Environmentally-friendly practices aren’t just for new buildings anymore. Their existing – and, in some cases, elderly – counterparts are catching on, too. In fact, the organization that oversees the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program recently announced that, for the first time, the square footage of commercial and institutional buildings that received LEED certification as existing facilities is greater on a cumulative basis than the square footage of those awarded LEED status as new construction projects.  


As of December 2011, the cumulative amount of LEED-certified existing buildings exceeded LEED-certified new construction by 15 million square feet, according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which runs the LEED program. Developed by USGBC more than a decade ago, the LEED program provides third-party verification that a new or existing building operates in an environmentally friendly manner. The Green Building Certification Institute awards LEED certification on four levels; in order from lowest to highest, the levels are certified, silver, gold and platinum. Buildings are given points based on a number of factors, such as energy and water efficiency, waste reduction, use of recycled materials and indoor air quality.


Ashley Katz, a spokeswoman for USGBC, says the new dynamic is in part the result of the slowdown in new construction but adds that it can also be attributed to a growing awareness among owners of existing facilities of both the bottom-line and environmental benefits of LEED practices. “Whereas before there was a lot of new construction, there are fewer funds for construction,” Katz says. “People are now looking at existing properties and footprints and saying, ‘What can we do to improve them?’”


In a blog post, Doug Gatlin, vice president of market development for USGBC, wrote that the 60 billion square feet of existing building space in the United States consume “inordinate amounts of resources and energy due to outdated infrastructure” and added that “making them cleaner, safer, and more efficient is one of our strongest opportunities to cut global emissions and conserve precious resources, create jobs and save taxpayer dollars.”


Existing Building Examples

The U.S. Treasury Building, which was constructed in Washington throughout the middle of the 19th Century, recently was awarded LEED Gold status, making it the oldest building in the world to receive LEED certification.  According to the Treasury Department, the environmental improvements will decrease potable water use by 43 percent, reduce electricity consumption by 7 percent, and slash operational and lease-related expenses by $3.5 million annually.


The historic Empire State Building in New York, which was completed in 1931, also achieved LEED Gold certification in 2011. As a result of its more environmentally-friendly infrastructure, the building will reduce its energy use by 38 percent and save $4.4 million a year in energy costs, which will allow building owners to recover the cost of the renovation within three years, according to a press release.

On the West Coast, the 39-year-old Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco also was recently awarded LEED Gold certification. The improvements that led to the designation will enable the facility to reduce energy expenses by $700,000 per year, USGBC says.


LEED is not the sole player when it comes to environmental improvements to existing buildings. Certification from the federal government’s Energy Star program also is available for existing sites, and last year President Obama announced an effort to make commercial and industrial buildings 20 percent more energy efficient by the end of the decade.


Looking ahead, Katz says it’s impossible to predict whether the trend of less LEED-certified new construction than LEED-certified existing space will hold once the economy picks back up. “That’s a hard prediction to make,” she says. “We’ll just have to see.”