The most recognizable green building rating system in the United States, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), has ratings systems for various building projects, including LEED for New Construction and LEED for Commercial Interiors.

LEED for Existing Buildings is designed to rate older buildings that are retrofitted for resource efficiency. And launching in late 2010 is LEED for Retail, which takes into account the factors unique to the retail space.

As with LEED for Homes, LEED ratings specific to commercial buildings are based on a 100-point scale, and projects must meet requirements and earn a certain number of points to achieve one of four certification levels: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

LEED is just one certification system for sustainable commercial construction; buildings may also receive ratings from other third-party verification systems, like the Green Building Initiative’s (GBI) Green Globes system, or earn a qualification from the EPA’s EnergyStar program.

A case study

As the first commercial office building to earn a Platinum LEED for Existing Buildings certification, the West Tower of the Adobe Systems building, in San Jose, Calif., is a good example of what green building involves — and the returns it can yield. Over the course of five years, Adobe spent $1.1 million to retrofit its headquarters, which opened in 1996, for energy and environmental efficiency. The process involved improving lighting systems, including adding motion sensors; upgrading its building control systems; and implementing power-shedding programs.

According to Adobe, these projects resulted in a reduction of electricity use by 35 percent, natural gas use by 41 percent, domestic water use by 22 percent, and irrigation water use by 75 percent. At the time of certification in 2006, the Adobe building was recycling or composting up to 85 percent of its solid waste and had reduced its emissions by 26 percent. And, proving that green building can be money making, the company claimed a 114 percent return on investment.

Steps to building a sustainable commercial space

The success of any green building project — new construction, retrofit or reuse — depends on the goals you set, the team you assemble, the tools you use, and the systems you install to evaluate performance. When embarking on such a project, be sure to do the following:

1. Set goals. Know your goals for the sustainability of your building, and make sure they are measurable. Learn from the successes of other high-performance buildings.

2. Create an integrated team. From the outset, obtain the expertise of a collaborative team of architects, engineers, designers, builders, and sustainable construction specialists, and solicit feedback from the building’s occupants, owners and maintenance staff. With this holistic approach, you’ll be more likely to see cost savings, and sooner.

3. Take advantage of established tools and resources. Modeling software, guides for how to save on resource consumption, and guidelines for green building certification, from LEED or other third-party evaluators, are all valuable aids in the process of building green.

4. Measure and evaluate performance. Once the building is constructed and the systems are in place, regularly assess them to make sure they are operating efficiently, and make changes to keep them performing at peak levels.

A green building is a living building that needs ongoing care and attention. When it thrives, the planet does, too.

Keep reading:

Part I: Sustainable commercial construction

Part II: Why go green in commercial construction?