Taking the LEED on building green

Imagine, if you will, taking a 1917 Ford Model T, tearing out its old engine, and popping in a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendlier hybrid engine. The notion, while enticing from both technological and eco-friendly perspectives, would seem downright daft. While a 90-year-old automobile may well be beyond environmental, money-saving upgrades, a 90-year-old building in Chicago is not.

Digital Realty, which owns, acquires, and manages technology-related real estate worldwide, announced late last week that it's the first company to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification for a datacenter facility. Adding to the achievement is the fact that the Chicago-based facility was originally constructed in 1917 as the R.R. Donnelly printing plant.

"This project shatters the myth that LEED certification can only be achieved within newer facilities," says Jim Smith, vice president of engineering at Digital Realty.

For those of you who don't have "LEED" tucked away in the acronym section of your memory bank, it's the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings. The rating system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

"LEED guidelines incorporate so many proven best practices for building engineering and construction," says Smith. "Following those best practices results in facilities that are very cost-effective from both a construction and operations point of view. Anything that makes datacenters more efficient is a good thing from a business point of view -- both for our Digital Realty Trust and for our customers."

Digital Realty's project is a built-to-suit datacenter for an undisclosed Fortune Global 500 company. The facility features 20,000 square feet of raised-floor space with 4,000 kW of available IT load, according to Digital Realty. Features of this particular project include sophisticated tools for measuring energy consumption ("Step one for energy-efficient operations is always to have a way to measure," says Smith), as well as equipment and a monitoring system that "ensures the air is clean, and helps us improve performance of the ventilation system and improve indoor air quality."

(For more from Smith about the project and LEED, check out this Q&A.)

LEED on!

LEED certification is by no means just about earning bragging rights for having a green-haloed building, either. Like so many sustainable technology efforts, a LEED endeavor results in significant long-term cost savings through waste reduction.

There are, of course, additional expenses incurred when pursuing a LEED-certified facility. The cost can vary greatly depending on several factors, including what level of certification an organization seeks to attain (from "certified" to Platinum), project characteristics, and many others.

In the case of Digital Realty's project, the costs were 4 percent higher, although the company did not disclose total expenses for the project. "The financial impact of the LEED process was an extra 4 percent in cost -- half of which was materials and tools, and the other half of which was administrative. Very efficient from a cost perspective, and it has an overwhelmingly positive net present value. Definitely worth the cost," says Smith.

There's also a more advanced commissioning process required for organizations seeking high-level LEED certification for a building project. Most buildings go through a fundamental commissioning process, a systematic process of ensuring that its complex array of systems is designed, installed, and tested to perform according to the design intent and the building owner's operational needs. Advanced commissioning entails a more time-intensive process, hitting higher bars on some testing metrics.

LEEDers of the pack

Digital Realty isn't the only high-tech company to champion a LEED-certified project of late. Companies such as Adobe and Qualcomm, for example, reaped recognition from Flex Your Power earlier this year for their respective LEED-certified projects. Moreover, they've both enjoyed significant savings from reduced energy waste.

Notably, and certainly not surprisingly, one of the common threads among these projects is the IT components, such as tools for monitoring and managing heat and lighting through a network. Once again, it demonstrates just how critical a role IT plays in helping organizations undergo green transformations.

Through its "Greening of Adobe" project, the company earned Platinum-level certification for three of its HQ buildings in San Jose, Calif. The company created and implemented a rather sophisticated, integrated building monitoring and control system, allowing staff to handle the controls for various building operating systems from a single UI. Lighting zones, for example, can be turned off and on with a single click of a mouse; HVAC temperatures can be adjusted with another click. Adobe reported that it managed to save some $1,182,000 -- and 9.2 million kWh -- from its efforts, representing 30 percent of total electricity use.

Similarly, Qualcomm's realized some impressive energy and cost savings with facility upgrades in its San Diego-based Building W Campus, a LEED Gold-certified building. Renovations included installing a photovoltaic system that supports 60 percent of campus lighting requirements and offsets demand during peak periods.

The company also added efficient faucets, flush valves, shower heads, plus an increase in cycles of chilled water circulation, saving 670,000 gallons of water annually. The campus has incorporated high-efficiency lighting fixtures, gas absorption chillers, boilers, and water heaters. All in all, the company reported to have garnered savings of 9.6 million kWh last year -- 30 percent of total electricity use.

Organizations that prefer not to undergo the entire LEED-certification process can still derive benefits from drawing on the system's benchmarks and best practices. HP, for example, says it's been implementing LEED criteria in its buildings whenever possible, as well as hiring LEED-certified architects. Yet the company doesn't currently have any formally LEED-certified facilities.

Nevertheless, the company reports that it recently converted two facilities in Austin, Texas, into datacenters that comply with the LEED standards. Benefits have included decreasing building energy use by 21 percent, compared to projected consumption without the improvements; installing heating and cooling systems that minimize our impact on ozone depletion and climate change; reducing water use for irrigation by 50 percent; and reducing building water usage by 20 percent.

For more about LEED certification, go to the U.S. Green Building Council's Web site.