Delay in LEED decision for Whatcom jail makes green-building standard harder to attain

A $230 million expansion at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Wash., in 2009 included sustainability measures such as solar panels and recycling water.
A $230 million expansion at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Wash., in 2009 included sustainability measures such as solar panels and recycling water. AP

Whatcom County leaders won’t decide how environmentally friendly the new jail will be until early 2016.

By then, Executive Jack Louws said, it may be too late.

Louws asked the County Council on Jan. 27 to consider exempting the jail from a 2005 resolution stating that county buildings should be built to the third-highest, or silver, standard in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

The jail’s design team, which includes county staff and the consulting firm DLR Group, has already concluded LEED silver is “unattainable,” said Tyler Schroeder, Louws’ special projects manager.

Still, the executive wanted to include the council in the decision. Three of the seven council members on Jan. 27 asked the executive for more information on the costs and benefits through the jail’s lifetime of attaining the LEED standard. The information provided to council to that point only indicated that a geothermal heating system, which would grant the jail significant points toward the LEED silver standard, would cost $2.2 million to build and would not pay for itself over time.

When the council reconvened on Tuesday, Feb. 10, the Executive’s Office did not have the lifetime cost-benefit analysis ready. That information won’t be available until after the public votes in August or November on a sales-tax increase to pay for jail construction. Schroeder said staff should have that analysis to the council by January or February 2016.

The council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee agreed on Tuesday to postpone a decision on LEED until then.

In the meantime, staff and consultants will make building decisions so voters will have a good estimate of the jail’s cost when they cast their ballots. Schroeder told the council the design team will proceed without planning to use geothermal heating.

At the Jan. 27 meeting, Louws had urged the council to make the decision on LEED certification soon.

“Once a decision is made, it’s not going to be something a year from now, or a year and a half from now, that’s going to be easy to back out of,” he said.

By punting the decision one year into the future, council may have effectively made a decision against LEED certification. Louws said if the council opts to bring the jail up to LEED silver after voters ostensibly approve a bond to pay for the jail, then the county might have to borrow more money to cover the additional cost.

Bellingham architect Michael Smith told the council on Tuesday not to give up pursuit of LEED silver for the jail. He said he agreed with the executive that geothermal heating would not be worth the expense. LEED provides 35 ways to earn credits toward certification, in categories such as site selection, energy efficiency, water use, materials and air quality.

The executive’s staff is convinced it needs geothermal heating to attain the silver rating.

Other jails DLR Group worked on, including SCORE Regional Jail completed in 2011 in Des Moines, were not built to LEED standard. But Smith said the county should follow the example of the state prison system.

The prison system has 40 LEED-certified buildings, including all 22 buildings at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, which was expanded in 2008 to the LEED gold standard. All state-funded buildings must be built to LEED silver or higher.

County voters will decide as early as August whether to approve a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to pay for the new jail, to be built in south Ferndale at an estimated cost of $82 million. Council will get a more detailed cost estimate within the next two months, before it decides whether to put a bond for jail construction on the August ballot. Council could wait until the November election but would be going against the executive’s recommendation.