LEED-ing the Way

Exploring some of the most ecofriendly public buildings in the United States.


A Tennessee movie theater. A Michigan art museum and a bus terminal. An Illinois business park. These public buildings in the United States may seem like a random group, much like the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” However, behind the wizard’s curtain, these structures have one thing in common—they are all green. Not Emerald City green, but ecofriendly.

These buildings are all LEED-certified. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a “green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices.” To receive LEED certification, buildings and other projects need to meet a series of prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification, like Silver, Gold and Platinum.

According to the Chicago Tribune, “by using less energy and water, LEED-certified buildings save money for families, businesses and taxpayers; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and contribute to a healthier environment for residents, workers and the larger community.”


Rapid Central Station and Rapid Operations Center, Michigan
A busy urban bus terminal, chockablock with 40-foot vehicles, might not be the most ecofriendly place imaginable. But in Grand Rapids, Michigan, there’s just such a place, called The Rapid, which includes Rapid Central Station and Rapid Operations Center.

Rapid Central Station was given a LEED-certified rating in 2004, making it the first LEED rating for a public transit facility in the United States.

In 2012, The Rapid opened its operations center, renovated and expanded at a cost of $31 million. It has earned a Gold rating, the second-highest LEED certification.

The operations center is where all of The Rapid’s hundreds of buses are maintained, and employees are trained. It also houses a dispatch center. The main green features of Rapid Operations Center are:

    -    A bus wash water reclamation system that saves nine million gallons of water annually.
    -    A 40,000-square-foot green roof.
    -    Increased natural light and natural ventilation.
    -    Radiant floor heating in the bus garage.
    -    Energy-efficient high-speed garage doors.


Green Exchange, Illinois
The Green Exchange business park is aptly called “A timeless building ahead of its time.” The 272,000-square-foot former factory has been converted into an ecofriendly office space that earned LEED Platinum certification in 2013.

The building is one of Chicago’s architectural gems, first housing an undergarments factory over a 100 years ago, and later, the Cooper Lighting Company. Energy-guzzling lighting has been eschewed at the new, green iteration of the space. The LEED-awarded structure now features a sky garden with a future on-site restaurant, as well as expansive meeting and event spaces, available to both tenants and the public.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Green Exchange earned its accolades for “energy use, lighting, water and material use, as well as incorporating a variety of other sustainable strategies,” which includes “a state-of-the-art green roof, an organic garden, a chicken coop, a 41,329 gallon rain cistern to allow water to be captured and reused, energy-efficient windows, an energy-efficient escalator, and much more.”

The businesses that are housed within Green Exchange are equally eco-conscious: Greenhouse Loft, a sustainable meeting and event space; WeFarm America, which offers customized organic gardens for homes and businesses; Rainforest Learning Center, an environmental art-based pre-school and infants program; and Ale Syndicate, an environmentally-conscious microbrewery, among others.

“It is such a high honor to be recognized by the USGBC and to become LEED-certified,” says David Baum, president of Baum Development, the company that developed Green Exchange. “We are creating a collaboration—a platform that allows individuals and businesses to ‘exchange their green ideas’ and learn from one another in a positive way.”


Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan
Grand Rapids, Michigan, has one of the highest concentrations of ecofriendly and awarded buildings in the United States.

In 2012 alone, a brewery, a college and an office building were added to the LEED list. According to Mayor George Heartwell, “Grand Rapids is known to have the highest number of LEED-certified projects per capita.”

In 2008, fine art joined the green team in the form of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The 125,000-square-foot museum, which occupies a full city block, was designed to be as beautiful on the outside as the works of art within.

The new building of the Grand Rapids Art Museum was designed specifically with LEED Gold certification in mind. Making a museum ecofriendly is especially challenging because, unlike other structures, it has to maintain a specific temperature, 24 degrees Celsius and 50 percent humidity, in order to keep the delicate artworks in good shape. Museums expend energy maintaining that balance.

According to, Grand Rapids Art Museum’s climate “is controlled by excellent insulation and building materials (20 percent of which are recycled) and a high-efficiency HVAC, heating, ventilating and air conditioning, that features an ‘energy recovery wheel’ system (as warm air is cycled outside, heat and humidity are transferred to incoming air, regulating temperature). The structure is also designed to receive 70 percent of its light from natural sources, and water-efficient fixtures complement an on-site rain and gray water reuse system that reduces water consumption by 20 percent.”

According to architecture website ArchDaily, the museum’s design “stresses both the symbolic need of a museum to be a civic icon within the city, plus fulfilling humanistic needs for people to have their own experience with art. It is grand in its presence, and intimate in the experience, working in harmony.”


Carmike Cinemas’ Majestic 12, Tennessee
When you think of a luxury movie theater, you most likely imagine the lights going down as you settle back into a plush seat and feast on buttered popcorn, while the opening credits roll. What you don’t imagine is that the movie screen is being lit up by solar power. Also, the water you just washed your hands with in the bathroom was collected through rainwater harvesting. Even the walls of the theater are made of recycled material.

Majestic 12, a premium movie theater in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is out to change the perception that entertaining can’t be ecofriendly. The 12-screen, 2,500 seat theater is part of the Carmike Cinemas chain based in Georgia. But, it is a little different from the rest. Built for $12 million in 2010, Majestic 12 is the first movie theater in the United States to receive a LEED Gold certification for not only its use of solar power, but also its low-energy lighting and use of recycled rainwater in bathrooms and for landscaping.

According to, Majestic 12 also boasts of “the use of low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, finishes, carpets and adhesives; the use of recycled content and local building materials; a high percentage of recycled construction waste; and a public transit-friendly location right off a stop on Chattanooga’s electric bus line.”

Other movie theaters have tried to implement similar ecofriendly attributes. For example, in 2004, the Palm Theater in San Luis Obispo, California, became the first completely solar-powered theater in the United States. In 2011, the AMC Randhurst 12 in Mount Prospect, Illinois, joined Majestic 12 by receiving a LEED Silver certification.

But the 70,000-square-foot Majestic 12 remains the first of its kind to implement such advanced ecofriendly modifications. Now that’s simply majestic!


Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.