SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Four years ago, the South Dakota Legislature passed a bill requiring all new government buildings and major renovations to be certified under a program that encourages environmentally friendly construction.
Since the law went into effect, 13 state projects — eight new buildings and five renovations — have attained at least a silver designation in LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, as the law requires. Ten have been registered and await certification.
State records also show that the state engineer's office has waived the requirement for 32 projects where the costs of certification would have been prohibitive, or because the renovations would encompass less than half the building, or for other reasons.
"(LEED is) much better than a mandatory building code because you get a little wiggle room in these projects," said Mike Mueller, a spokesman for the South Dakota Bureau of Administration, which brought the bill in 2008. "The state recognizes that we can't pick a standard and then pursue it at any and all cost."
In recent years, LEED has grown in popularity as a market-based approach to encouraging sustainable building. The program is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization of builders, architects, developers and other stakeholders.
But South Dakota has been slow to adopt the standards. The state has 32 projects certified under LEED and 67 registered, according to U.S. Green Building Council records. On average, it takes South Dakota LEED projects about three years to move from registration to certification, compared with a national average of approximately 28 months.
"I don't think the developers have really grabbed on," said Stacey McMahan, a principal at Koch Hazard Architects in Sioux Falls.
Here's how the program works: Developers — more often commercial than residential — are awarded points on a 100-point scale for including sustainability measures in the project's design and construction. These include everything from low-flow toilets and native landscaping to complex renewable energy systems.
Some points are awarded automatically, based on the building's proximity to public transit and essential services, for example, or for having a LEED-certified developer on the project team. More points mean a higher final designation of certified, silver, gold or platinum.
The penchant of some developers to chase easy LEED points that do little to help the environment, and of business interests to dominate how the program is shaped, led USA Today to examine LEED in its series "Green, Inc."
The newspaper found that developers in some states favor easy points that win tax breaks but do little to help the environment. USA Today also found that some of the people instrumental in bringing LEED to the forefront of the design community also stood to gain personally from the program's expansion.
"LEED is certainly imperfect," said Joe Bartmann, a sustainability coach and executive director of the South Dakota chapter of the American Institute of Architects.. "And having been involved in more than one LEED project, there are decisions made about points that I don't think make much of a difference for protecting the environment or lowering carbon emissions."
But overall, he said, LEED has been instrumental in shifting the design community toward sustainability. And he's optimistic the program will adopt tougher standards as it evolves.
"Without LEED, I think we'd be even further behind in adapting design and building practices to what we now know about climate change," he said.
South Dakota is a relative latecomer to the LEED game. Although the program dates to the late 1990s, South Dakota didn't have a LEED-certified building until 2009, and state and local officials could not identify any tax incentives that would encourage certification.
"For (South Dakota developers), the incentive probably would be marketing," said McMahan of Koch Hazard.
The first LEED property in South Dakota was Cherapa Place in Sioux Falls. Not far behind was Courthouse Square, which was certified LEED Gold in 2009.
Now occupied by four tenants including the U.S. attorney's office, Courthouse Square has bike racks, waterless urinals and a geothermal heating and cooling system, among other green amenities.
"We really don't have a heating bill," said Michael Martin, who manages the property for NAI Sioux Falls. "We don't have a gas bill."
Martin said the upkeep for some of the green technology can be time-consuming, but on balance it's worth it.
Courthouse Square was designed by Koch Hazard, which is handling the sustainability design for another high-profile project — the $117 million Sioux Falls Events Center.
Project officials are shooting for a silver designation, McMahan said. Among the LEED credits they might go after: native landscaping that will not require irrigation, traffic-calming devices in the neighborhood and a third-party audit to ensure that the building is achieving the promised energy savings.
"Your building is your own recipe," McMahan said. "There are lots of different paths to get to those certification levels."
The city also hopes to obtain a credit for "green education" by looping a short marketing video on TVs throughout the building, said Robbie Veurink, the events center project manager in the city's civil engineering department.
Veurink declined to release a copy of the LEED checklist because it's still in draft form.
"It's still an internal document," he said. "It changes quite frequently."
The Green Building Council is at work on LEED version four and, if history is any guide, it will include tighter efficiency standards.
Rich Ivey, a project engineer for the South Dakota Office of the State Engineer, has watched the standard become more rigorous over the years. With each iteration, he said, the floor is raised — and that, in turn, has affected how the engineer's office approaches all state construction projects.
"The LEED credits that we used — the green building strategies we used in the McCay Library Building, for example — is pretty much the baseline we use for other buildings across the state," Ivey said.