10,000 Certified Buildings Later LEED Aims for Market Transformation0

Brian Clark Howard | Wed Nov 30 2011 |

At the end of August, a community center in Santa Cruz, California became the 10,000th commercial building to earn certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The new Live Oak Family Resource Center is packed with efficiency and sustainable features, and earned LEED’s highest rating: Platinum.

“We were not aiming for LEED Platinum,” said the center’s director, Elizabeth Schilling. “We were aiming to produce an environmental and renewable center, and it came through for us.”

Schilling revealed that the property is “zero run-off,” meaning rainwater percolates into the ground on site thanks to permeable pavement and swales to hold overflow. The building takes advantage of natural coastal breezes and therefore required no artificial air conditioning. However, Schilling pointed out, “If you are using natural air, you don’t get any points toward your LEED certification for heating and cooling. I don’t agree with all their points structure, and you have to carefully engineer for all the points you’re going after.”

Schilling’s experiences highlight some of the benefits—and pitfalls—of the evolving LEED system.

LEED: The big name in green building

LEED is growing rapidly. It is the world’s best-known signifier of green buildings, something akin to an organic label on natural foods. Launched in 2000, LEED is active in 114 countries and certifies more than 1.4 million square feet of new and existing buildings every day.

Some 60,000 houses have earned the LEED for Homes certification, according to Scot Horst, the senior vice president of LEED. Other specific LEED programs include LEED for Schools, LEED for Retail, LEED for Healthcare, LEED for Commercial Interiors and LEED for Neighborhood Development.

Studies have shown that people tend to be more comfortable and more productive in green buildings.

About 40 percent of LEED-certified square footage is outside the U.S., with notable participation in Europe, Brazil, China, and Dubai. “We want LEED to be the global system, with a single standard that represents best practices,” Horst said. To get there, the USGBC is working on benchmarks with an international round table that includes delegates from 21 countries.

LEED isn’t the only green building standard around, though it is the best known. Rivals include Green Globes and a program of the National Association of Home Builders, both of which are cheaper and easier to earn. Numerous local standards also exist, many tailored to local climate and construction methods. Some are stricter than LEED but none are widely known.

How LEED works

To earn a LEED certification, a project manager pays the required registration and certification fees and submits documentation online proving compliance with the requirements of the applicable rating system. Fees run from a few thousand dollars to roughly ten thousand dollars, depending on building size. Certification can be granted at one of four levels (Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum) based on a score on a 100-point scale, which rewards such features as solar panels, low-VOC paints, recycled carpet, and geothermal heat pumps.

The LEED standards are developed by consensus, drawing on the USGBC’s 79 local affiliates and 16,000 member organizations, plus 168,000 credentialed professionals.

As for effectiveness, several 2008 studies found that LEED-certified buildings tended to command higher rents and sale prices and have higher occupancy rates. The buildings can have lower capitalization rates and therefore represent lower investment risk. Some studies have shown that people tend to be more comfortable and more productive in green buildings, which can provide a shot of positive public relations.

LEED’s broadening reach

LEED now serves an estimated $100 billion worth of commercial and residential real estate.

Still, Horst said, the value of LEED goes far beyond the plaques. “People use LEED criteria to design and manage their buildings even if they don’t certify. We can see the impacts,” he told us. Horst said waterless urinals and low-VOC paints are examples of green devices that got wider adoption as a result of inclusion in LEED.

Horst also pointed out that much local, state, and federal governments have incorporated LEED principles into their building codes, guidelines, or requirements for municipally funded projects. Standard building specifications have also been improved as a result of the efforts around LEED, Horst said. “Possibly 60 percent of construction is tied to LEED in some way,” Horst said. “It’s like changing the guts of the machine.”

The real game changer is a focus on performance and outcomes, and less on inputs.

To go further, the USGBC has been working on updates to its standards, to be unveiled during Greenbuild 2012. Horst told us they would include “significant” updates to the credit system.  “If we are really going to lead the market, we have to always be redefining what best practices are, what the next level of due diligence is, and what green building is,” said Horst. He hinted that we should expect to see “a real connection to building performance and data.”

Horst added, “The real game changer is a focus on performance and outcomes, and less on inputs. I don’t really care how well you model your building, I care about whether you use less energy and water, reduce carbon and have healthy, happy occupants. Those are outcomes, and we want to keep focusing on measuring those things,” Horst said.

LEED addresses its (many) critics

The proposed updates should help address some of the criticisms LEED has faced. Trying to get consensus from a broad range of stakeholders is no easy task, so it’s perhaps not surprising that LEED hasn’t pleased everyone.

Throughout the program’s history, some have argued that certification is too expensive and requires too much paperwork. As a result, each version of the standards has attempted to streamline the process, particularly as the system has moved online.

For her part, Elizabeth Schilling said that her community center sought certification for “a mix of long-term savings and wanting to be beneficial to the environment.” She added, “The certification process itself was helpful as it gave us goals to strive for and consider—it sort of set a bar.”

Some have complained that LEED doesn’t adequately reflect regional and climate differences. Horst explained that if LEED standards included detailed requirements for wood-burning stoves in New England—as some have asked for—it wouldn’t make sense in Florida, and it would make the whole system more complicated and difficult to administer.

Environmentalists often express outrage when a project they object to receives a LEED certification. A recent example is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico, the first part of which received LEED Gold status. The site features many energy efficiency features, and Virgin claims they are working hard to minimize greenhouse gases from their entire operation, including space flights. But that hasn’t stopped greens from criticizing the scale and “luxury” of the site.

Donovan Rypkema, a building preservationist with PlaceEconomics in Washington, says LEED stands for “Lunatic Environmentalists Enthusiastically Demolishing.” He accuses people of tearing down “perfectly good” and historic buildings, only to justify their actions by claming their new structures are LEED certified… even though they “won’t last as long and are covered with expensive green gizmos.”

Rypkema acknowledged that LEED seems to be getting “nominally better” for including more factors, but he said his biggest complaint is that it is “about green building, not sustainable development.”

Rypkema says LEED is misguided in putting most of its emphasis on efficiency, when it should be giving much more consideration to the embodied energy that is already in existing buildings. “There is a real backlash coming from the preservation community,” Rypkema said.

In a perfect world, you build a green building, then you certify it.

Horst points out that there is a significant push to include more lifecycle and embodied energy analysis for the next update, including better labeling that includes such information. He also responded to another common criticism—that LEED rewards expensive technology like solar panels more than “cheaper” solutions like awnings and planting vines—by saying that low-tech features typically get reflected in the fact that designers can put in smaller HVAC systems. “We don’t write the credits to tell you what to do, we tell you what we want you to accomplish,” he explained.

Schilling wasn’t the only one who complained that LEED’s points encourage people to game the system. Rypkema said he knows of a designer who added a bit of recycled carpet in the closet of a restoration project, simply so they could claim a point, even though they previously had no intention of using carpet.

Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, told us all systems have people who try to bend the rules, though that’s usually a minority. Schendler, a noted LEED critic, said, “You could argue that with 10,000 buildings it hasn’t been transformational in the sense of solving the bad building problem. It HAS been transformational in terms of awareness of green building.”

Schendler, who has worked on four LEED-certified projects, said his biggest complaint is that the program “was never a design guide, it’s a certification. In a perfect world, you build a green building, then you certify it.”

In response, Horst told us, “We don’t want to tell people how to design, we want to help them be the smartest they can be, to address things we think they might be missing. That’s how you get so many innovative designs.” Horst called the LEED process “magical,” adding, “It’s really a simple checklist, and people find commonality around it.”

Horst added, “It’s easy to write a series of credits that are punitive, but we are walking the edge between market acceptance and urgency to change.” He pointed to the fact that major companies like Kohl’s, Starbucks, and Intel are now looking at managing their entire building portfolios according to LEED principles.

Going beyond the building

Echoing perhaps the most philosophical criticism of LEED, Lloyd Alter complained that he visited a certified building, only to find the occupants using Styrofoam and toxic cleaning supplies, to which he asked, “what’s the point?”

Schendler said, “The idea of including occupant activity and avocation in rankings is a bit loony from one perspective. But the answer is a question: ‘Do we want to solve climate or not?’”

Horst revealed that USGBC is working on a recertifying program, in which building owners will be rewarded and encouraged to use their spaces efficiently. He said it made sense for LEED to focus on construction first, but that the program has generated so much data and knowledge that they can start working on more holistic problems, including eventually what people actually do inside buildings.

Horst said one step may be a dashboard that shows people how their actions are having an impact in their space. “Healthy systems have solid feedback mechanisms, and that’s what we’ll be able to do,” he said.

There’s certainly some indication LEED is on the right path. Schilling noted that her community center staff was so inspired by their new green building that they agreed to ban soda for the summer. “The building invoked that, and is leading to a healthier environment,” she said.