In St. Louis Park it is city policy to make sure that new and remodeled municipal buildings are built to "green" standards.
How green? For two new fire stations, it means high-efficiency boilers, energy-saving windows, lights that switch off when rooms are idle and state-of-the-art handling of storm water.
But city officials won't take the ultimate step of seeking LEED certification for its fire stations. They said it costs too much.
"It's like being a Minnesota Star City; it doesn't mean much," St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs said. "We've done a lot of the things that LEED certification does, but we don't have to pay the fees."
LEED, sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, is the gold standard for environmentally conscious development. But the cost of seeking certification, which can reach $70,000 for one building, has cash-strapped cities and counties passing on the chance to display LEED plaques on their buildings.
Edina, Richfield and Hennepin County have made decisions similar to St. Louis Park's in the past year.
New county libraries in Maple Grove and Plymouth use natural light for illumination, and the Maple Grove building uses a nearby pond to help heat and cool the building.
But the county hasn't -- and won't -- seek LEED certification for those or other projects, even though the honor has a cachet that's increasingly recognized.
"We've been asked about it, because LEED certification is becoming well known and has status and meaning for the general public," said Judy Hollander, the county's director of property services. "We have never sought LEED certification ... for reasons of cost."
Edina passed on LEED certification for its new public works building, as did Richfield for a public works building and a new municipal center that is under construction.
Both cities took pains to use sustainable design.
Going green without the seal
Edina's public works building uses geothermal heating and cooling, has recycled steel and flooring materials and employs daylight to light parts of the building. City public works director Wayne Houle said the building will earn about $65,000 in utility rebates for energy efficiency.
But Edina didn't apply for LEED certification, which it was told would cost $50,000 to $80,000.
"Why spend that to get a plaque on the wall saying this is a green building?" Houle said.
Richfield's new municipal center includes recycled materials, high-efficiency heating and cooling, extensive natural lighting and porous pavers. But City Manager Steve Devich said he couldn't justify LEED's expense.
"Is it great to have that kind of seal of approval on a building? Sure," he said. "But does it make a difference in the day-to-day functioning of the building for Richfield residents? No."
Dave Wisnewski, Hennepin County's division manager for design and construction, is a LEED-certified architect. The county follows state of Minnesota sustainable building guidelines instead of LEED. There are similarities, but Wisnewski said state guidelines are not as rigid as LEED's.
LEED has advanced partly through canny marketing and is especially attractive in leased buildings where certification can be used to boost rents, he said.
"But when you're building libraries or correctional facilities, you don't get that payback," Wisnewski said.
No one knows how many Minnesota cities and counties have passed on LEED certification. But Sheri Brezinka, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, said applications from public projects here are increasing. Five public projects were certified in 2009, eight in 2010 and one has been certified so far in 2011, she said.
Perhaps the highest profile LEED-certified project in Minnesota is Target Field, which received high marks for water re-use, recycled materials and other eco-friendly designs.
Minneapolis takes LEED
LEED certification is expensive because extensive documentation is required to track each step of a project, and teams of evaluators visit sites.
"I can certainly understand the cost issues and being accountable to taxpayers," Brezinka said. But she said the LEED process allows government to prove they're doing what they say they're doing with green construction.
Brezinka said LEED and state of Minnesota green building standards differ because the state measures do not require third-party verification.
"Guidelines can help set goals, but along the way shortcuts can be taken," she said. "My only caution is that counties or cities might not get what they think they're getting."
One city that is pursuing LEED certification for projects is Minneapolis.
The city's new Hiawatha Avenue public works building has earned gold status -- the second-highest LEED level -- and project manager Paul Miller hopes it will achieve platinum, the highest award.
"This is a story we're very proud of," Miller said. "We're at LEED platinum level and we did not increase our budget to get there."
Miller said careful pre-design work allowed the project to change along the way without big increases in the budget. The $11 million project had budgeted LEED costs of $50,000 to $80,000, but so far has spent only a bit more than $18,000, he said. Miller said he does not expect LEED costs to grow much more.
He said the LEED process is unique, forcing an owner to track a project accurately while keeping sustainability the top concern.
"It's much more than the plaque on the wall," he said. "We can defend the green integrity of the building."
In November, the Hiawatha building was named the Minnesota Public Works Association project of the year.
"This is the way of doing business now," Miller said. "LEED is out there as a national standard. ... I think this is a real responsible way to spend taxpayer dollars."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380