Selected Highlights of the Labs21 2008 Annual Conference

Three (Integrated) Perspectives on Pursuing LEED Certification on Small Projects in the University Environment: Design Team, Institution & Customer

Mary-Lynn Cummings, Director of Space Planning, Cornell University, Peter DeBraal, AIA, LEED AP, SWBR Architects, and Robert McCabe, P.E., Cornell University


Cornell University received a $10M grant from the New York State Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to create a Biofuels Research Laboratory (BRL). The BRL will study the conversion of perennial grasses & woody biomass into cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. Six-million dollars in grant funds was combined with $1.8M in other source funds to create a $7.8M project to renovate portions of Riley-Robb Hall. Riley-Robb is located on the main campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

Riley-Robb is a New York State-owned building that contains approximately 112,000 gross square feet. It was constructed in 1956 to house what was then the department of agricultural engineering and what is today the department of Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE) in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS). BEE is the lead department on the ESDC grant.

The BRL project consists of three major components: 1) renovation of 1950's vintage large equipment lab into modern wet lab space to accommodate the needs of the Biofuels Research Laboratory (11,560 square feet), 2) modest renovation of existing, adjacent space for activities displaced by the new BRL footprint (7,274 square feet), and 3) related building systems upgrades with enough capacity to enable future renovations and upgrades of contiguous spaces.

The final design was developed from rigorous lab programming with researchers while simultaneously incorporating sustainable design principles. Grant restrictions dictated that the project needed to be designed and constructed within 20 months. The construction budget was extremely tight at $5.7M. The project is on budget at 75% of construction and LEED costs are tracking at 2.38% of construction cost.

Figure 1. Exterior rendering of proposed renovated east and south wings of Riley-Robb Hall

Figure 1.  Exterior rendering of proposed renovated east and south wings of Riley-Robb Hall.

Three Perspectives

As the BRL project moved into construction, the primary stakeholders to that point of the project - including the design team, the institutional stewards, and the customer - met to debrief on the design process. Each stakeholder presented a unique perspective, as summarized in the following paragraphs.

Design Team's Perspective

The design team felt that it was important for sustainability to be conveyed in the design, construction and operation of the facility. Because the science of biofuels is emerging and the likelihood of funding to renovate the labs to keep pace with innovation is remote, the creation of flexible modern wet-labs and supporting infrastructure was an important goal. This desire coupled with the university's well-developed sustainable design standards led CALS to decide to pursue LEED certification. However, validating the LEED certification process and justifying the cost of certification were two obstacles that had to be overcome with the institution and customer.

Institution's Perspective

The university has for several years used the USGBC LEED program as a process for evaluating, planning, and implementing sustainable practices, with a focus on reduced energy use, but with no prescribed increase in project funding. At the time the BRL project was in design, Cornell had robust sustainable design standards, but did not have clear expectations about LEED certification, making it impossible to mandate a minimum LEED goal for this project. In January of 2008, after this project went into construction, Cornell's Board of Trustees approved a requirement that all capital projects on the Ithaca campus exceeding $5M in cost must attain a minimum LEED silver certification and 30% energy savings below ASHRAE 90.1 (known at Cornell as LEED/30).

Customer's Perspective 

As this project moved through programming and into design, BEE and CALS, as the project customer, had many questions related to pursuing LEED certification. The customer looked to the architect/engineer and institution for answers and found it challenging to get and understand those answers. The customer was most concerned with: How much will it cost? Why some credits and not others? What's required and by whom? What's the value in implementing LEED in such a small part of an old "unsustainable" building? Could we get better value by spending the same money on other projects within the building? CALS did decide to certify this project when it understood the incremental cost would be minimal. In deciding to certify this project, CALS made the decision to pursue LEED certification on all college capital projects (before the Board of Trustees made this a requirement in January 2008). The college was also cognizant that the BRL renovation was a politically visible project that was inherently about sustainability, so LEED was particularly appropriate. CALS also came to understand that the rest of Riley-Robb Hall, without modern mechanical systems, is already a fairly low-energy use building, and that implementing LEED as areas of the building are renovated is the most cost-effective way to spend limited capital improvement funds.

An Integrated Perspective 

Although each of the three primary stakeholders had unique concerns and responses to the pursuit of LEED for the BRL project, these stakeholders also identified a remarkable level of agreement regarding what went well and what could be improved. Eleven "lessons learned" emerged from initial and subsequent discussions.

Figure 2. Venn diagram of three integrated perspectives

Figure 2.  Venn diagram of three integrated perspectives.

Lessons Learned: Set Expectations

1. Initiate campus standards to minimize project-by-project discussions regarding approach and process; the sooner the institution can set the guidelines for LEED implementation the better. The discussion - and time required - to determine whether to pursue LEED for the BRL project could have been completely eliminated if Cornell had already mandated a LEED expectation for projects. The January 2008 mandate to meet LEED/30 for capital projects over $5M will save future projects time (thus, money).

2. Establish the project-specific objective for LEED certification level very early in the project. Once the campus has a minimum standard, it is still important for the project team to discuss the goal for the particular project. Will it meet the minimum requirement or strive to exceed the minimum? Understanding the goal from the beginning of the project is essential for maximizing efficiency in reaching that goal.

Lessons Learned: Coordination

3. Promote discussion/collaboration between the campus sustainability office and the architect/engineer early in the project and encourage this relationship throughout the design effort. Cornell requires all projects with total cost greater than $500,000 to conduct a green charette. This charette introduces some of the project stakeholders to one another and can serve as a valuable forum for exchanging ideas without censorship. Consider who to invite to such meetings and how to best use their time; faculty and research staff may benefit from a high-level overview and participation, but point-by-point detail may be too much for these stakeholders. The important outcome is to start the dialogue between your design team and your campus sustainability experts.

4. Achieve single point accountability through using the architect to certify the process. The campus can use its contract with the architect to manage expectations for the certification effort. However, participation by campus sustainability experts is still vital to efficient and thorough certification. For some projects, it may be appropriate to have the campus experts certify the process. In either case, set ground rules for integration/collaboration between the architect and campus early in the process to avoid duplication of effort and/or information gaps.

Lessons Learned: LEED Process Efficiency

5. Understand the alignment of the LEED New Construction System (LEED-NC) and campus design standards to identify easily obtainable credits. The campus design standards likely already contain expectations that will result in LEED credits. Early in design, align those design standards with the LEED checklist and understand what credits can be assumed. This process will also identify those credits that will require "above and beyond" design solutions.

6. Save design consultant time and effort by providing a prepared package for standard LEED credits the campus expects to submit. It makes sense to have a prepared package, so that each time it is submitted it can be entered as efficiently as possible, and consistently no matter who is responsible for data entry. For example, Cornell uses highly efficient district energy that includes cogeneration and a system called Lake Source Cooling (LSC) to meet building heating, cooling, and power needs on the Ithaca campus. Cornell's district energy system with higher energy efficiencies is used in the required LEED energy modeling analysis scoring higher points (Energy & Atmosphere, Credit EA-1). Cornell includes LSC's water use reduction (Water Efficiency, Credit WE-3) through elimination of process water otherwise needed for cooling towers, which results in an exemplary performance point (Innovation in Design, Credit ID-1.1).

7. Focus on the difficult credits when the architect meets with the campus to discuss sustainability. Easier credits probably don't require face-to-face time and the project team should assume that no-cost credits would be pursued (e.g., low VOC paint). If the project team has matched the campus design standards to the LEED checklist, and has an understanding of the credits that the campus routinely submits, then when the team meets in a green charette it can focus on those credits that truly require discussion.

Lessons Learned: Financial Accountability

8. Prepare information about the cost of credits and the life cycle costs of options before reviewing the LEED checklist in a team format. More information will usually enhance decision-making. The BRL project team spent a fair amount of time discussing window replacement, and then decided to include it. An analysis during construction indicated that the $150,000 investment in windows and glazing would save $27k/year in energy costs, resulting in a 5.5-year payback. If the project team had had this information during design, the decision to include the window work would have been made rather quickly.

9. Keep a record of the cost of LEED as a percentage of construction on your campus and document the return on investment and life cycle costs to make future design decisions much easier. The BRL project team consumed hours discussing the possible cost of incorporating LEED into the project. The team found the Davis Langdon report, "What Does Green Really Cost" to be a most helpful resource in decision-making.  The team estimated the "cost" of LEED for BRL at 3 to 5%. With construction almost complete, the "extra" cost for incorporating sustainability features for LEED certification into the BRL project is estimated at $135,500 for $5.7M in construction cost, or 2.38%. These results were shared with Cornell facilities managers and are available on a project management best practice tools website.

Lessons Learned: Go Beyond

10. Consider local resources, such as non-profits that may be interested in recycling building materials. Ithaca, New York has a wonderful local resource in a group called Significant Elements that specializes in redistributing old architectural elements within the local community. Significant Elements visited the project site before construction and identified items of interest to them (e.g., marble toilet partitions, steel doors, sinks). These items were identified in the construction documents for careful removal by the contractor and off-site removal by Significant Elements.

Lessons Learned: Summary

11. Pursue certification and create accountability to ensure that sustainable design initiatives are properly executed. The LEED process formalizes efforts to build environmentally responsible buildings and enables project teams to gain certification in a cost effective, consistent and comparable manner. If a commitment to sustainability is not made at the outset, all too often sustainability goals tend to be sacrificed when competing forces, particularly related to budget, emerge. When the BRL project went to the Cornell Board of Trustees for construction phase approval, the project team asserted the expectation that the project would achieve a minimum LEED certification. With that public declaration, expectations were set. Subsequent collaborations have led to further efforts that now leave the project team hopeful that the BRL project will be certified silver. Setting the goal and keeping it visible has kept the project team focused on achieving, and even exceeding, expectations. 

Current Status

In the fall of 2008 work is being finished on the laboratory and preparations are underway for system startup and commissioning. The project is on schedule for substantial completion and beneficial occupancy of the BRL by January 2009. The project continues to track required submissions for LEED certification through the USGBC. The project has provided a valuable opportunity for the involved stakeholders to gain experience with LEED on a “smaller project” in a university and institutional setting.

More information about the project can be found at

Acknowledgement and special thanks: Dr. Larry Walker, Dr. Michael Walter, Randy Lacey, Steve Beyers, Matt Kozlowski, Dean Koyanagi, Chris Jung, Robert Chiang, Jon Reis, Donna Goss, SWBR Architects, M/E Engineering, P.C., LeChase Construction Services, Empire State Development Corporation, Cornell University College of Agriculture & Life Sciences


A. Lessons Learned from the LEED Experience for the Cornell Biofuels Research Lab (36 KB, 1 pp)

B. LEED for New Construction v2.2 Registered Project Checklist for Riley-Robb Hall Bio-Fuels Research Laboratory (104 KB, 2 pp)


Mary-Lynn Cummings is the Space Planner for Cornell University. From 2002 through January 2008, she served as the Assistant Dean for Facilities and Operational Services in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell. In that role, she guided the strategic planning effort for facilities in the College, including capital construction, space planning, budget development, resource projections, and scheduling. She provided oversight to new construction, renovations, and maintenance of existing buildings; leadership and oversight for College safety, health and environmental programs, including agricultural and field safety, pesticide management, and greenhouse environmental management; and leadership for College emergency planning and facility security issues.

Peter DeBraal is a Senior Associate and Project Manger at SWBR Architects and has been with the firm for 3 years. Previous to SWBR, Peter worked for Stantec Architecture in Rochester, New York, and for various firms in Cleveland, Ohio. As a licensed architect, and a LEED Accredited Professional since 2000, Peter has focused on the design of research and laboratory space for the college and university markets. Peter most recently has been apart of the $62 million James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester. He received his Bachelor's and Master degrees in Architecture from Kent State University.

Robert McCabe is a Manager of Projects for Cornell University. Serving the higher education sector since 1986, he has provided engineering design, project management and construction management for new construction and building renovations, including laboratory, heath care, and residential facilities, along with central plants for district energy. Mr. McCabe is a technical contributor to the American Society of Heating Refrigerating & Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the International District Energy Association (IDEA), and the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE). He holds an MBA from Cornell University, a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Vermont, and is a registered Professional Engineer (PE) in New York.