The High-Performance Building Movement


| LEED, Sustainability, WELL rating system, Net Zero Energy

The following was developed while working with the National Business Officers Association, which is the national nonprofit association focused exclusively on supporting independent school business officers and operations staff while fostering excellence among schools.

Most schools own the cost of their buildings’ construction, operations and renewal, and therefore efficient management of buildings can have a large financial impact on the school.

A high-performance building is one that “integrates and optimizes all major high-performance attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, lifecycle performance and occupant productivity,” as defined by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that high-performance buildings could more readily pivot from prioritizing energy efficiency to prioritizing health and wellness. Leading guidance, for example, was to turn off demand control ventilation and maximize outdoor air, and this was readily accomplished with high performance buildings. Consider too that fundraising for better, new buildings is easier than funding retrofits, and we can make the case that schools should be encouraged to pursue high-performance buildings.

First developed in the 1990s, green building certification programs continue to catalyze increasing sustainability and performance in building design and construction. The primary standards for ranking high-performing buildings used to be energy based. LEED ratings, for example, rewarded reduction in embodied carbon and modeled energy consumption reduction. The other two pillars of high-performance, health and wellness and lifecycle cost, were largely considered as secondary, but that is changing with newer evaluation standards.

Today’s certification programs are either prescriptive- or performance-based. Whereas prescriptive-based programs target the materials and equipment that comprise a building design, performance-based programs specify particular performance thresholds for the building. The certification process for prescriptive programs is relatively rapid, if the standards are met. Performance-based programs typically require a year of monitoring and verification following construction completion to demonstrate compliance.

Predominant certifications include:

  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)

    Developed by the U.S. Green Building Challenge (USGBC), new standards were released in 2020 to prioritize occupant health, not just environmental impact. The most commonly recognized standard has transformed the market, as there is growing realization that a building that was optimized a during design and even at opening may not be operating as designed a short time after construction. A building’s performance must be continually monitored.

  • Fitwel

    Developed by the Center for Disease Control and the General Services Administration, Fitwel has low registration and certification fees. Common categories of project evaluation include proximity to public transit, outdoor spaces, indoor air quality, access to healthy foods and workspace design.

  • WELL

    This program measures, certifies and monitors features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing: air, water nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. It is a performance-based approach, and certification requires evaluation and inspection by a WELL assessor.

  • Living Building Challenge
    This is a growing performance-based certification created by the International Living Future Institute. It is very stringent (e.g., requires a 70% reduction in baseline energy) and includes health and wellness attributes. “The Living Building Challenge is a philosophy, certification and advocacy tool for projects to move beyond merely being less bad and to become truly regenerative,” according to its founders. 

  • Passive House
    Developed by the Passive House Institute, which has roots in Germany, this is a set of design principles used to attain a rigorous level of energy efficiency while maintaining comfort. It considers the contiguous building envelope and airflow of a building. The Passive House Certification can be earned for both buildings and products.

  • Net Zero Energy (and Carbon)
    Both LEED or IFLI offer certification programs. These buildings use energy efficiency and renewable energy generation to consume less energy than is produced onsite through renewable resources over a year. If a campus aims to achieve climate neutrality on its campus, its new buildings should support the endeavor rather than adding to the burden.

Larry Eighmy is the managing principal at The Stone House Group, which facilitates building stewardship.