Developing Stories: Greening the Neighborhood

Mueller earns LEED-ND

An aerial view of the Mueller development, looking southwest
An aerial view of the Mueller development, looking southwest
Photo courtesy of Catellus Development Group

It's not just hometown pride – on a national level, the Mueller neighborhood is now certifiably special. That's the word from the U.S. Green Building Council, which in a pilot program just designated Mueller a LEED Silver certified plan. The new USGBC designation promotes sustainability for whole neighborhoods and larger mixed-use projects; previously, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system applied only to single structures. But critics pointed to the need for a rating system that looked beyond a building's walls. (How sustainable, for example, would a 200,000-square-foot LEED Platinum Wal-Mart be that still encourages driving several miles to shop?)

So LEED for Neighborhood Development takes the next step for sustainability and climate protection by establishing standards that integrate the principles of smart growth, urbanism, and green building into a national program for mixed-use and neighborhood design. Befitting Texas, Mueller is at least double the size of most other pilot projects certified under the new designation.

As one of the nation's first LEED-ND projects, Mueller now will serve as a closely reviewed model for other sustainable developments across the country. The LEED-ND rating system was collaboratively developed by USGBC, Congress for the New Urban­ism, and Natural Resources Defense Council to provide independent, third-party verification for large-scale projects. Its creators hope that local governments adopt the rating system for use in incentive programs, new standards, and as an evaluation tool.

The Eastside master-planned community on the 700-acre site of Austin's old airport is a joint public-private project created by the city of Austin and master developer Catellus and shaped by community input over nearly two decades. It's perhaps the most visible symbol of Austin's commitment to sustainability. Catellus retained Gail Vittori, the 2009 chair of the USGBC's board of directors, as a project consultant from the outset, at a time when LEED itself was new. So Mueller and LEED-ND have shaped each other as they evolved on parallel tracks from 2003 to 2009.

"Without knowing exactly what the checklist would be for LEED-ND," said Catellus President Greg Weaver this week, "we felt like Mueller would be a great example from the beginning."

"Mueller's strength as a green community begins with its central location, which helps increase urban density, slow Central Texas sprawl, and, ultimately, reduce commute times and auto emissions," said Vittori, a nationally recognized expert and co-director of the Austin-based Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. "Yet Mueller has also achieved many sustainable milestones along the way in terms of its land use, building design, construction efforts, and property owner commitments. All of these endeavors have resulted in a comprehensive approach to sustainability."

The Ripple Effect

The LEED-ND rating system benefited from 2½ years of market and user feedback and from real projects such as Mueller. There's a 100-point rating scale, with simple certification requiring 40 points in addition to required elements. Mueller scored 51 points; a minimum of 50 is needed to earn LEED Silver certification. Prerequisites include, in Smart Location & Linkage, for example, protection of species and eco-communities, wetlands and water bodies, and agricultural land, as well as floodplain avoidance. Requirements in Neighborhood Pattern & Design include walkable streets, compact development, and a connected and open (not gated) community.

LEED-ND includes tiered Silver, Gold, and Platinum designations. Asked if he was satisfied with Silver, Weaver said he still has his eye on the Gold: "There's a chance for us to improve on this." He explained that Catellus' 2004 commitment to green building at Mueller actually predated LEED residential standards; for that reason, the project uses Austin Energy standards (three stars required), which don't directly translate to points in the LEED-ND rating system. But he said the newest homes, some of which now are five-star certified, "may get us up to Gold." Plus, there's another decade of building to go. When completed, Mueller will include nearly 4,600 homes, a town center district, 4 million square feet of commercial space, 650,000 square feet of retail space, and 140 acres of parks and open space – and hopefully rail transit, an integral part of the plan's sustainability.

"Mueller was an opportunity to be at the table and help shape – through Gail Vittori – the pilot project," Weaver observed. Early on, LEED-ND was looking at 10-acre projects, so it was a stretch to even include a project on Mueller's scale. "Gail educated us and helped us understand a lot of the components of green building." ProLogis, the parent company of Catellus, since has made it policy that every new building it owns or controls worldwide will seek LEED certification or an equivalent.

Weaver also noted that Mueller has served to educate many local home builders, construction companies, subcontractors, and suppliers on green building. That knowledge base is now benefiting the whole city and region in a ripple effect, he said; companies have gained experience meeting the rigorous standards, such as recycling 50% of construction waste. Said Weaver, "Home builders now see that it's a competitive advantage in Austin to be able to deliver a green building project."

Mueller's LEED designation is timely, as Austin focuses increasingly on sustainability and climate action as core communitywide values. "Muel­ler continues to serve as a model for sustainable development in Central Texas," said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. "It's incredibly rewarding at this point to see Mueller receive this designation for the ongoing sustainability efforts."


USGBC will open registration for new projects seeking LEED-ND certification in 2010; the rating system and a project checklist are online at www.usgbc.org.

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