“A lot of those projects should be coming up for certification soon,” Cheatham explains, adding that the economy’s shaky condition is “setting the stage for a project not obtaining certification becoming the subject of litigation.”

Supporting these fears is data showing that the appearance of LEED in project specifications is on the rise; furthermore, it is rising on the more high-stakes projects. The number of project manuals referencing LEED increased to 25.9% in 2009 from 10.5% in 2006, according to McGraw-Hill Construction. In addition, LEED is referenced in 71% of the specifications for projects valued at $50 million and higher.

These green specifications are becoming more stringent, too. Years ago, a LEED certification would be a goal in a project document. More and more, it is becoming a requirement of the job. There simply is less wiggle room for firms working on a green building project.

“The door is closing,” says Michael Walters, sustainable market leader at Madison, Wis.-based Affiliated Engineers Inc., a Greenbuild exhibitor. At the AEI booth, staffers handed out T-shirts with bull’s-eyes, calling on owners to judge a green building based on its “absolute” performance metrics rather than by a LEED plaque hanging in the lobby.

Beyond LEED

How to achieve real efficiency, not just how to gain a LEED plaque, was the subject of much talk at Greenbuild. New products on display and discussed in seminars reflected that attitude.

Farr gave a presentation on Chicago’s first zero-net-energy home, which his firm designed for Michael Yannell, a pharmacist and animal-rights activist. They have teamed up again to build a zero-net-energy cat shelter on the city’s North Side.

In another seminar, Chicago Dept. of Transportation’s Janet Attarian talked about how the city has migrated its Green Alleys program to city streets. As project director for Chicago streetscapes, Attarian is leading a project that is reconstructing a thoroughfare on the city’s South Side. Using permeable pavements, bioswales and other technologies, the city intends to divert from storm sewers 100% of rainwater from two-year storms reaching the road.

On the exhibit floor, Johnson Controls said it has teamed up with French solar-technology company Concentrix to sell concentrator photovoltaic systems (CPVs) in the U.S. The CPVs, which use gallium arsenide instead of silicone, mount on 12- to 15-ft-high poles, track the sun using a computer-controlled servo mechanism.

“You have land use underneath it,” says Don Albinger, Johnson Controls vice president, adding that the units cost 20% more than silicone but are two to three times more efficient. The company is seeking investors to develop a 1-MW plant in Mesa, Ariz., consisting of 160 70-kW poles. “What the industry needs is scale to drive the cost down,” Albinger says.

Daintree Networks, a Colorado-based exhibitor that is partly owned by Australia-based Lend Lease’s private-equity fund, was showing a wireless lighting controller designed to aid in retrofitting existing buildings to meet green standards.

“Only about 7% of North American commercial buildings have advanced lighting controls,” says Danny Yu, CEO of Daintree. He declines to comment on how much the controls cost but says that one client using them in 60 buildings sees a payback in two years.

Another wireless control, called the “modlet” (which stands for “modern outlet”), was introduced. It plugs into a conventional 110-V outlet and monitors plug loads, which make up about 25% of a commercial building’s energy use, according to ThinkEco Inc., which offers the units for $40 retail.

The modlet will automatically turn off devices, such as vending machines and printers, when not in use and display energy usage on the web for facility managers and homeowners. It will turn devices back on when building occupants need to use them. ThinkEco says it plans to unveil a six-outlet surge protector ($75) and an in-wall receptacle (pricing not yet available) next year.

Electric cars are coming, and according to General Electric, which displayed a new charging station at Greenbuild, roughly three million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2013. Each car will need about 1.5 chargers.

GE’s new charger, called the WattStation, is designed to make refueling these vehicles more attractive. Attendees couldn’t resist touching the screen, which was non-functional and resembled an iPod, the display of which will detail information about the charge session and allow for credit-card swipes.

Costing about $3,000 for a street model (a garage version is available for about half the price), WattStation will be available next year. It requires a dedicated 40-amp line and is rated for 240 V, which is what GE says you need to charge an electric car in four to eight hours.