An industrial facility’s journey to LEED certification

March 20, 2014
By: Vicki Bell

More and more businesses are seeking LEED certification. Among them is Hypertherm, a provider of cutting systems for the metal fabricating industry. The company met challenges along the way and exceeded its expectations in achieving LEED Gold.

Originally developed in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a certification process that covers new buildings, existing buildings, schools, and residential dwellings. The guidelines have been modified over the years, but the rationale for pursuing the certification remains the same: saving money; being environmentally responsible; and creating healthier, more attractive workplaces that help retain talent.

The LEED pursuit involves challenges that can be especially daunting for an industrial facility. When building its new plant in Lebanon, N.H., Hypertherm Inc., a provider of cutting systems for metal fabricators, met these challenges and then some as the company exceeded its expectations by achieving LEED Gold and becoming the only plant of its kind in the state to receive that recognition.

Hypertherm Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Jenny Levy recently participated in a Q&A with about the certification process, its challenges, and its rewards.

Q: What made Hypertherm decide to pursue the LEED certification? Was it part of the plan for this facility from its inception?

A: Hypertherm is guided by a triple-bottom-line corporate mission that focuses on growing profits from our business while providing for the well-being and development of our associates and enriching our communities and environment.

We needed a new building to accommodate for our growth and knew we wanted to build one with the least negative impact on the environment. Building a "green" building meant lower impacts during construction and over the years of operation and would also be cheaper to operate and healthier and more inspiring to occupy. The USGBC's LEED program provided a road map for us and our construction partners to follow to make sure we were investing in the most meaningful and impactful areas of our building. Incorporating these principles from the ground up is far easier and more effective than trying to retrofit efficiencies later.

Q: What did the certification process entail?

A: The USGBC does an excellent job of outlining all the aspects of their LEED program for new construction. While we tried to get ourselves up-to-speed on the program as quickly as possible, it was critical that we chose architects, engineering, construction, and landscaping partners that already had experience and success in building lower environmental impact projects. Our partners embedded the necessary research and choices throughout the building process.

There is a thorough and in-depth paperwork submission process that we needed to follow to demonstrate to what level we were meeting the LEED point system. Our target was LEED Silver (50 points or more). As we pursued those credit items which were important to us, we realized obtaining LEED Gold (60 points or more) was a possibility. The final tally was 62 points and a LEED Gold certification.

Q: Did you have an internal committee focused on the project?

A: Our entire construction team was focused on the project. We had a standing weekly meeting with our in-house stakeholders (usually about 20+ associate leaders) to report on key team initiatives and key construction milestones, but most importantly to ensure we were all pulling in the same direction. We also created six separate project teams early in the design process with key senior-level sponsors to ensure we were solving the major technical and program step changes needed for success.

One example of these projects was to create a closed-loop water cooling system to replace the 70,000 gallons per day that was at that time going down the drain. We were not only successful with all six of these major step changes but specifically were successful in constructing a building where we do not produce one single gallon of industrial wastewater! 

Q: Did you use the services of a LEED AP-accredited professional? If so, what was the experience like, and would you recommend that others do the same?

A: We had a design/build contractor who was very knowledgeable in the LEED process. We also hired a third-party LEED professional to oversee and validate plans and solutions. The important key for us was to establish processes and responsibilities early on to ensure effectiveness. For example, the effectiveness of the 6-in.-thick foam wall system we chose was dependent on our installation process. If the panels were not secured and sealed correctly, they wouldn't work, so we used pressurized smoke testing to verify our installation process, allowing us to find leaks and make changes early on.

Q: How difficult was it to comply with the requirements for Gold certification? Which component was the hardest and why?

A: At the beginning of the project we never imagined getting to the Gold level. I mean, we're a manufacturer. We have machining and assembly areas, research and development labs, training facilities, office space, a cafeteria, a fitness center, a health clinic, and more. There's a lot going on. Defining and exceeding energy efficiency standards for such a mixed-use facility with heavy industrial activities proved very difficult.

The challenge really was found in creating energy efficiency for an industrial building; the LEED standards are more suited for office or warehouse-type space. Gathering the right experts together to solve the specific challenges was key to our success.

One of the other most difficult LEED areas to achieve actually grew out of our rural New Hampshire location. Meeting public transportation requirements in an area with practically no public transportation was a formidable challenge! We started shared van pools from high-density resident areas, worked with our local public transportation agency to build a new bus route that connected our buildings to the network, and rerouted another commuting bus route through our new building. It required innovative solutions to earn LEED Gold.

Q: Was certification costly from an implementation perspective? Did complying with the requirements increase your building budget?

A: While we were guided from a values orientation to build a building with the lowest environmental impacts possible, we also knew that a green building is less costly to operate. Building to LEED standards cost about 5 percent more, but the annual operating savings will pay that back within a decade. Actually, one of the LEED areas was measurement and verification, so we placed a high importance on controls and measurement systems that would give us the right tools to make efficiency changes well into the future.

We plan to occupy this building for many decades to come, so having lower electricity, water, and heating bills will help us lower our cost of doing business—which, of course, translates into lower costs for the people who do business with Hypertherm.

Q: What is the best thing about having a LEED-certified building? How do the employees and company benefit?

A: People love working in the new building. Skylights flood our factory floor with natural light, airflow systems provide 30 percent more fresh air to the building, natural woods and recycled materials are evident everywhere, and rain gardens surround the building with native plants that are beautiful to look at. We believe a clean and beautiful work environment improves associate well-being, safety, productivity, and general job satisfaction.

One of the other benefits is knowing we made choices that truly help conserve our use of natural resources and leave the natural environment to its own devices. Rainwater flows through our porous pavement parking lots, light reflects off our solar-reflective-white roof to keep ambient temperatures stable, and our surrounding wetlands are untouched. There is also a sense of associate pride in doing the right thing for the environment as well as implementing efficient and cost-effective building solutions.

Q: What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing LEED certification?

A: Develop clear and measurable objectives to guide design and construction decisions. Ensure these objectives align with your corporate values. Gain commitment from within your organization from the very beginning and define why you are pursuing LEED certification.

There are difficult trade-offs along the way, and navigating by a shared compass helps define the right choices for your organization and project. Find design and construction partners who share your passion for environmental impact reduction, because construction is a long process, and building to LEED standards requires education and continuous improvement every step of the way.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209

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