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The unique benefits of parking garage sustainability
Maren Meyers and Michael Arny

by Maren Meyers and Michael Arny — November 2017

Parking structures may be considered just a peripheral concern in the minds of many facility managers, but their importance in the realm of green buildings has gained the increasing attention of professionals working to improve the sustainability of the built environment at both the micro- and macro-levels, that is, from individual building design and technology to the scale of urban and community planning.

Vehicle parking lies at the intersection of our built environment and the transportation networks that connect people to it. If one considers parking facilities in their many forms, from stand-alone structures to part of mixed-use facilities to surface lots, it becomes easy to conceptualize how parking infrastructure comprises one of the largest land uses in urban areas. Consider also, that parking is an intermediary means to connect the building and transportation sector—the two largest drivers of global emissions (Rodrigue, 2016).

Enter Parksmart®, formerly the Green Garage Certification Program, which was acquired by the Green Business Certification Institute (GBCI) in January 2016. This relatively new standard aims to capture the unique opportunity that parking facilities present in addressing the sustainability of both the building and transportation sector. Today it exists as the “only rating system advancing sustainable mobility through smarter parking structure design and operation” (McCadden, 2016).

The Parksmart standard is structured in the same way as LEED® by awarding points for specific criteria met. It awards points under the categories of Management, Programs, Technology and Structure Design, and Innovation. 90-109 points earns the applicant “Pioneer” status, 110-134 points earns Bronze, 135-159 earns Silver, and over 160 points earns the structure Gold certification, with the requirement that one must earn at least 20 points in each category (with the exception of Innovation, which allows a maximum of 6 points earned). The Management category addresses management-level elements such as price of parking, cleaning procedures, building systems commissioning, and others. The Programs category assesses the presence of additional programs such as wayfinding systems, carshare and rideshare programs, bicycle sharing, maintenance, and access to mass transit. The Technology and Structure Design category addresses more direct resource use by the structure itself and awards points based on elements such as idle reduction payment systems, lighting controls, EV charging, water efficiency, durability, and more.

For those who have already achieved or are pursuing LEED certification for their building, it is likely that a significant portion of Parksmart points have already been earned for the corresponding parking area if that parking area is contained within the LEED project boundary. In fact, many synergies exist between the LEED BD+C and O+M rating systems (v4 and v2009). Depending on the rating system and level of LEED certification pursued, applicants can automatically earn up to 12 points by submitting a LEED and Parksmart application simultaneously, thus reducing the submittal labor burden and intentionally expanding sustainable transportation opportunities to building visitors and tenants.

The ROI and cost saving opportunities may not be immediately apparent for Parksmart projects. After all, parking structures tend to be expensive. The Parking Structure Cost Outlook for 2017 states that “as of March 2017, [our] statistical data indicates that the median construction cost for a new parking structure is $19,700 per space and $59.06 per square foot, increasing 3.5% from March 2016” (Cudney, 2017). However, returns on investment for such projects can be found in many of the same places as conventional building projects, such as resource use and operations efficiency. For example, “The University of Minnesota upgraded the lighting in all 18 of its parking facilities at its Minneapolis campus to energy-efficient LED lighting and implemented lighting controls. As a result, the university achieved 90 percent energy savings and a 29 percent return on investment in just the first year” (Leinart, 2015). Exhaust sensors can reduce fan runtime and electricity use while still maintaining optimal air quality. EV charging stations can enhance property value ROI by providing a much-needed amenity for owners of electric vehicles.

Yet these micro-level technologies added to new or existing parking structures are not the only innovations shifting the cost considerations of sustainable parking projects. Changes in vehicle technology and human habits are beginning to change the very architectural concepts employed in designing parking structures. The impending proliferation of alternative fuel vehicles and trends away from using single passenger cars in dense urban areas has led city planners, designers, and builders to consider future purposes for parking garages that may not include parking at all. A recent article in WIRED illustrates this phenomenon:

 “The tower at 4th and Columbia will be the tallest in Seattle, a 1,029-foot, $290 million monument to the city’s recent, tech-flavored success. Residential units, a hotel, office space, retail, eight floors of underground parking…And, if the current plans are approved, the tower will include a quirky twist: four levels of above-grade parking, designed to someday take on new life as apartments and offices” (Marshall, 2016).

Marshall further details that the life of this parking structure should span 50-100 years, far beyond that of a conventional parking garage, which typically have an initial service life of 30-40 years (Nam Shiu, n.d.). It is unique because it has been designed to be retrofitted and repurposed—in other words, to maximize the use of previously developed land as much as possible.

The LEED rating system has long encouraged this concept through the Sustainable Sites credit category, which emphasizes that the most sustainable way to build is by not building at all, but rather by using a previously built structure on already-developed land in high density areas, or areas where other goods and services are accessible by alternative modes of transportation such as walking, bicycling, or mass transit.

While the Parksmart standard does not yet go as far as to encourage parking garage design for future repurposing (though the concept could be proposed as an innovation credit), it does indeed take advantage of an opportunity to address the environmental problems posed by the growing number of motorized vehicles in the world today, and the shifting ways humans choose to move from point A to point B.



Cudney, G. (2017). Parking Structure Cost Outlook. Retrieved from http://www.carlwalker.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/2017-Cost-Article.pdf.

Leinart, M. (2015). Sustainability and Parking. Retrieved from http://www.parking.org/2016/02/12/tpp-2015-12-sustainability-and-parking/.

Marshall, A. (2016). It’s Time To Think About Living In Parking Garages. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2016/11/time-think-living-old-parking-garages/.

McCadden, L. (2016). GBCI to Administer Green Garage Certification Program. Retrieved from http://www.gbci.org/gbci-administer-green-garage-certification-program.

Nam Shiu, K. Extending The Service Life Of Parking Structure: A Systematic Repair Approach. Retrieved from https://www.chamberlinltd.com/extending-the-service-life-of-parking-structures-a-systematic-repair-approach/.

Rodrigue, J-P. (2017). The Environmental Impacts of Transportation. Retrieved from https://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch8en/conc8en/ch8c1en.html.

Leonardo Academy is a nonprofit organization that develops sustainability solutions through consultation and certification services in the LEED Green Building Rating System and the Cleaner & Greener sustainable event program. Leonardo Academy also provides sustainability and continuing education training, including training for the LEED Green Associate credential for individuals who support green buildings in their profession, such as building owners and facility managers.

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