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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Terrific post by Jacobean on LEED and sprawl

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 8, 2009

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I have periodically written on the theme of buildings claiming to be "green" when they aren't, really, because their location causes more problems than their on-site technology solves.  (For an example, see my post about a new corporate headquarters in the midst of Illinos farmland and little else.)

  Great River Energy HQ, Maple Grove, MN (via City of Lakes Urbanism)

The blogger Jacobean on his blog City of Lakes Urbanism has now made a very similar point with regard to a new LEED-platinum building in Maple Grove, Minnesota.  See any maple trees in that photo?  I didn't think so.

Here is Jacobean:

"Perhaps the building is sustainable from a point of view of construction materials and on-site energy and water conservation, but from a land-use point of view, this is nothing more than typical suburban sprawl. The gigantic parking lot takes up more space than the building itself. The site is accessible only by a major arterial highway, which contributes to vehicle travel and congestion. The building is set back far from surrounding buildings, which reduces the practicality and attractiveness of making short trips to or from the building by walking.

"This type of development should not be eligible to receive the highest ranking in sustainable building practices. It deserves appraisal for its efforts at on-site energy and conservation, but to give such a development LEED-Platinum status gives support to the idea that sprawling, auto-dependent development can be sustainable . . ."

Much more in the excellent post here.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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John WirtzApr 9 2009 11:28 AM

I completely agree with the sentiment of your post. I even posted something similar here about how LEED-ND should be used.

But your claim from the older post that there is no transit service to HSBC in Mettawa, IL is incorrect. PACE operates a shuttle between the two nearest Metra commuter rail stations:

Kaid @ NRDCApr 9 2009 11:58 AM

Thanks for the update, John. The limited service (three shuttles per day to the site, four from it, weekday rush hours only) went into effect two months after my post was published. I hope a large number of employees and visitors are choosing to use it.

Nandinee KuttyApr 12 2009 10:32 PM

Your blogpost points to limitations of the LEED rating. Clearly a "smart" dimension to the rating is needed. A year ago--on Earth Day 2008 -- I proposed a Fair, Green, Smart rating that combines high standards for fair housing, green technology, and principles of smart growth (including affordable housing).
See my blogpost at

Kaid @ NRDCApr 13 2009 12:13 PM

Nandinee, I read your piece and I like it. I especially like your suggestion that these considerations be taken into account by socially responsible investment services.

I think we'll get most of the way there with LEED-ND, though that system is going to be a little more forgiving than I would like in identifying true green development. Fortunately, after full launch it will be updated every two years, so there will be opportunities to improve it.

Doug PierceApr 13 2009 01:50 PM

Hello All –
My name is Doug Pierce and I’m the LEED Architect and Sustainability Strategist for this project. I Chair the AIA Minnesota Committee on the Environment and I’m also a Professor of Practice teaching a graduate level Sustainable Design and Practice course at the University of Minnesota.

I would like to share a few things in response to the comments offered on this blog (and the blog it references) about the Great River Energy Headquarters, its LEED Platinum Certification and LEED in general.

Before I go further I would like to quickly address a few key comments and assertions found on the blog:

Land: The project did NOT displace any agricultural or bio-productive land. The site is a part of a reclaimed Gravel Pit that was covered with a thin layer of non-native grass. The project restored the site with Native / Adapted Plants and Orchards. It produces more nutrients now than it has in decades.

Parking Lot Size: We reduced the parking lot to a little over 1/ 2 or 5/ 8’s the size required by Zoning in the area. And we actually reduced the overall building size as well by designing for quality of space in lieu of quantity of space (Small is Beautiful). The approach saved several thousand square feet of space.

Multi-model Transportation: The Project is within walking distance of a Transit Terminal with bus access. It is connected to essential services that are within walking distance via sidewalks and bicycles are fully accommodated.

Wind Turbine and Icing: The Wind Turbine includes (2) ice sensors; a primary and a back-up that automatically shut it down if ice starts to accumulate.

Transportation and Energy Use Intensity: Architecture 2030 has used information from the US Energy Research and Development Administration to calculate the overall percentage of energy used by U.S. Residential and Commercial buildings. They are responsible for about 48% of all U.S. Energy Use. Approximately 39% of that is from Operations, with the remainder attributable to the embodied energy for Construction and Maintenance.

Architecture 2030 U.S. Energy Use Calculations:
Transportation: 7% Buildings: 48% (Residential 21% / Commercial 17%) Industry: 35%

BOTH Transportation and Building Use Intensity are critical to address. At the moment addressing the energy efficiency of buildings and individual vehicles is probably the easiest thing we can do to reduce our energy demand. Changing the cultural patterns of how we organize cities will take time. Industry efficiency is difficult to deal with as well.
I’ve been involved with Green Design for over 25 years and thanks to LEED I’ve seen more positive change in Architecture over the past 5 years than in the previous 20 combined. It’s great to see LEED for Neighborhoods advance and it’s important to continue expanding the green design dialogue as a ‘Whole Systems’ approach instead of focusing only on buildings or on single issues.

However, going from where we are as a society now, to where must be in the near future to have a sustainable civilization must happen in incremental steps. It’s not physically or culturally possible for it to happen overnight, as much as many of us wish that it could (including me). I can get as impatient as anyone.

As an Architect, I work with every LEED Credit available and I’ve found that there are people and institutions passionately immersed in each credit. It’s not uncommon for entire institutions to be focused on a handful of credits and those credits are the center of their world. And based on conversations with those people, I can guarantee you they are adamant that each LEED Credit within their area of expertise is simply inadequate and should be much more stringent - whether it has to do with site selection issues, energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, daylighting or material selection. Of course, depending on whom you are speaking with, their credit topic is also the key issue and it should take precedence over most everything else.
And then again, there are a wide range of people that work with an array of credit (like architects, interior designers, contractors and facilities managers) and for many of those people, LEED is just too restrictive and to darn complicated.

Fortunately, we live in a Democracy (or something similar) so hopefully we can all get our thoughts on the table and generate a better solution in the process…two heads (or thousands) are better than one. In reality, we are talking about making changes to an interconnected system and all of the credits are important.

I personally view LEED and Sustainability as a Journey – not necessarily a revolution with battles to be fought and won. LEED Certifications (or any Green Certification) for that matter should incrementally increase in difficulty over time as the transformation occurs and as we create the new order of things. Granted, that needs to happen with a since of urgency that is lacking at the moment, but regardless of how fast it needs to happen, certifications and sustainability must be inclusive enough in the beginning to mobilize a range of projects and people or they and it, will simply not be adopted at a relevant level to have a meaningful impact.

To me, LEED feels about right at this moment…but it will need to improve – quickly. Having said that, the credits related to site selection and site design probably need to be up-graded.

Getting back to the project at hand - The Great River Energy Headquarters may not be perfect, few things in life are, but it is significantly greener than a typical Midwestern office building and so is its location.

Great River Energy is a Rural Electric Cooperative serving rural customers – they selected a site that served their customers along with their employees. Their rural customers commonly drive in from greater Minnesota. Being in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul simply was not going to work for their members. They built a high-performance green building because they needed a new HQ and at the same time, they wanted to encourage their members to conserve more energy in their homes, farms and businesses. Their goal is to encourage sustainable buildings everywhere – including the rural landscape and greater Minnesota – where most of their customers live.

The site is actually a Reclaimed gravel pit that was growing thin scrub grass before we restored it with mostly native and adapted, drought tolerant plantings. There’s a little turf grass to help give the site a sense of order. No agricultural land, or for that matter, productive land was sacrificed.

We basically performed ‘Site Repair’ (some of you may recall that one from Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language) and we’ve actually increased the nutrient output of the site. In the spirit of perma-culture, we planted some small orchards made up of University of Minnesota breed fruit trees…pears and apples mostly. This sight has not produced any food to speak of in decades. Now it will.

The project is within walking distance (1 /4 Mile) of the Maple Grove Transit Center which is served by more than one bus line. It’s connected with sidewalks directly to the transit center…just walk out of the front door and head due north – you can’t miss it. It is also within walking distance of many essential services, meaning the employees don’t need a car during the day to take care of a range of needs. It’s one of the reasons the site was selected.

Cars, at the moment are a fact of life in the Midwest. It’s very difficult to do without one. Over time we can reconfigure our infrastructure and our thinking about how we live and spatially organize the world around us. However, it’s taken us over 100 years to get ourselves into this non-sustainable state of sprawl and we’ll have to take incremental steps to get ourselves out of it. As Architects we struggle with parking counts on almost every project. We are always asking our clients if we can reduce the count…usually at own peril. Our clients get tired of us asking and prodding and searching for alternatives. Reducing the parking on projects (including this one) is not easy and it takes cooperation and months of negotiating between various parties. I am personally proud of what this team accomplished in significantly reducing hard surface area and in providing for alternate forms of transportation (including adding bus service).

The parking lot is a little over 1/2, maybe 5/ 8’s the size required by the local zoning ordinance. The reduced lot size allowed us to increase the green space (and plant the orchards). Anecdotally, I would say the lot utilization is pretty good. When I visit the facility, the lot is reasonably full and when they have a large event they need to use the overflow from the surrounding lots.
The Northeast quadrant of the site is made up of undulating earthen mounds covered with prairie grass which ‘green up’ the entire area. This quad would have been all parking if we had we not negotiated a reduction with the client and the city. The mounds are formed from soil left over after excavating the building (poor soil by the way). Keeping it on-site means we didn’t waste energy to haul it someplace else.

The building setback is consistent with the surrounding area and it was a city requirement. Placing the parking at the back of the building and pulling the building forward would have put parking almost directly on Arbor Lake, which we did not consider appropriate. It is a public lake with a walking / biking path. Plus it would have required more drive lanes and surfacing to get to it. A tall parking ramp would have been out of place as well.

There are designated preferred parking spots near the door for car pools, van pools and fuel efficient automobiles (I personally went through all of the ACEEE fuel efficiency guides and picked out the cars that meet the criteria). There are bike racks, showers and ‘pool’ bicycles available for staff to run errands during the day.

The wind turbine took advantage of the open site area provided by the parking and it’s been a great tool for educating the public about renewables. We actually had a wind tunnel test done to prove out the performance and to test optional locations. The turbine has multiple safety features including dual ice sensors (a primary and a back-up) that automatically shut it down long before any hazardous conditions develop.

And by the way, based on the computerized energy simulations, the project design meets the 2015 goals of the 2030 Challenge reducing its non-renewable energy demand by more than 70%.

To close this out – If you are deeply dissatisfied with the current status of LEED and you’ve not personally attempted creating a LEED Platinum project – I would recommend giving it a try. It may give you some perspective on how challenging it is to physically implement change. Also, LEED Platinum is not the ultimate level of sustainability; there are levels beyond LEED Platinum that we should be striving to achieve. For those seeking even higher performance, you may want to check out the Living Building Challenge or Regenerative Design
Doug Pierce AIA, LEED AP , Minneapolis

Doug PierceApr 13 2009 01:56 PM

In regards to the Previous Post!

There's a TYPO:
Transportation Energy is 27% not 7% of total U.S. Energy Use per Architecture 2030.

Sorry - the (2) Got dropped.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 13 2009 02:02 PM

Doug, thanks for taking such time and thought to add your perspective. As an architect, it is unlikely that you chose the site and we can all be glad that you did very good things with it.

Incidentally, every time I see a breakdown of energy and greenhouse gases from various US sectors, the numbers are slightly different! The one I am currently using is from the Department of Energy in 2006, which has transportation at 32% of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Thanks for your response and your work.

Comments are closed for this post.


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