Whatcom County’s new jail might not meet ‘LEED’ environmental standard

The new Whatcom County Jail might not be built to the same level of environmental protection and energy efficiency usually required of county buildings.

The county Executive’s Office has been unclear on its main rationale for departing from county policy and falling short of a LEED standard.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a well-established certification program that scores buildings on a number of factors, from the energy efficiency of the heating system, to the amount of water used by the toilets and the quality of the air inside the building.

Depending on the number of points a building is awarded, it could rate as certified, silver, gold or platinum.

The County Council in 2005 passed a resolution committing the county to building to the Silver standard, “where feasible.”

Unique security and safety requirements for a jail make achieving “LEED Silver” certification impractical without absorbing additional costs that some county officials say are too excessive. A memo from the county Executive’s Office to the County Council cites a measure for LEED feasibility that the memo says was established in 2013 in King County: Public buildings should meet the LEED standard unless it adds more than 2 percent to the construction cost.

“It became evident that to accomplish the LEED Silver, we were going to be spending money on items that were going to be very expensive that didn’t really increase the efficiency of the building in the long term,” Louws said.

The latest cost estimate for a 521-bed jail on a 39-acre property at LaBounty Road and Sunset Avenue in Ferndale is $82 million. The county and its jail consultant, DLR Group, haven’t calculated all the costs that would be added to this amount to achieve the LEED standard, but a geothermal heating system alone — something that would give the jail a lot of LEED points — would cost $2.2 million, according to the memo.

That item alone would exceed the 2-percent cost threshold. But that isn’t quite the threshold King County adopted.

A King County ordinance passed in 2013 states that the LEED Platinum standard should be achieved in construction of new public buildings, unless the certification would create an additional 2 percent cost over a building’s lifetime — not just in the construction cost.

Tyler Schroeder, county Executive Jack Louws’ special projects manager and the author of the memo, said his understanding of King County’s rule, as he presented it, came from his discussions with DLR Group. But after reviewing King County’s ordinance for himself late on Friday, Jan. 23, he said DLR Group did in fact incorporate the costs over the lifetime of the jail into its calculations.

“DLR discussed both upfront and life cycle costs when the county’s jail planning group recognized that the cost of certifying the jail facility as LEED Silver is likely not feasible. I will try and provide clarification at the council meeting on Tuesday,” Schroeder said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

Council will vote on a resolution to waive the LEED policy for the jail at its Tuesday, Jan. 27, meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. Council also will hear an update on the jail project at 11:30 a.m., at the same location.

The jail will need to meet Ferndale’s own building standard, called EAGLE, if it is to be allowed in that city.

EAGLE, which stands for Energy Efficiency, Advanced Technologies, Greater Good, Low Impact and Economic Development, better suits the county’s plans, the executive’s memo said. It enables county planners to work with Ferndale’s EAGLE board to explain how the county’s plans meet the standard.

“This provides an opportunity to educate the board on why the strategies are making this building the most sustainable for the community,” the memo said.

The EAGLE standards, developed by Jori Burnett, Ferndale’s community development director, were originally meant to apply to big-box stores in case major retailers started showing interest in the city. EAGLE considerations included the outward appearance of the store, and whether it met local aesthetic requirements. EAGLE also gave points if stores paid living wages, and offered health insurance and day care.

“We believe that EAGLE blows LEED out of the water as far as responding to local issues,” Burnett said.

Council member Ken Mann, who previously designed green buildings for a Bellingham engineering firm, said it was “mildly reassuring” that the jail would have the EAGLE standards to fall back on, if it misses qualifying for LEED.

“I have additional reassurance in that I know the current County Council and the administration do take seriously the idea of green building, high-performance buildings and sustainable design,” Mann said. “I think we’re on the lookout for those types of design decisions.”

“We came to the conclusion that we would ask the council’s permission to not design to LEED Silver but design to Ferndale’s EAGLE standard,” Louws said, “but also do everything to make sure the building is environmentally friendly.”