I was recently given the opportunity to interview Thomas Taylor and I jumped at the opportunity for two reasons.  First, Taylor wrote the forward for the first green building book I ever purchased.  Second, Taylor was involved with the Northland Pines High School project, which I have written about extensively.  Taylor currently works for Alberici’s sustainable consulting service, Vertegy.  This is part one of a fascinating two-part interview.  

Chris: I know you worked on the Northland Pines High School.  I want to give you an opportunity to clear up any misconceptions about the project or the LEED challenge that ensued.

Thomas: The certification process in the Northland Pines project was fairly typical. We were invited to be a part of the project delivery team by the design/build contractor. We participated in both the design and construction phases of the project. The design/build contractor, as well as the school board, had difficulties with certain individuals during the planning phase of the project. As the project progressed, this individual made appeals to the local code officials, accusing the design team of not meeting local codes with their design. These accusations were investigated and found to be unsubstantiated. The project proceeded through construction, the documentation was collected and the project was submitted to USGBC for review. The certification process followed the normal cycle, with USGBC responding to the first submission, requesting some additional documentation and clarifications and returning a final notification of award. There were no credits that were attempted that were denied.

Chris: What is your view of the LEED certification process?

Thomas: I do not think there is a problem with USGBC’s, or now GBCI’s, certification process. I have encountered many inconsistencies in the quality and focus of some reviews. However, now that GBCI is bringing all of the submission reviews back in house, I hope there will be greater consistency.

One potential issue is in the way USGBC handles the types of complaints that were involved with Northland Pines. By the time we were alerted that there was a problem or that the project was under investigation, USGBC had been looking into the accusations for some time. The complaint was received and the investigation commenced months before we even knew there was a problem. The extended team, including USGBC, spent a considerable amount of time and money to investigate something that turned out to be nothing. The group that lodged the complaint decided to drop the issue once the final decision was made by USGBC, but in my opinion based on the tone of various correspondence that they were not happy with the end result.

One thing that I learned from the experience was that whenever you ask several different professionals/engineers their opinion of a design, you will get several different opinions. Several of the written complaints stated that the design and system that was installed in the school did not comply with the requirements of ASHRAE. The independent engineer hired by USGBC stated that the complainants’ interpretation of ASHRAE was incorrect. This demonstrates how two different engineers can interpret the same document or design in two different ways. I am dealing with a similar situation right now on a different project where I have one designer stating that his design is a certain percentage more efficient than baseline and another designer arguing for a different type of system that could be even more efficient. My team is spending a considerable amount of time running energy models to prove and re-prove our initial results.

At the end of the day, even if USGBC retuned their certification process and did a physical inspection of the building as a part of the process, I do not think it would solve the types of problems that were encountered at Northland Pines. In one way, I think that if USGBC did send people out to the field, it may introduce an opportunity for even more subjectivity to the certification process. I do not think the process is perfect, but I am not sure changing it in this way would make it any better or stop the kinds of problems we had with Northland Pines.

Chris: How have you applied what you learned from Northland Pines in your more recent projects?

Thomas: Vertegy strives to be a center of excellence. This means that we always take the lessons learned from all our projects and use the experience to provide better services in the future. Just today, we used the experience of Northland Pines to explain to an owner why it is so important to correct even minor problems that show up on a Commissioning Authority’s deficiencies list. At any time in the future, someone could lodge a complaint with USGBC and the owner’s certification could be threatened.