Ahead of the LEED

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 Site-based sustainable design can speed official approval.

The effort to create sustainable buildings has long centered on technical certifications, such as LEED. But now, some companies are taking more of a big-picture view. “They’re looking at the entire corporate campus as a system to reduce the overall environmental impact, instead of trying to use detailed technical building specifications—this window glazing, or that insulation,” says Zane Gresham, a partner at Morrison & Foerster. “So the focus is on the outcome you want, rather than on the detailed steps you take.”

For example, Gilead Sciences is expanding its headquarters in Foster City, Calif., essentially doubling its footprint.

“The company is looking not just at physical facilities and energy use, but also at such factors as transportation and water conservation,” says Gresham, who works with Gilead on the project.

As a result, Gilead has been able to show that the campus will have a significantly lower environmental impact than traditional development on the site. “Now, the city and Gilead are developing a flexible planning framework based on meeting key sustainability metrics, rather than prescribing the exact location, size, and use of future building on the campus,” says Gresham.

This holistic approach received a limited legislative boost with the 2011 passage of California’s Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act, which streamlines environmental reviews for major construction projects that don’t increase greenhouse gas emissions. Apple Inc.’s proposed new headquarters in Cupertino—to be built on an existing HP site—is the first and only project to be approved under the new law to date. To attain that approval, Apple determined the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the facility had generated and created an innovative design that incorporates everything from solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations to drought-resistant landscaping. “We were able to establish that there’s no net increase in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the new proposed project,” says David Gold, a Morrison & Foerster partner who is working with Apple on the project.

Creating these broader plans can be complex, and local agencies, environmental groups, and public opinion all have a role to play. But these plans can also enable companies to grow their facilities while helping to ensure that they meet their long-term sustainability goals. “Instead of rigid rules,” Gold says, “this holistic approach focuses on achieving desired levels of sustainability performance, with the flexibility to adapt to emerging technologies and changing market conditions.”

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