In LEED 2009, with the introduction of the Regional Priority (RP) credit area, an interesting fact emerged. In most major metropolitan regions, Sustainable Site credit 3 (SSc3), Brownfield Redevelopment, is identified as a regional priority and eligible for an additional point (California and Maryland, two states with a history of tighter environmental regulation, are notable exceptions). This is due largely to the fact that brownfields themselves, although also found in rural areas, tend to be a particularly urban problem.
Not only are brownfield sites much more numerous in the urban fabric, the real estate that they occupy tends to be in much more densely developed areas and have a greater financial potential. Problems related to both human health impacts and economic damage are therefore more acute. Given the above, it might be considered reasonable to award more than 1 point for brownfield redevelopment, and indeed the draft changes to LEED 2012 seem to suggest that it will be worth 2 points when the new rating system is adopted. However, selecting a brownfield site may already provide more opportunity for LEED points than SSc3 and RP credits alone can offer, and the opportunities are tied to the particularly urban character of the problem.
There are of course many variables when dealing with a brownfield site, and no one solution fits all of the scenarios. Every site is unique in its location, situation, and surroundings, and not every point of this discussion will apply to all sites. That being said, there are certain trends in urban brownfields that make them likely to be eligible for a number of other credits in the Sustainable Site (SS) credit area and this article will look at the decision to remediate urban brownfields as being central to a strategy to achieve those credits.
SSc1, Site Selection, is in essence a list of proscriptions. The intent is to discourage the selection of inappropriate sites for development. “Inappropriate sites” in this context refers to sites that perform an important ecological or human function, without being developed, e.g. greenfield sites near waterways, habitat for threatened species, or prime farmland. A brownfield site will often be previously developed, and therefore bypasses the proscriptions for sites within 50 feet of a body of water or sites lower than 5 feet below the 100 year flood plain. In urban areas, a brownfield site is unlikely to be considered prime farmland or habitat for a threatened species. Therefore, if the site is not within 100 feet of an identified wetland, it is highly likely that the brownfield will be eligible for SSc1.
Given that brownfield sites tend to be in urban areas, they are more likely to be eligible for those SS credits that are designed to encourage density, promote development in areas that are already developed, and encourage linkages between the built environment and alternative transportation modes. Specifically, SSc2 (Development Density and Community Connectivity) and SSc4.1 (Access to Public Transit) are likely to be within the reach of many brownfield sites.
A site within a previously developed urban fabric is likely to meet the density requirement (option 1) of SSc2, which requires a minimum density of 60,000 sq.ft. per acre. This equates roughly to an average 2 story development district. A former dry cleaner or gas station (two of the most common brownfield sites) within a commercial district is furthermore likely to be eligible for the community connectivity requirement (option 2). For this option, there must be pedestrian access to a residential district and various other services within a half mile of the building, which is easily achieved in most urban commercial districts. For either option, it is further required that the site selected must be “previously developed.” As stated above, most (though not all) brownfield sites are previously developed, having been contaminated by past use. The only exception is a site contaminated by the use of a neighboring lot, but even these will typically have had at least some past use and qualify as previously developed.
For SSc4.1, as public transit is generally denser in urban areas, whether it be bus or light rail, a brownfield is more likely to be located within the requisite distance from a rail station or bus stops. Each city is of course different in its approach to public transit, and poses its own unique challenges to achieving this credit, but all things considered an urban environment is generally more likely to be amenable to public transit connection. There have even been cases of developers working with municipalities to add bus stops to existing lines to support brownfield remediation projects.
If SSc2, Development Density and Community Connectivity, is achieved, the requirements for certain other credits are reduced or favorably altered. SSc5.1 and 5.2 allow for vegetated roofs to count toward the calculation of open space and habitat only if SSc2 is met. Since SSc2 is likely to be met by an urban brownfield, these additional options for SSc5.1 and 5.2 are likely to be available. This could significantly reduce the challenges the design team faces in achieving these credits.
Much of the remainder of the SS credit area has to do with design and planning, and is therefore not directly affected by the choice of whether to develop a brownfield or not. However, the 7 credits discussed here which are entirely dependant upon the selection of the site all are favorably affected by the choice to develop an urban brownfield. This represents 16 possible points for New Construction projects, or roughly 60% of the points available in the SS section. Since the remaining points are based entirely on design and specification decisions, the remaining points are not necessarily made any more difficult to achieve in choosing a brownfield remediation project.
There are many difficulties and potential setbacks in brownfield remediation, but the potential rewards to a successful brownfield remediation project are commiserate with the associated risk. Furthermore, state and federal government programs provide some financial support (depending on availability of funds), and local governments are often eager to provide what support they are able. State revolving loan funds for brownfield cleanup, initially funded by the EPA, are available to anyone other than the owner at the time of contamination. Cities often view the remediation of brownfield sites as imperative to economic revitalization efforts.
In summation, brownfield remediation not only benefits the community and city in question, providing economic stimulation and removing a potential health risk, it can provide an excellent jump start to a green building team seeking LEED certification. By removing barriers to some credits and fitting intrinsically with others, the choice to remediate an urban brownfield is an excellent start to maximizing the potential points in the Sustainable Sites credit area.