Following Somerville’s LEED: How the City is Working Towards Green Construction

A building designed following Passive House standards. Photo by Trent Bell Photography.

Somerville’s new zoning ordinance introduces a set of limits to the city’s energy standards for new laboratory buildings in the city, and not everyone agrees that this will help the city. The new LEED Platinum standards require that development in Somerville is even more sustainable than what is currently required in nearby Cambridge and Boston. 

The City Council approved the new codes in a meeting on Dec. 12, after more than seven years of deliberations by city officials. It marks the first significant legal change to Somerville zoning since March 23, 1990. The city also approved its first changes to regulations that had been in place since Somerville first adopted zoning in 1924.

The ordinance requires developments that are over 25,000 square feet to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification and developments that are over 50,000 square feet to achieve LEED Platinum certification. Earlier drafts of the ordinance established the requirements at LEED Silver and LEED Gold, respectively, to match sustainability standards in Boston and Cambridge. 

In addition, the ordinance stipulates that new laboratory buildings must earn LEED Platinum certification. That provision led to backlash just before it was adopted, Somerville’s senior planner, Dan Bartman, told The Tufts Daily.

At a public hearing two days before the City Council approved the new ordinance, the city government reviewed the final draft of the zoning code with community members. 

“As we see it, we’re building a new operating system for how the city handles development, and we want something that is consistent with all of our values, values around affordable housing, around economic development, and—as it relates to this particular issue—values around climate change and environmental protection,” George Proakis, director of Somerville’s Office for Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD), says. “It’s very important for us to set high standards to continue to lead the way on building systems.” 

The LEED v4.1 BD+C guidelines, the newest version of the standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, aim to provide a global framework for green building and construction. To determine a project’s level of sustainability, the guidelines take into account a wide variety of factors. Among them are a plot of land’s proximity to public transit (bicycle facilities, access to electric vehicles, sensitivity towards the land,) sustainable sites, water efficiency, light pollution, rainwater management, renewable energy, and indoor air quality. Each of these subcategories is associated with a point value. LEED certification requires a minimum of 40 points. Silver requires 50 points, Gold requires 60, and Platinum at least 80. 

Photo by Trent Bell Photography.

A ‘Pathway to Platinum’

To help review sustainability-related components of the zoning ordinance, members of the City Council and drafters of the zoning code within the city planning department reached out to Stephen Moore, a project architect at Boston-based firm ICON Architecture who serves on Mayor Joe Curtatone’s Commission on Energy Use and Climate Change. Moore has served as a resource for Somerville, advising on energy-use and carbon-emission reduction. He says he began to work with the city on its “Pathway to Platinum” two weeks before the Dec. 12 City Council vote. 

At the start of the process of developing a “Pathway to Platinum,” Moore saw apprehension and resistance from developers, but he still strongly supports the city’s adoption of these guidelines. He says the group of technical professionals he helped gather to create the “Pathway to Platinum” were invaluable in easing that tension and allowing the city to proceed with confidence.

“My thoughts were, as an architect and as a sustainability practitioner, we can get there,” he says. “And there are precedents, although not in this particular realm here—laboratories in the Northeast—but it’s been done. So we’re going to get there. We can all get there together.”

Moore says the new standards are “aggressive,” but that the committee worked to establish a “comfort zone” through forums for developers and other interested parties to provide feedback, to shift the sustainability targets from “aggressive” to achievable.

Moore stresses the value of adopting a proactive mindset, saying that he works with his clients to curb energy use as much as possible before construction.

“Maybe the project can’t get all the way there. But here’s the net difference. And here’s how you can overcome that over time, so that you’re kind of building in a [resilient] path later. You certainly don’t want to be painting something onto your client that’s a problem later,” he says. 

Chris Iwerks, co-founder of Boston-based firm BIA.studio, is concerned about the city’s adoption of LEED Platinum. At the public hearing, he said that the city councilors are adopting a multiple-choice, menu-driven system—the specifics of which the councilors likely know little about. LEED Platinum is not well-tailored to the outcomes City Council seeks, specifically related to labs, he believes.

Iwerks says it is also important to consider that LEED is a business and is also interested in furthering its own self-interest to be the dominant US green building rating system in the country. 

He describes LEED as a business that, like any brand, is attempting to further its presence among architects and designers. 

“They’re endorsing something that may not be completely aligned with what they want to achieve, and the proponents for it also have other objectives that are internal to them,” he says.

Iwerks suggests that the city consider other green-rating systems and determine if there is a better way to align their objectives by using those. For example, with a similar system called Green Globes, a consultant examines the building in person, while LEED is self-reported. Green Globes includes 1,000 points, “an order of magnitude greater” than LEED Platinum. BREEAM and WELL are other global sustainability assessment tools the city should consider, Iwerks says. 

LEED Platinum
HDR Arlington Office, designed using LEED standards. Photo courtesy of USGBC.

A Step Towards Carbon Neutrality? 

New LEED standards are just one item in a long to-do list for achieving key sustainability goals such as carbon neutrality and a fossil-fuel-free city, explains mechanical engineer Malcolm Cummings. Cummings is also a member of Fossil Free Somerville, a community group that lobbies the city to adopt policies to improve energy efficiency in its buildings. The group is part of the Climate Coalition of Somerville. 

In the November 2018 Somerville Climate Forward plan, the city adopted the goal of producing only as much carbon as it consumes by 2050, by reducing emissions from buildings and transportation, among other actions.

“We support the highest-possible efficiency standards for new construction and for retrofitting buildings in the city … to meet the 2050 goal of carbon neutrality,” Cummings says. “These [new LEED] standards in the zoning represent a step toward that.” 

Even supporters of the new LEED standards do not think it is perfect, though. Though LEED standards are based on measurable metrics related to sustainability, they are not based on measured building energy performance, Cummings says. The rating system presents a qualitative layout of best practices, rather than a concrete set of requirements for meeting clean-energy goals. For example, materials for draining and insulation are each assigned scores, and the rating system works by adding up the LEED-assigned points for each aspect of a building’s construction. This means that the LEED score of a design may not reflect the project’s energy efficiency performance when it is complete. 

“It’s a bit scattershot in that you can meet that score with a variety of different metrics, and none of them are really related to energy performance,” Cummings says. 

LEED also fails to account for construction mishaps. Cummings provides the example of a potential construction mistake in which a building’s windows are not airtight. 

Passive House is an international business standard that addresses energy expenditure with metrics more specific than what LEED stipulates, according to Cummings. Passive House standards scan the building at the end of its construction process: A blower door test measures the airtightness of a building, and a complete thermal scan of the edifice measures its energy efficiency.

Moore says he uses Passive House standards with developers who feared a more “aggressive” design approach, due to perceived financial inviability. He says ICON Architects is now delivering in the affordable housing sector with Passive House standards as well. 

According to Proakis, however, certification systems that appraise the building after it’s constructed can become impractical. If a small issue prevents a building from meeting standards, it may have to lie empty. That’s why the city chose to use a preemptive rating system—it makes much more sense to make meeting LEED standards a condition of awarding a building permit. 

The city’s consultations with the design community will help it address energy concerns in a practical way, Proakis says. A forum at the end of February, entitled “LEED for Labs,” will give architects, designers, and engineers the opportunity to share feedback with the city on the new zoning requirements. 

Cummings believes that while the new zoning code is an improvement on the previous standard, it’s not likely enough to bring the city to carbon neutrality by 2050. He says that new labs, even those that meet LEED Platinum standards, might have to be gutted and reworked unless they are designed from the outset to meet that goal. 

“There’s a strong consensus that LEED is not going to get us where we need to be for net zero,” Cummings says. “It’s a step in the right direction, [but] it’s not the greatest metric.” 

Net zero refers to a building using only as much energy as it produces.

Iwerks says the city’s embrace of LEED has not been carefully considered with regards to the specific outcomes it wants to realize in its new laboratory projects.

“LEED … assures that you get a lot of sustainability into the building, and you’re not really going to look too closely at which aspects of it happen,” he says. 

Larry Yu, a member of the Climate Coalition of Somerville who has advocated for more sustainable zoning measures in the city, says LEED Silver is easy to achieve “by accident” in a transit-oriented, sustainably-minded city such as Somerville. LEED Gold is worth ten more points, and it’s achievable, too, Yu says. 

LEED Platinum presents more of a challenge since it represents a 20-point increase from Gold. Since location and transit-orientation are out of a developer’s control, achieving Platinum can be a stretch, particularly for labs, which use a lot of energy. But it’s certainly achievable for all, Yu believes. 

Cummings says that with all the development happening in the city, curtailing energy use remains a top priority. One way the city combats the energy use from new development is by purchasing electricity in bulk and negotiating a lower rate than what individual pricing would dictate: “It’s Groupon for electricity,” Cummings says. 

Somerville implemented this program, called Community Choice Electricity, in 2017, and folded in 10 percent over the state’s required rate of renewable energy, resulting in a lower price and significant energy conservation. Hot-water boilers shared among buildings also help accomplish this aim. 

Solarize Somerville—a 2016 partnership between the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the Green Communities Division of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, and Somerville—encouraged residents and businesses to install solar panels by lowering prices and providing consultations. HeatSmart/CoolSmart Somerville, a group-minded program introduced in 2017, kept costs lower for residents and businesses looking to reduce their electric bills and improve efficiency by recommending the use of heat pumps, which move heat around rather than creating it. By fall 2019, HeatSmart/CoolSmart had helped decrease energy use in public buildings by 16 percent over a period of five years.

Still, according to Cummings, even programs like these are still not saving enough electricity to meet stringent sustainability requirements.

Proakis says the city chose LEED because it is so well-established. 

“When you look at the communities that have tried to tackle this around us, most of them have used LEED,” he says. 

LEED Platinum
A Bentley University building, designed following LEED Platinum standards. Photo courtesy of USGBC.

A Complete Overhaul

The city is focusing on laboratories in its LEED guidelines because labs may need to control greater amounts of pollution than other buildings, Iwerks speculates. Proakis concurs, saying labs are concerning because they have a more substantial energy profile than other buildings. 

Buildings must have accountable operations plans to account for human errors, like leaving the windows open and the lights on. Cummings says schools and public buildings struggle with this; no matter how well-designed they are, an integrated operations plan is key for a net-zero building to live up to its potential. 

LEED only applies to new construction. To achieve carbon neutrality, there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to improving the sustainability of Somerville’s existing buildings, according to architect Stephen Moore. 

He says a top priority for the city should be decarbonizing energy uses in its older buildings through deep energy retrofitting, a process that completely overhauls an existing building’s energy use to improve performance.

“We are an incredibly dense residential community of 100-plus-year-old buildings that are ridiculously inefficient,” Moore says. “It’s the [challenge] that’s hardest because you’re talking about individual landlords. In a lot of instances, it’s out-of-town landlords who may not be motivated to do deep energy retrofitting.” 

Yu says it is harder for absentee landlords to see their buildings as homes; instead, they view their properties as “lines on a spreadsheet.” 

Proakis says the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, under the leadership of Oliver Sellers-Garcia, is addressing this issue by providing resources to retrofit those older, inefficient buildings, which are frequently in lower-income areas of the city. The city is also prompting them to switch to air-source heat pumps, the most efficient method of heating and cooling for those buildings. 

To improve performance, the city—and greater Boston area—must tackle energy use on a granular level. Moore says the problem (and solution) extend to all aspects of urban life, from transit infrastructure to localizing goods and services. 

A building designed followed LEED standards. Photo courtesy of USGBC.

Carbon in Context

Somerville is not reforming its energy use in a vacuum. Though the new LEED standards the city has adopted are more stringent than those Boston and Cambridge currently use, those cities’ net-zero policies have also been in the works for years, Moore says. 

Moore sees Article 21, a Brookline city ordinance that aims to reduce that city’s carbon emissions by 15 percent in the next 30 years, as an example of cutting-edge legislation within the Commonwealth. Other municipalities across the country, such as Berkeley, Calif., have also forged a precedent. He says that he helped Cambridge with its efforts to achieve net-zero carbon emissions at the time of its initial consideration and impact evaluation around 2013, when Henrietta Davis was mayor. 

The net-zero stretch code is an optional appendix to the Massachusetts statewide building code that gives communities that opt in the opportunity to strengthen their energy efficiency standards beyond what the existing laws, or “base code,” stipulates. Of the 351 municipalities in Mass., 262 have chosen to adopt a stretch code, but Somerville has not. This means that the city can’t require developers to adhere to stricter quotas than the base code. Without a stretch code, development in the city could continue with no way to standardize pollution levels. 

However, Yu says Somerville’s new standards make it a model within the region. 

“I am personally invested in pushing for a meaningful response to the climate crisis,” he says. “Increasingly, that kind of shift has to come from the local level. Fortunately, Somerville—the community as well as the administration and the council—are all starting to recognize the crisis. I wouldn’t be surprised if other municipalities follow,” Yu says. 

George Proakis says that when the federal government doesn’t move on climate change, Somerville picks up the reins of tackling energy efficiency at a local level. 

“We tend to lead in these areas, and we’re okay with that,” Proakis says. “It’s something we will likely continue to do on environmental standards [and] on affordable housing standards … We have a community that wants to take steps to address … issues that are important to us.” 

To learn more about the city’s zoning overhaul and LEED Platinum, visit its zoning website at www.somervillezoning.com.

This story appears in the March/April print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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