During the past several years, we have witnessed an incredible growth rate in green building projects. At times, it seems that the number of LEED-certified buildings is expanding almost exponentially. Building owners and developers are seeing that LEED certification results not only in a hugely positive environmental impact, and translates to a multiplicity of energy cost savings, but LEED status has also arrived at the place where it is a competitive and marketing advantage.

Certainly the convention-center industry—looking to attract the legion of green meeting planners and event promoters who care deeply about energy reduction, sustainable purchasing, green cleaning, and other sustainable principles—has joined the surge of markets seeking to achieve LEED certification for its properties.

In particular, in 2010 the Colorado Convention Center (CCC) in Denver announced its certification through LEED–EB, making it, at 2,300,980 gross square feet, the largest convention center certified under LEED-EB to date and one of the three largest convention facilities to earn LEED certification in the U.S. thus far.

The dynamics, challenges, and lessons learned in the CCC's certification process are offered here as a blueprint for the many commercial buildings that are sure to follow.


The most important dynamic in the City of Denver was the aim of city leaders, headed by now-Gov. John Hickenlooper, to make Denver one of the most sustainable cities in America. As a flagship site in the city, the convention center was a natural centerpiece of this vision and plan.

In 2004, the CCC underwent a $310 million major expansion that doubled the size of the facility to its current 2.3 million gross square feet. During the renovation, many green elements were installed under the design direction of local firm Fentress Architects, who was also the designer of the original CCC structure.

Following the expansion, the CCC began implementing additional sustainable practices and put in place a range of environmentally friendly policies aimed at increasing energy efficiency, conserving water, reducing waste, and assisting meeting and event planners with hosting carbon-neutral gatherings.


To date, about 6,000 properties have been LEED certified out of a more than 30,000,000 applications in the LEED database. Only 20 percent to 25 percent of registered buildings have actually made it through the process. Working through the LEED process with a convention center is a more complex undertaking as these spaces' unique aspects make the LEED process more nuanced.

For example, at the heart of LEED is the concept of reducing a structure's carbon footprint. By its nature, the goal of a convention center is to bring in more people, which more often than not means increasing a carbon footprint. In most buildings, the building owner dictates the operating schedule and policies, but in a convention center, the operating schedule is often dictated by the client. Lights get turned on when clients want them on, the lighting levels and temperature are set for what the client pays for, and the trash brought into the building is controlled by the client more so than by the building operator. In general, a very large portion of the energy, waste, and water—factors that help define a carbon footprint that the building uses is dictated by the people who rent it. Since the utility usage is in the occupants' control more so than the owner, strategies to reduce energy use and achieve LEED points are often more complicated.

Another nuanced aspect of convention centers is that most staff are mobile with undefined workstations. LEED has various points dedicated to proper workstation comfort such as lighting and thermal comfort, but at a convention center, the staff—housekeepers, engineers, lighting technicians, security, maintenance, concession stand workers, etc.—are working in what LEED would define as public space. This makes for interesting interpretations of workspaces and how employees interact with them. In one example, a goal of LEED's appropriate lighting credit is that employees should be in control of lighting in their workspaces and that all group workstations should have mounted task lights. However, at CCC, when not working on the floor, the electricians generally sit in a group workshops with hundreds of different lights. There are no mounted task lights as electricians can choose the right light out of their inventory to add supplemental light. So, while the CCC adheres to the concept of allowing electricians to control their own task lighting, it doesn't fit the LEED-prescribed method, and without mounted lights in that area, it did not meet LEED standards.

A third example pertains to the sheer size of convention centers: huge buildings with large staffs, third-party vendors, and flexible spaces. As a result, some credits require significant amounts of time to pursue and coordinate. Purchasing credits, for example, require examining all purchases made in a single category and can be very time consuming in a center where these items number over 1,000 per month.

The Colorado Convention Center was one of first convention centers to focus on sustainability, hiring Lindsay Smith as an in-house sustainability programs manager in 2008. But despite this dedicated green focus, Smith and her staff’s day-to-day commitment to create and implement green policies and to work with meeting planners did not allow sufficient time to manage the detailed LEED certification project.

In fact, it is not uncommon to see facilities register for LEED and then get bogged down with the enormous amount of work involved to get to the finish line. Often, at that point, management brings in an outside project director who is solely devoted to managing the complex LEED process. The convention center had been working on LEED for about a year when UHG Consulting was hired to help complete the process, and to help formalize CCC’s already established, sustainable initiatives.

This process included preparing the requisite documentation and a written manual with official policies. While CCC had begun to put LEED-worthy policies in place, such as a composting initiative, purchasing decisions to reduce mercury content in the center's light bulbs, and purchasing Green Seal–certified cleaning products, almost nothing was written down or formalized for people to access and reference.


The largest lesson learned in the process is how complex a LEED–EB project is compared to LEED–NC. A new building can be designed from the outset to meet LEED criteria. An existing building such as the Colorado Convention Center requires more effort in establishing, implementing, and documenting new green policies that translate to better operational efficiencies. You also have to manage and run the building at the same time you are documenting practices (and creating new ones) during the certification process.


The implementation of USGBC standards at the Colorado Convention Center translates to millions of dollars saved in operating costs for the City of Denver, a reduction in carbon emissions by over 26 percent, and the enhancement of Denver’s reputation as a healthy and desirable destination for events. In a 2008 study from the Watkins Research Group, 600 meeting planners rated the Colorado Convention Center as the third greenest center in the nation, and in January 2010, Denver was rated the world’s best city for conventions by an expert panel assembled by the Toronto Globe & Mail, one of Canada’s largest daily newspapers.

Notably, most of the savings to the Convention Center came from establishing a formal building operations plan under the direction of the chief building engineer, Tom Barnes. The main goal is to reduce the energy used in hours not controlled by clients, and Barnes created three operating states for the building: occupied, move-in/move-out, and unoccupied. During the unoccupied and move-in/move-out states, the CCC is set to run at much lower HVAC and lighting levels, effectively shutting off parts of the building not in use. In addition, the default occupied levels were changed to be more energy efficient.

CCC’s marketability has also certainly benefited. One example is that SnowSports Industries America promoted its huge January 2011 trade event with an entire website devoted to CCC’s LEED status.

Finally, upholding sustainability standards is a dynamic and evolving process. As a result of LEED certification, the Colorado Convention Center now has systems in place that enable CCC to track vital information and keep the facility advancing down the sustainability path. An annual sustainability report summarizes all initiatives in place, utility consumption, marketing and public relations efforts related to sustainability, and purchasing patterns. UHG Consulting also created a LEED maintenance spreadsheet to complement the report, which defines tasks that should be performed on a quarterly, semi-annual, and annual basis. As a result, the CCC now has systems in place to track each LEED credit achieved.

Darren Johnston is principal and co-founder of Boulder, Colo.–based UHG Consulting, a full service sustainability consulting firm specializing in design, administration, and support of sustainability initiatives ranging from waste reduction to LEED certification. UHG’s services include LEED consulting, property audits, energy audits, waste audits, project management, and green building. Johnston can be reached atdjohnston@uhgconsulting.com.