Straight Green: SERF A Green Building Rating System for the Rest of Us?
Years later in my life, after serving two years in the Peace Corps, one of the first things I did when I returned home was to hit the grocery store for some comfort food. In the country I served there were no grocery stores, just mom and pop shops that sold only the bare necessities-rice, bar soap, sugar, Spam, Navy biscuits and Ovaltine among them. I could not wait to get back home and eat all of the food I missed so much. The first thing on my list was pickles (I have no idea why). In the mega grocery store I was presented with a glut of pickle choices. There were sweet, dill, spicy, bread and butter, baby, gherkin, Kosher, candied, chipped, waffle-cut, spears, halved, etc. An entire aisle’s worth. It was overwhelming. I stood there for quite a few minutes, the number and variety of choices put me into a daze.
So why is it, in this great country of ours, filled with choices upon choices from everything from jeans to clock radios to even pickles, that we have so few green building rating systems to choose from? That’s exactly what Joe Maguire wondered and what drove him to develop the Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities, a green building rating system for anyone looking for an alternative to LEED (but not Green Globes*). Maguire is a property developer with a BA in economics from Northwestern University and a MS from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. As a third generation property developer, Maguire rubs shoulders on a daily basis with other developers that, like him, were desperate to become engaged in building green but frustrated with the single certification choice available to them (LEED) with its associated complexity, expense, and time consuming process.
In April 2010 Maguire began a discussion with his peers about creating a new, inclusive green building rating system similar to LEED, but without all the headaches. A rating system that focuses on advancing the concept of what Maguire calls Practical Environmental Stewardship. After six months of hard work, SERF was rolled out in October of 2010 and now boasts 32 certified buildings, with 14 more in the process of becoming certified. This far exceeds Maguire’s initial expectation that 24 buildings would be certified under the fledgling system by this date. He hopes for a total of 75 SERF certifications by the end of the year and 200 by the end of next year. At this rate, it won’t take too long for SERF to make a noticeable dent in LEED’s commanding 9,000-plus building certifications.
SERF: A Closer Look
Maguire’s promise to people that decide to use SERF over LEED is that it will be far less expensive (between $4,000 to $12,000 depending on square footage), will be far easier to submit (using a simple fill-in-the-blank form filled out by one person) and much quicker (from four to six weeks from receipt of application to certification). Compare this to LEED’s $8,000 to $70,000 documentation cost (according to the study “Analyzing the Cost of Obtaining LEED Certification” by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants), its multiple credit template forms required to be filled out and signed by multiple project team members and an average 18 month time period from receipt of project application to certification (according to Maguire), and SERF comes out a very clear winner.
SERF has certification applications for several building types including residential (single and multi-family), office, distribution and manufacturing, retail/commercial and institutional/other. Each application has a unique set of point categories and total number of points. Certification requires that a building achieve a percentage of the total available points (roughly 40 percent for new buildings and 30 percent for existing buildings). Requirements for earning points are largely prescriptive and include the following categories:
EnergyStar-rated HVAC equipment
Building automation systems
Enclosure R values
Interior and exterior lighting efficiency
Storm water management
To maintain certification, SERF requires that buildings recertify on an annual basis for a nominal fee ($195 for single family residential and $295 to $495 for all other building types). Recertification is granted as long as there have been no “material changes” to the building in the intervening time period between certifications.
The certification process involves on-site verification of the claimed points by an architect, engineer, builder or building inspector licensed in the state of the subject facility as well as a random audit by SERF for an unspecified number of points being pursued.
Room for Improvement
There is a lot to like about SERF, primarily its simplicity and ease of use. It will appeal to anyone who has banged their head against a wall after dealing with the bureaucratic morass that the LEED documentation and certification process has become. The challenge for Maguire, which he freely admits, is to carefully balance the rigor of the system against ease of use. Too much rigor kills incentive for use, and not enough rigor results in a credential with little meaning. Maguire has done a good job of balancing both and takes SERF building certification very seriously. This is not a rubber stamp certification.
There are, however, some very simple changes that could be made to the rating system to make it even better without compromising its simple elegance. My wish list of improvements includes:
Minimum Point Requirement per Category: Most people will readily agree that energy performance of a building is by far the most important environmental consideration for building green. Requiring a minimum number of points be achieved in the most important point categories, such as energy conservation, will result in a more environmentally friendly building. SERF currently allows a building to be certified without employing ANY of its energy conservation points, which is an oversight that must be immediately corrected for the system to be truly credible.
Point Scaling: Instead of an all or nothing whole point reward, I recommend that teams be allowed to scale available points based on actual percentage achieved. For example, instead of offering two points for installing pervious paving for 80 percent of total paving, allow a percentage of the available two points based on actual percentage of pervious paving installed. If only 40 percent pervious paving is installed, allow one point to be awarded. Arbitrary benchmark requirements kill incentive to do anything.
Tie Recertification to Building Performance: Recertification of a green building rating should be about how the building performs. SERF provides annual recertification based solely on the requirement that nothing has materially changed, which means, according to Maguire, that no space was added to the facility or substantially renovated. To be regarded with any credibility, a recertification should be recognition that a building is performing as intended. A building that touts itself as green but consumes more resources than predicted, with systems that do not function as intended, should not be further rewarded with a bogus recertification.
SERF could very well be the green building rating system that I had hoped Green Globes would be-a rating system for the rest of us, those that cannot bear the burden of a complicated and expensive LEED certification process. SERF, in contrast to LEED, is simple to use, simple to understand, inexpensive and takes very little time to achieve from application to certification. With a few simple improvements to SERF, I believe that it could be a system the majority of builders could use for green certification and engage more of them in those practices rather than just the elite few who can pursue LEED certification. We certainly don’t need the equivalent of pickles in a supermarket, but it is nice to know that we are no longer stuck with a single 1950s clock radio.
*As a Green Globes Technical Committee member, it pains me greatly that nothing has happened with Green Globes, the first ANSI green building Standard, since its development. I recently called the Green Building Initiative (The GBI, which administers Green Globes) office number and spoke with a gentleman on the telephone that did not even know there was a Technical Committee, did not know the status of the newly minted Green Globes ANSI standard and made an unfulfilled promise that someone would to get back to me soon with information on Green Globes availability. I have no idea what is happening with Green Globes but since it remains unavailable, it cannot be included in the list of possible choices.