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Three Perspectives on Pursuing LEED Certification on Small Projects in the University Environment—The Design Team, Institution, and Customer

Mary-Lynn Cummings, Cornell University
Peter De Braal, SWBR Architects

Cornell University received a $10 million grant from the New York State Empire State Development Corporation for the Bio-fuels Research Laboratory (BRL) Renovation (11,560 square feet); Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE) Laboratory Renovation (7,274 square feet); and Building Systems Upgrade Project for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. The grant will be used for the construction of new laboratory space and for new laboratory equipment. BRL will be used to convert perennial grasses and woody biomass into cellulosic ethanol and other bio-fuels. The final design was developed from rigorous laboratory programming with researchers and students while simultaneously incorporating sustainable principles. Grant restrictions dictated that the project needed to be designed & constructed within 20 months. The budget was extremely tight at $5.3 million. The university decided to renovate an existing 1950's power and machinery laboratory originally used to maintain farming equipment. The design team eventually decided to build a floating mechanical penthouse above the laboratory due to existing building constraints.

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. This desire, coupled with the University's well-developed sustainable design standards, led to the eventual pursuit of LEED® certification; however, validating the LEED certification process and justifying the cost of certification were two obstacles that had to be overcome with the owner.

Institution's Perspective
When Cornell President, David J. Skorton, signed the American University and College President Climate Commitment in February 2007, Cornell committed to the pursuit of a reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions with the ultimate goal of "carbon neutrality" for the entire Ithaca campus. To reflect this commitment, the university requires use of the U.S. Green Building Council's 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.

Customer's Perspective
The academic department and the College administration, as the project customer, had many questions related to pursuing LEED certification. The customer looked to the architects, engineers, 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 these 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?


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.

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