Proving a Building 'Green' Can Be Daunting The massive City Center development in Las Vegas is huge, expensive and environmentally friendly. It meets the building industry's green building, or LEED, standards. But critics knock LEED's one-size-fits-all point system and the cumbersome certification process.

Proving a Building 'Green' Can Be Daunting

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Yesterday, we reported on a construction project that could redesign the Las Vegas Strip, the $8 billion City Center. It's bringing some of the world's most famous architects to the strip.

Well, today we return to Vegas to hear about the ambitious environmental goals of City Center. The development is trying to follow green building standards - what are called LEED standards, to be precise - but as NPR's Ted Robbins reports, some say getting a LEED of certification is not worth the cost.

(Soundbite of construction site)

TED ROBBINS: Standing in the midst of construction for the City Center project on the Las Vegas Strip, it's hard to imagine it's conserving anything - 76 acres of soaring and curving hotels, condos, shopping and entertainment space in the desert. But Cindy Ortega touts its sustainability. She is VP of the energy and environmental services for MGM Mirage, which owns City Center.

Ms. CINDY ORTEGA (Senior Vice President, Energy and Environmental Services, MGM Mirage): It's beautiful, isn't it? See the curvature of the steel? Now the reason why this is environmental, you see this guy welding the steel right here? Steel is 95 percent recycled.

ROBBINS: Actually, using recycled steel is common practice. Steel is the most recycled material on the planet. But City Center is even recycling construction waste, including the concrete leftover when the old Boardwalk Casino was blown up to make way for the new development.

Ms. ORTEGA: So instead of hauling it away out to some pile, out in the hills out here, we crushed it up on site and reused it for the roads here.

ROBBINS: The goal is a green development. The proof is LEED certification. Bill Browning is a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council which administers LEED. He helped write the standards.

Mr. BILL BROWNING (Founding Member, Green Building Council): In the early '90s, we didn't have a good way of defining what was a Green Building, and how could you measure the performance of the building in terms of energy into air quality, how it dealt with the habitat and storm water.

ROBBINS: So the counsel came up with a point system. The more a builder does to make a development sustainable, the more points the development gets.

Mr. BROWNING: The rating has different levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum.

ROBBINS: But to get to platinum, you really have to push.

Mr. BROWNING: Less than 20-30 buildings out of 7,000 in the system have achieved platinum at this point.

ROBBINS: The Las Vegas City Center is going for LEED silver. That means high-efficiency windows, lots of natural light, reclaimed water for landscaping, and an on-site electric generating plant which uses excess heat to warm the buildings. A gold rating would've required much more, some things which make sense in the desert, some which don't. And with LEED, it's pretty much one size fits all.

MGM Mirage Vice President Gordon Absher.

Mr. GORDON ABSHER (Vice President, MGM Mirage): I was in a meeting one time on City Center where LEED experts were arguing we should pursue rainwater catch basins, and all of these experts in from all over finally were stopped in their tracks and somebody from Las Vegas said, folks, it rains three inches a year here. Maybe we should move on and talk about something else.

ROBBINS: Another criticism of LEED: It gives the same number of points for minor improvements - like installing bike racks - as it does for putting in a costly, energy-efficient heating and cooling system. And regardless of the point score, you have to prove a building is green. Just the process of getting LEED certification can be cumbersome. Bill Browning again.

Mr. BROWNING: You know, early on, to do the documentation, you wound up in the entire bookshelf of documents. It was just horrific.

ROBBINS: In fact, City Center has an office just to fill out LEED paperwork. For this huge complex, that might not be a problem. For a smaller developer, the added $20,000 to $30,000 could be significant. But Bill Browning says a buyer needs proof.

Mr. BROWNING: I came out of real estate development industry, and I know how outrageous (unintelligible) claims about buildings and what I'm doing with this and that, and the marketing claims and all that. But when you see that plaque on the wall and you see the point score, you know, that's someone else who's done the paperwork and said, yeah, they're actually doing that.

ROBBINS: So here's what's happening: LEED standards are being rewritten as we speak. Certification is being streamlined and moved online. Other building organizations are writing their own green building standards.

And cities and counties across the country are adapting elements of LEED which fit local conditions.

(Soundbite of construction site)

ROBBINS: Building to LEED's silver standard at Las Vegas City Center is adding about two percent to upfront construction costs. But MGM Mirage VP Gordon Absher says energy, waste and water savings will make that up and more in the long run.

Mr. ABSHER: You can make money and do the right thing at the same time.

ROBBINS: Right now, building to LEED is voluntary. As costs come down and building codes change, it's possible building green won't be newsworthy but standard practice.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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