By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – Buncombe County’s Sustainability Officer Jeremiah LeRoy introduced the county commissioners to proposed content for a high-performance building policy. He said most local governments the size of Buncombe now have this type of policy in writing.
Not long ago, it was the norm for the body to rubber-stamp decisions made behind the scenes by county managers now serving time. By way of contrast, as the county now considers developing policies for large capital expenditures, the commissioners are requiring public discussion. Then, beyond the sticker price, they want to see estimates of operating costs and building life
span. Triple-bottom-line concerns, like building health and environmental impact, would also be raised. At the commissioners’ request, they would be shown calculations for both a conventionally-designed building and a green building for comparison’s sake.
Buncombe County staff started work on the policy by looking at out-of-the-box green certification programs, such as the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and, “a newcomer to the field,” the Living Building Challenge. They thought they’d cherry-pick the best parts from the different plans, but the more they pursued that course, the more their plan started looking like LEED. If the county were to adopt LEED certification, which LeRoy said was, “the most well-recognized and established,” then it wouldn’t have to keep updating it as technologies and popular priorities evolve. What’s more, LEED has certification standards for most building types, and it is widely used, so architects and engineers will already know how to interpret it.
The proposed policy would require new county buildings, 10,000 square feet or larger, and renovations affecting at least half of existing buildings, to be built to LEED Gold, as opposed to Silver or Platinum, standards. LeRoy explained to the commissioners that LEED works on a point scale, and one of its shortcomings was it did not weight the points. As a result, LeRoy said, people end up “chasing points” and doing things that “might not make sense otherwise,” instead of making the building as green as feasible.
LEED awards points in seven categories: Innovation, Indoor Environmental Quality, Materials and Resources, Location and Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Energy and Atmosphere, and Water Efficiency. Buncombe Commissioner Joe Belcher elaborated LeRoy’s point saying the New Courts Building has so many windows, “there’s no way it can be energy-efficient.” It managed to become the county’s first LEED-certified building, though, because of Location and Transportation points. Belcher said it was his job to see taxpayers get a good return on their investments. He didn’t want the commissioners to be misled into thinking LEED certification was going to guarantee that.
Buncombe Chair Brownie Newman reminded the board that they had approved getting a $10.5 million loan to add solar panels to county buildings. In the solar business himself, he argued solarizing county buildings could be better for the environment than chasing LEED points and suggested money might be better spent making more buildings solar-ready. The commission is still committed to attaining its goal of zeroing out carbon fuel use by county government by 2030 and the county’s private sector by 2042.
Newman, Belcher, and LeRoy talked about which buildings in the county were LEED certified. The new East Asheville Library will be the first in the county to be LEED Gold. Applying for the certification cost tens of thousands just for the fees; construction and design cost more, but the investment is expected to pay for itself.
While schools are not directly built by the county, Isaac Dickson Elementary is LEED Platinum. It uses geothermal and solar energy with sensors and has three green means of harvesting rainwater. Both the Eblen and Koontz intermediate schools are LEED Silver. They use the same design, which uses a lot of daylighting with sensor-controlled window shades to reduce energy consumption to 2/3 that of a normal school of their size. Monitoring the green architecture as it reduces energy costs is also part of student curricula. Newman expressed interest in finding ways to encourage additional partner organizations to adopt LEED standards.
The county’s New Courts Building was certified under a previous iteration of LEED, and the Federal Building was built to LEED Silver standards, but leadership decided to forego the certification process. LeRoy said the county might want to decide to go that route, as a lot of governments do because they consider it a waste of thousands of taxpayer dollars “just to put a plaque on the wall.” LeRoy said the county could even add language to the policy for adopting Net-Zero standards. The commissioners were fine with the LEED Gold plan, so staff will be back with a policy for adoption in two weeks.
The county is also developing a high-performance fleet policy that would follow similar guidelines. LeRoy explained it was not yet ready for consideration because more complex considerations are being studied by an interdepartmental team. For example, the big push these days is to convert to all-electric fleets, but the county wants to see what is needed by way of infrastructure, like charging stations; trained staff; and warranty issues.
Currently, requests for vehicles are submitted to General Services, and that department explores whether the vehicle should be repaired or replaced, if it can be replaced with an underutilized vehicle elsewhere in the fleet, what is available on the market for how much, etc. It then proceeds to bidding. The objective, of course, is to get the “best-in-class” vehicle, as electric or hybrid options are not always available. As Belcher noted, some public works trucks, no matter what, will get no more than 8 mpg.