about five years ago with various players gathering to look at the best ways to maximize the natural resources of the city. They settled on the obvious: connecting a long corridor of paths for biking and hiking that would run along the hundreds of miles of existing bayou waterways. After analyzing the full scope of this endeavor, the project’s planners concluded they would need $490 million for the countywide component, recalls Okan-Vick. They decided to divide the project into two phases—the first phase would focus on the area within the city limits with a cost estimate of $220 million.

They approached the Mayor of Houston, Annise D. Parker, and asked if she’d include a request for $100 million in a planned $410 million special bond issue referendum that was scheduled for a vote by city residents in November 2012. The nonprofit told the mayor they would launch a fundraising campaign to solicit the remaining $120 million from private foundations and corporations.

The mayor agreed and the bond referendum passed with approval for the $100 million earmarked for the Bayou Greenways initiative.

Now that the project is underway, “The Bayou Greenways 2020 is a showcase project for Houston because it demonstrates the interconnectivity of sustainability and resilience,” says Mayor Parker. “The connected greenways and hike and bike trails demonstrates our commitment to providing alternative transportation options. Bike commuters will have an added option of taking a scenic ride along the bayou to get to work, and we are excited about this opportunity to help alleviate some traffic congestion in our city.”


Okan-Vick was grateful to the mayor for getting behind the project in its early stages and supporting the request for public funding. “I need to give the mayor credit because she led this effort not knowing how it would turn out,” she says. “Public funding for these projects can’t happen without elected leadership behind it.”

On the private donor front, an impressive $80 million of the total $120 million was raised as of late 2014. Some of the private funds already are being used to buy land next to the bayous that are owned by the county, and other private interests.

Big chunks of donations have come from prominent family foundations. The Elkins Foundation, which focuses on Houston-based projects, was eager to get on board.

“The Bayou Greenways project touches almost every corner of our city and will enable many more Houstonians to have access to the most significant natural assets we have in the midst of our fast-growing urban environment,” says Leslie Elkins, a trustee of the Elkins Foundation and an architect whose work is rooted in sustainability. “It resonated with our trustees because of the huge impact it will have on the quality of place for all of us who live and work here.”

In 2013, Mayor Parker told the C40 Cities Climate Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, that “Houston has proven to the world that it can maintain its title as the energy capital of the world while at the same time pursuing green policies that lift our reputation as a world leader in sustainability.”

The entire Bayou Greenways project is expected to be completed in about six years. Luckily, they have had community support that included residents at the grassroots level voting in favor of the bond issue, private funding stepping up, and elected leaders in high office getting behind it too.



Atlanta is on a quest to be recognized as a regional leader in sustainability. Civic leaders in Atlanta, like many other cities that are building new sports stadiums, museums, and other large-scale gathering venues, are commissioning them to be constructed with green design features so they can tout their metropolises as more eco-friendly. Getting that LEED certification plaque in the front lobby is certainly one measure of proclaiming how green you are.

For the most part, it’s not the bragging rights they’re after—it’s the desire to construct sustainable buildings that will leave a softer carbon footprint on the planet going forward since those structures are likely to be part of the urban landscape for the next 50 years or longer.

But what happens when city officials turn their attention to a massive meeting place that’s already been around for decades—like the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC)—and apply the same LEED certification requirements to bring it up to current sustainability standards? The folks running the facility get a daunting project on their hands.


Last fall, the convention center, with 3.9 million square feet of space spanning across three connected buildings, was awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings (EB) certification at the Silver level. As of last fall (2014), the GWCC, which is governed by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, nabbed the title of world’s largest LEED-certified convention center.

“Documentation for LEED certification is very rigorous,” observes David Freedman, executive director of the Georgia Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. “But it means something. The USGBC isn’t trying to scare people off from going through the process. But when you go into a building and see the LEED plaque, people know that a lot of effort went into making that happen.”

The GWCC’s ability to attain LEED certification is a huge accomplishment on its own, but it also simultaneously catapults Atlanta into a bigger spotlight as a city that’s going green in a big way, asserts Freedman, who also runs Freedman Engineering Group in Marietta, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb.

“In the Southeast it’s not obvious to be green compared to other parts of the country,” explains Freedman. “Atlanta is a big metropolis in the Southeast and it has an opportunity to distinguish itself in the region. If you go to Charlotte or Nashville, it’s not quite as commonplace to find many certified LEED buildings. Atlanta wants to be an example to other cities in the Southeast.”

While the recent LEED certification for Atlanta’s convention center was touted as a green milestone for the city, it’s noteworthy that GWCC joins a growing legion of high profile buildings with LEED plaques that are mostly clustered together in the downtown area. A new Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame were recently awarded LEED certification. The Philips Arena, home to the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, received LEED for Existing Buildings. And the new Falcons football stadium currently under construction will also seek LEED certification, notes Freedman.

The focus on making the convention center a greener facility started back in 2005, with the idea they would seek LEED for Existing Buildings certification as part of that effort, recalls Josh Robison, director of engineering. By 2008, Robison and his staff realized the task was too overwhelming for them to pursue and maintain their day-to-day responsibilities at the same time. As a result, Timothy Trefzer was brought on board as the Georgia Congress’ first sustainability manager who would focus solely on greening practices.

“They wanted to do the right thing for years, but they needed someone to lead the charge,” observes Trefzer, who was hired with an agenda to begin pursuing LEED certification. “When I started, only the convention centers in Denver and Portland had a sustainability manager.”

Competitive interests drove some of the impetus to get moving on the sustainability front as well, admits Trefzer. Newer convention centers were being built to LEED standards and they were beginning to pop up in smaller cities in the region (Charlotte and Nashville, for example) that previously couldn’t compete with Atlanta’s huge meeting venue, explains Trefzer. “Until recently, we only had to compete with Orlando and Chicago,” he notes.

Besides, more groups looking for convention space are seeking out greener venues. Leaders at Atlanta’s GWCC saw a need to listen to their customers. Trefzer says about 25 percent of the center’s potential clients ask about their sustainability practices and whether they have LEED certification. How green they are isn’t usually the deciding factor for choosing the venue, but that may change in the years to come.

Trefzer predicts the demographics of the workforce will continue to create more demand for partners who are concerned about sustainability and are pursuing practices that minimize their contribution to climate change. “As the younger generation moves into roles of meeting planners and suppliers who already expect sustainable practices to be in place, all convention center buildings will have to go after benchmarks for sustainability or they’ll stick out as a sore thumb for being the only one that isn’t doing it,” asserts Trefzer, who is 28 and was raised with recycling and other green practices that seem second nature to him and many in his age group.

The conference center is such a high visibility structure in the city that Trefzer hopes the LEED for EB certification sets an example for more building owners in Atlanta to follow in their footsteps.

“My goal is to make sustainability in Atlanta more ingrained in the culture by using our facility as a catalyst for change,” he says. “I also hope this creates an economic benefit to the city. We’re the second largest economic engine in the state (behind the port in Savannah).”

Perhaps the biggest challenge of seeking LEED for an existing building of this size is the grand scale of every aspect of the project, admits Robison. The convention center was built in several stages beginning in the 1970s;


it kept growing to meet the demand of groups that wanted to hold bigger shows there. Some of the earlier sections of the center were constructed at a time when there weren’t indoor air quality requirements, which are standard now for LEED, he explains. They had to review all their air handling units meticulously to check which ones had to be retrofitted to meet LEED’s criteria.

“I’ve got over 500 air handling units in the buildings and most were in really good shape,” he says. “The newer ones were in closer compliance [with LEED] so they were easier to update, but we had to retrofit others, too.”


Aside from retrofitting air handlers, the convention center had to inspect and update some of its 26,000 light fixtures and 57,000 light bulbs. Even though Robison has a staff of 80 engineers, they had their hands full maintaining the buildings and running operations for the shows while a simultaneous certification process was underway. Since the documentation requirements were so intense, an outside firm was hired as a third party to bring in the manpower necessary to test and balance all the inner workings of the building and do any retrofitting that was needed, he says.

Documentation was tough. Robison estimates they submitted tens of thousands of pages of information to demonstrate their compliance in all the categories to meet LEED’s standards. Interestingly, Robison and his team were already implementing some of the sustainable practices required to qualify for LEED, which was just part of their own upgrading agenda.

For example, last fall they were in the process of renovating about 100 restrooms in one of the buildings and they were already including low-flow fixtures and pint-flush urinals. “We were doing it because we were following best practices,” he says. “We just had to get all that information rounded up in some semblance of what they [LEED] were looking for.”

Even upgrading lighting to meet LEED’s criteria was no small feat. Some 1,200 light fixtures were changed in all 12 exhibit halls at the convention center, says Trefzer. They expect the retrofit will also result in a 25 percent savings in energy consumption.

Other big green achievements posted in fiscal year 2014 included: diversion of over 275 tons of single-stream recyclables, 119 tons of organics for composting, and donations of over 58 tons of food to local organizations. They baled over 27 tons of cardboard and diverted a total of 602 tons of material from landfills.

Trefzer says one of the most important ingredients to getting a massive LEED certification project to completion is a good dose of patience. “This was a four-year process for me and people had been trying to get the LEED effort up and running before I got here,” he says.

In addition, working well with partners is essential. He credits working closely with the mayor’s office of sustainability, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, and other outside parties that helped get the job done.

Robison’s advice to others: Don’t be afraid to tackle big endeavors. “You’re probably already doing most of the things the LEED requirements are asking for. You just have to learn how to document these facts or activities in the format the USGBC demands.”

And finally, taking on such a huge project also takes leadership. Adds Freedman: “You need people who are willing to step out on a limb to make this kind of project happen. You have to find those green champions wherever you are.”

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