Special Report: Reorganization

Oct. 1, 2008

As the USGBC prepares to debut an extensively revised version of its rating system, market realities continue to dictate whether buildings earn LEED certification.

By Douglas R. Kelly

It's hard to remember a time when sustainable buildings weren't in the news; weren't being discussed around water coolers and in board meetings; and weren't on nearly everyone's radar screens. The roots of the green movement go back a long way—anywhere from 40 to 100 years, depending on who you talk to—but one of the key drivers to bringing the built environment into alignment with sustainable practices has been the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Rating System.

Launched in 2000, the LEED initiative brought together a diverse set of processes, systems, and product types and codified them into a set of criteria for measuring a building's environmental performance. Architects, builders, owners, and designers now had a checklist for "going green," and building projects around the United States began to include plans for including and/or upgrading to environmentally beneficial systems. As time went on, and more and more buildings achieved certification, the LEED stamp of approval gained a good deal of traction in the marketplace as it elevated awareness of the need to address key sustainability issues.

But there were growing pains. Critics of the program charged that the drive to achieve LEED certification had become the primary goal for many organizations, rather than environmental responsibility. The public relations and marketing benefits of being "seen to be green" became a powerful motivator for some organizations, and that's a measure of the effectiveness with which LEED has penetrated the market: It has become the dominant "brand" in the green building sector—the standard to which many architects, designers and owners aspire.

Still, the realities of business demand that these professionals focus their organization's efforts and money on solutions that offer a measurable return on investment. "We're not interested in LEED in order to provide feel-good marketing," says George Eichert, senior vice president of administrative services at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, VA. "We support green and LEED in the broad sense, but primacy is neither green nor LEED; it's to our membership and [economic considerations]. So we look to do things that ultimately drive the best business case from the infrastructure perspective. This includes energy efficiency decisions where the economic payback today, and in the future—as we consider rising energy costs—is good. We're commissioning our new buildings in Florida and getting them LEED-certified, but we're not pursuing LEED certification on our existing buildings."

Another challenge that became apparent as projects moved through the LEED certification process involved the various rating systems—New Construction, Core and Shell, Existing Buildings, and so on—having varying numbers of points. The USGBC saw this as potentially creating confusion in the market, particularly when comparing point totals across two or more of the categories (as in the case of owners who may be considering LEED certification for a portfolio of buildings).

ENTER LEED V3These marketplace realities, along with others that will be considered a bit later on, caused the USGBC to undertake an in-depth review of the LEED Ratings System—an exercise that resulted in a proposed overhaul to the program for 2009. The USGBC has taken pains to present LEED version 3 (or v3 as it's known) as a re-organization of the existing rating system, not a tear-down-and-rebuild operation. In a May 1 letter to the USGBC board of directors, the LEED steering committee noted, "Much has been invested in the current LEED system and, as a direct result, a concerted effort has been made to ensure that LEED 2009 capitalizes on the existing market momentum. Consequently, the LEED steering committee has created a LEED structure that will be familiar to those versed in the current LEED Rating System. Most of the structural and technical changes incorporated into LEED 2009 were designed to create a LEED Rating System that can be part of a continuous improvement cycle."

There are three components to LEED v3. One is what the USGBC calls LEED 2009, which is made up of the updates and revisions to the LEED Rating System; next is the revision and evolution of the LEED certification process; and last is the upgraded Web-based suite of tools known as LEED Online. For our purposes here, we will focus on the LEED 2009 revisions. (To learn more about the new certification model and the upgraded LEED Online, see "The Thinking Behind Version 3.")

The varying point structure mentioned earlier is being addressed by the LEED 2009 revisions as part of the "re-weighting," or point re-allocation, of LEED credits. In the past, LEED didn't have a consistent criteria for giving point values to its credits. LEED 2009 utilizes what the USGBC is calling a "weightings" process that more accurately and consistently evaluates the environmental and human benefits of each LEED credit. One result is a standardizing of the point totals to 100 points in each of the LEED programs. "It will certainly help people compare LEED programs (New Construction vs. Existing Buildings, etc.), and it will make it easier to talk to owners who might have little experience with LEED and green building," says Elaine Aye, principal at Portland, OR-based Green Building Services. "The main benefit of the 100-point system is that it makes it possible to weight credits by assigning them different numbers of points. One credit no longer necessarily equals one point."

Since its inception eight years ago, there have been questions surrounding the way LEED performs (or doesn't perform) true Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of sustainable products and systems. The credits within the Materials and Resources (M&R) section more or less were proxies for LCA-type credits, but they were limited to addressing only single attributes. LEED 2009 will address this shortcoming by incorporating a multi-attribute evaluation within the rating system that will gradually replace the credits within the M&R section. Will this enable better decision-making when evaluating products and systems? "Absolutely," says Mychele Lord, principal of Lord Green Real Estate Strategies in Dallas, Texas. "We didn't necessarily know what was in food [products] until food labeling was required, and look at the benefits that's created. This will help educate people about what's in a product, where it comes from, how it's made, and so on. I think they're moving in the right direction on this."

Aye points out that the USGBC is intentionally stacking the deck with this initiative, to drive increased use of proven sustainable tools. "The intent is to encourage project teams to select strategies and products that have the most important environmental impacts by rewarding them with more points. This ‘tilted playing field' makes it harder for projects that score poorly in the Energy & Atmosphere category (the category with the most weight in every program) to reach certification levels."

Another key revision in LEED 2009 addresses regional credit considerations. Until now, LEED provided little in the way of acknowledging the differences between buildings in different regions of the United States. For example, an owner in Las Vegas faces serious water conservation issues and installs systems and equipment that target these challenges. But his or her counterpart in Buffalo, NY, where water conservation is far less of an issue, benefits by not having to devote the same kind of resources to those kinds of systems. Such imbalances will be targeted by LEED 2009, adding value to the existing credits in the Innovation & Design (ID) bonus point section of the rating system. By assigning regionally-based additional weight to existing credits—additional weight that will be determined by the USGBC's regional Councils and Chapters—a building project will be able to earn bonus points for addressing environmental issues that are specific to that part of the country. Lord believes this kind of structure will help motivate project leaders to focus more on such regionally important issues. "Because when something costs [an owner], they think twice about it. If they're incentivized with additional points when it costs them, that will [get their attention]. Incentives work extremely well in the real estate industry," she says.

TIMELINEThe USGBC is a member-driven organization, and that fact has been evident in the way the Council has gone about developing and vetting LEED v3. The revised system has gone through two rounds of public comment, and the LEED steering committee has received and analyzed a large volume of questions, suggestions and ideas as it prepares to debut the new version. As this is being written in late September, the USGBC is on track to announce the roll-out of LEED v3 at Greenbuild, November 19-21 in Boston. The actual launch of the reorganized system will be January 2009, although the LCA component will be phased in gradually during the course of the year (see "Evolving Tools" for more information).

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