The Synergies of Project Management and LEED Sustainable building design

Recently in my travels around Southeast Asia I’ve had a chance to talk to project managers, architects, green building experts, and real estate developers about LEED projects. LEED stands for (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) which is a sustainable building certification system created by the U.S. Green Building Council. In my discussions with them concerning LEED sustainable building design one issue came up again and again: the need for good coordination and leadership (project management) during the design and construction of green buildings. This article looks at the synergy between these two areas.

Undergoing any construction of a sustainable building can be a large and complex process. On most projects there are the usual players involved in building design: project owner, architect, engineering firm, landscape architect, civil engineer, and others. A sustainable building can introduce new players such as an energy modeler, a solar photovoltaic installation company, and the daylight simulation modeler. Having all these players coordinate with each other can be a tremendous task. In addition, there are the owners’ expectations and concerns about constructing a sustainable building to be managed. The construction phase is also critical to the sustainable building project, and there will be technical measures and methods that need to be employed during this phase for its success. Financial concerns about cost control, and its balance with time, scope, and quality are a major considerations for all projects . For a project to be successful, it is critical that the sustainability leader (LEED AP) have a strong foundation in project management.

We next look at some of the major problems that may come up in sustainable design and how project management can offer solutions. We will look at the issues of communications, economics, owner engagement, and coordination.

Communications is a key part of project management. In any building design there are many players that need to be talking to each other constantly. Engaging in a sustainable design for a building adds additional players. Use of project management skills can help facilitate the initial charrette to outline the projects LEED sustainability goals and get the team engaged with these goals. The sustainability professional needs to be a part of these early design team meetings to ensure that the sustainability goals are continually communicated to the project team. The LEED process is an iterative process, and as the design evolves good use of project management can help stimulate cooperation between the project actors. The sustainability manager needs also to advise on problems connected to the sustainable measures of the project during the design process and manage any design changes and their impact on these measures.

Next, let’s look at the economics and finance for projects. Cost is always a major concern in any project. The introduction of sustainability materials and technologies will of course impact the project’s total cost. The perception is that the cost impact of these measures will be great. Typically, though, the costs for green building measures is only 2 percent of the total project cost as per information provided by the U.S. Green Building Council¹. The costs for these sustainability measures can be controlled by good project management practices. For example, the introduction of the green design technologies and measures has to be included from the project’s beginning. This will minimize cost of their implementation versus trying to work them in later in the design process. A good project manager will ensure that all sustainability measures are considered, and that each of the key project players has done their part to incorporate them into the design. A project manager will also track costs based on changes in a project. As value engineering enters a project, the sustainability consultant needs to be able to convey to the owner the impact of changes to sustainability measures (elimination or reduction), and the risks they pose to LEED certification. There are, of course, the two other legs of the triangle for project management: scope and schedule². It’s helpful to have all the sustainability measures worked out at the beginning so the scope is clearly defined. Additions later will be cost in both time and money. Some sustainability materials or technologies may have a long lead time, and thus impact the schedule. The LEED sustainability consultant needs to be aware of this and help the team resolve any scheduling issues.

The LEED sustainability consultant, like the project manager, needs to be creative. There may be alternatives and solutions to the challenges that come up on the project related to sustainability. These can be resolved with creative thinking and solutions.

The third area we will discuss is the issue of owner engagement. Many owners will be somewhat skeptical about the value of green buildings. They will see major upfront costs without clear benefits. If a LEED consultant is educated about the building, they can help the client understand the return on investment (ROI). There is now plenty of published data regarding green buildings and their ROI³. A consultant can also share positive financial success stories past projects and experiences. At the early stages of the project and as it progresses, it will be very important for the sustainability consultant to track the sustainable measures proposed, and the financial impact of any changes. Part of project management is also risk management. If there are changes due to value engineering, the sustainability consultant needs to be able to address any risks imposed upon the green building measures and inform the owner. Finally, there are concerns about client/owner expectations. The impact of any design changes affecting these sustainability measures, as well as any delays in performance of the various team members and contractors, needs to be communicated to the project owner.

The final area that we will look at is timing and coordination. During my recent set of interviews, I had one green building expert tell me recently that the most useful skill for a sustainability consultant is to be a team coordinator. As stated before, in a sustainable building project, all stakeholders need to be involved early on in its design. Decisions are made that will impact the architecture and engineering obviously, but they can also affect landscape design, the work of the contractor, and facilities management of the completed building. It’s best if input is gotten from all these players, and that they all understand what the goals are at the beginning. Some media articles have condemned green buildings as not being as efficient as they were originally proposed to be. Often this can be attributed to a lack of coordination with the facilities management team, and/or proper education about the use of the green building systems in the design. Finally, the consultant needs to provide quality control over the project’s drawings and design features and intervene if anything is missing or if it is possible that sustainability requirements will not be achieved.

In summary, it is a real boon if the LEED sustainability consultant is grounded in the concepts of project management. There will inevitably be design problems that need to be addressed, client expectations that need to be managed, scheduling issues to be resolved, and disagreements between the team players regarding sustainability measures proposed for the project. Construction teams will often need education about sustainability. Good communication and coordination skills will help avoid some of the pitfalls that can result during a project. Strong financial analysis skills will be invaluable in helping to understand the

costs of the proposed sustainability measures and any impacts changes in the project will have on them financially. Project management and LEED knowledge are a skill combination to look for when hiring a LEED consultant.

  1. Green building costs and savings, Nora Knox, Mar 25, 2015, www.usgbc.org
  2. LEED and PMP Information Session, Everblue Training Institute, Dave Sides, Steve Alfaro
  3. Green building costs and savings, Nora Knox, Mar 25, 2015, www.usgbc.org

Additional References:

  1. Sustainable project management for green construction: challenges, impact and solutions, Bon-Gang Hwang – National University of Singapore, Jac See Tan – National Institute of Education, 28-30 June 2012
  2. Project Managers’ Role in Sustainable Building Process, Mahvin Delnavaz – Chalmers University of Technology, 2012