Evolving Tools

Oct. 1, 2008


Editor's note: The following is a transcript of Stamats Business Media Editorial Director Douglas R. Kelly's July 2008 interview with Brendan Owens, the USGBC's vice president for LEED technical development.

Kelly: Brendan, let's start with the Life Cycle Assessment [LCA] piece of LEED v3. What's the thinking behind bringing LCA into LEED?Owens: I think the buildings industry, over the last eight years, since LEED has been in the market, has changed in really profound ways ... faster than we probably ever could have expected it to change, and LEED is a driving force behind all of that. There's now an opportunity to rethink the way we built the rating system. If you look at the way LEED was built, from a New Construction standpoint, out of the gate in 2000, the credits and the Materials and Resources [MR] section represent proxies for Life Cycle Assessment-based thinking ... recycled content, or local regional materials, or biobased materials. Those are single-attribute LCA analysis tools.

And in a lot of ways, the education that the market has received as a result of the discussion of those issues enables us to have a much broader discussion now about integrating those things and looking at those things holistically. So we're moving from single-attribute screening to multi-attribute screening. When you sort of make that ‘leap,' what you're talking about is true Life Cycle Assessment.

Kelly: So with single attribute, you're talking about one piece of a product's entire profile ...Owens: Right. Example: We've optimized this table here for recycled content ... and that's a fine thing to do. But where is that recycled material coming from? Is it coming from China? So all these other things that you have to look at holistically, and side by side, [moves this from being] a single-attribute screening to a multi-attribute screening that really lets you get at the truly best choice, rather than the best choice for a single attribute.

So that was our thinking when we started doing this. We're not throwing away all the credits and starting over again; we're trying to repackage them in a way that allows us to set up a continuous improvement framework.

Kelly: The LCA piece has been discussed for four or five years now ...Owens: Yeah, it really has.Kelly: Will it be included as part of LEED v3?Owens: It will be brought in as a pilot this year. We're going to pilot test these credits, because the actual work that needed to be done wasn't done in time for all of the procedural approvals, and that's really more about public comment deadlines and those types of things. So probably in the third or fourth quarter this year, we're going to be [fielding] an LCA-based credit. The existing LEED credits will [continue to] exist-you know, MR credit 4 that everybody's familiar with, is going to exist as a compliance path. And then what we're talking about is establishing an alternative LCA-based compliance path. And those two things will run concurrently for a period of time.

What's going to happen is, over time, the numbers of points that are available to people using the single-attribute path are going to shrink. Because of that, we think the market is going to shift towards the LCA approach, and we'll just gradually phase out the single-attribute credits in favor of the LCA approach.

Kelly: So the LCA credits will eventually replace existing M&R credits?Owens: Right, that's what they'll do. You can have the choice to do it the way it's always been done, or you can do it the new way. And initially, really, the only people who are going to be able to do it the new way are those who are really experienced in LCA. Which is not very much different than eight years ago, when we started talking about local sourcing of materials, and the only people who could do that at that point were the really experienced people who were already asking the question.Kelly: Will there be a public comment phase, or is it more informal than that?Owens: Yes and no. When we go through the process of actually putting it into the rating system, it will be vetted through a consensus process that we use. But until we get a credit that's functional enough so it won't just get completely destroyed during public comment, we're going to run it under the auspices of a pilot, similar to the way we've run pilots for Homes or Existing Buildings or Retail.Kelly: Okay. I'd like to talk about the regional credit piece of v3. I understand there will be a list, basically, of qualifying credits based on where in North America a facility is located.Owens: Right. There's 10 bonus points [in LEED]. Six of them are, you know, the classic Innovation & Design [ID] points. Five ID points and then one LEED Accredited Professional point. The other four are what we've been considering regional bonus points, and the way those are going to work is, USGBC is working currently with our Chapter network and with our regional networks that are out there, to look at LEED as it exists today, and let us know which credits in LEED are most important for their region.

They're going to take a list we've created off of the 2009 spreadsheets. So, let's say there's 100 credits on that list ... 85 of those credits we've deemed to be ‘regionalizable.' Then they take that list of 85 and further cut it down to six, for a specific region. The National Capital Region, as an example, might pick six credits: two that deal with stormwater, one that deals with green power, one that deals with [other issues specific to that region], and so on. If a project in the region achieves the credit, the base credit, in LEED 2009, they'll get a bonus point for achieving that credit. The reason that we've chosen to do it this way is that it's setting up infrastructure at a chapter and at a regional level that is going to be able to be leveraged in the next round of LEED development for actual credit development work. Writing a credit takes a little bit of, you know, vetting and research and... all sorts of stuff. The technical expertise exists at the chapter level, but the organizational infrastructure doesn't. So what we're doing is taking a calculated step to enable the regions to create that infrastructure, and then we're going to be able to rely on that infrastructure going forward.

Kelly: How will they decide what the list should consist of? Is it by ballot...balloting with the membership?Owens: The chapter or the region that's in question has to set up its own consensus body, to come up with the sort of "approved list" of those credits. So they'll go through and they'll say, all right, we're the regional committee of, for instance, the Cascadia Green Building Council, and these are the six credits that we want. The Cascadia Green Building Council then has to vet these six credits. So they're responsible for creating that consensus infrastructure.Kelly: I see.Owens: And then it ultimately comes back to the national level for one final cycle. [For example], if New York City thinks public transit should be something that is incentivized further...in their regional rating system, we might tell them to rethink how they're incentivizing market transformation within their area. But if D.C. comes back with something that reduces combined sewer overflows, then that's going to be a great thing.Kelly: Brendan, going back to the life cycle assessment (LCA) piece...the criteria for LCAs. Is that something USGBC will decide upon? Will USGBC say, "Here are the LCAs that will qualify for any given facility, but we're going to leave it to third-party certifying bodies to actually assess"? Or will USGBC do the assessment?Owens: That's actually a very... timely question. Currently, the only third-party requirement with respect to materials is on wood. We have been, I think, fairly criticized by the wood industry that we don't require the same types of certification for recycled content or local regional manufacturer. That is actually a very central point to a separate project we have going on as it relates to how we reference third-party certifications in LEED at a very global level. We have had a lot of discussions recently about [whether] we need a "standard for standards" in LEED. And I think there's a general sense that we need a minimum threshold below which no one can... you know, if you have a standard that's written in your basement with you and a buddy, then maybe it doesn't belong in LEED.Kelly: Alright.Owens: But you know, when we look at the...cross-section of industry third-party certifications that have come up in the last three years or so...you see a lot of quasi-credible work that's being passed off as very credible. And we want to figure out a way to navigate through those things. And so... rounding back on the question you asked, which was related to whether or not we were going to require environmental product declarations to be third-party verified... I think there's a general sense that we'd want to move in that direction. Obviously, USGBC as an organization puts a tremendous amount of stock in third-party certification... it would be hypocritical if we didn't. But aside from that, there's really just a sense that this is the right thing to do because there's a lot at stake. We're going to be dealing with those things as they come up. And I think that there's a strong desire for us to increase the number of third-party certifications that are referenced in LEED, provided we can build the industry infrastructure to support it. You know, we can't just throw a requirement out there that nobody can jump over. We don't want to create such a tight, rigid box that if you cross this line you're automatically in, even if most of the rest of the industry thinks that what's going on inside that certification process is a little bit sketchy. You know, you can list half a dozen that have specific criticisms that have been levied by [other] competing standards...Kelly: But are we talking more quality versus quantity? You said a moment ago that the USGBC would be open to having more third-party certifications as long as they could be properly vetted...Owens: To the extent that you don't... you [could then have, for example,] 14 different paint standards competing.Kelly: That's what I mean, right, because you wind up with an overcrowded field [which] dilutes everything.Owens: In some ways... but if a recycled content certifier came around, and we could look at them and say, all right, for recycled content, in order to claim recycled content, going forward you have to be certified by this group... we would seriously consider that, because I think it bolsters the overall credibility of the standard. I think that, in some ways, we're a participant in that discussion; we're not the [entire] discussion, certainly. And I think the market is going to regulate itself; it won't stand for 14 certifications that don't at least talk to each other.Kelly: But at some point, USGBC does have to take a position.Owens: Well, we can do it a couple of different ways. We can look at specific criteria that those standards reference. And we can reference performance spec, and if a particular certification achieves that performance spec, it's in. [For example,] 01350 in California is an emissions methodology... it's an emissions testing methodology and a criteria emissions threshold. So, you know, there are a lot of certifications out there that claim their certification meets the 01350 standards. So if we can independently verify that "X" standard meets 01350, then we can say, yeah, that one's in. We don't have to necessarily throw our weight behind any one particular standard. Unless there's a market reason to do that.Kelly: Can you talk about the LEED-Online piece, and what it's going to look like as part of the LEED v3 package?Owens: One of the fundamental things we wanted LEED-Online to be able to do was really handle a robust portfolio engagement. So it was a conscious and very purposeful discussion about how we look at multiple buildings from the same owner... whether it's Taco Bell, for example, with the same spec, 19 different [sites] within a city, or whether it's, you know, a university campus where you have different buildings on the same site. So, it was very purposeful that we would build out a robust way to engage with that market through our technology solution, which is LEED-Online. We've done that with a scrub of the rating system, which is sort of "piece one."Kelly: Alright.Owens: The next piece that we looked at is the place where our technology platform and the rating system actually intersect, which is... the documentation that is submitted on behalf of a project to demonstrate compliance with LEED. And that flows into the development of the actual LEED-Online tool and how we access, how we process that data, and how we deliver it to the market.Kelly: Well, is this something that's a new feature in LEED-Online?Owens: It's kind of an add-on, a workaround to the existing system. You can manage multiple projects... simultaneously in the existing LEED-Online, but you have to actually go through and you have to populate each one of those projects, kind of by brute force. [It's] not undoable... it's just not nearly as elegant as the market is demanding...Kelly: It's really the big commercial developers that are pushing it, correct?Owens: Yeah, to the extent that they own a significant chunk of the market, we want to be able to respond to that. I mean, it's that enterprise-wide engagement that allows them to do something. What we've recognized is that engagements at that level advance the mission of USGBC in a way that we've never been able to advance it before. You know, we go from, say, 2,500 projects in the pipeline, to 25,000 buildings in the United States. You know, that's a paradigm shift that... [we've] never been able to even think about. And this technology platform lets us leverage [all of that].Kelly: Brendan, let's talk about Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). Is it actually a new certifying body?Owens: It definitely is a new certifying body, yes. The point of it was... initially, there was some concern expressed that USGBC created exam content for the LEED Accredited Professional (AP) credential, but also created educational content around LEED. We wanted to move towards a more third-party process for the LEED AP credential, so we could elevate its importance and its relevance and its recognition in the market. So the initial impetus for GBCI was to create a place where the LEED AP credential existed on its own and enhanced the value of that credential in the market, for the entire market. I think that, over time, we're going to see LEED AP really transform into... something that is much bigger, much more robust than it is right now. Not that it doesn't have a market purpose now; it really has been a dynamic way of engaging a very sophisticated market, but moving it to GBCI allows it to have a life that is independent, in some ways, of USGB. It allows them to do things like ongoing credentialing of CEUs and those types of things, which enhance the ability of the LEED APs in the market to differentiate themselves.

The other piece that's happening is that we are transitioning the LEED certification, the building certification, from USGBC to GBCI.

Kelly: Oh really.
Owens: And we're going to be doing that... starting in 2009, and really fundamentally changing the way we engage with building certifications, moving to a model that is much more in line with the way ISO does 14000 and 9000 certifications. The certification bodies are contracted and authorized by GBCI to certify LEED buildings. They go out and they hire LEED accredited assessors... to do the certification reviews, and the certification body gives the actual building certification to a building. So starting in 2009, this is going to be the new structure for certification. It is the third leg in the LEED V3 "stool." We've got the rating system, with all the work that was done there to bring it better into alignment; the LEED-Online tool that we use; and then the certification process.

The cool thing about how we've gone through and executed the V3 project is that we built these in very much an integrated fashion. So, we could [field] one, without [fielding] the other two, but in order to really make the entire system work, you have to have all three parts.

Kelly: I see.Owens: So, you know, GBCI leverages new documentation which... came out of the rating system, which is input on LEED-Online, which feeds directly into GBCI. So it's really a very tightly woven process that we've used. Not to count the chickens before they've hatched, [but] it seems to be, you know, a rating system that really does move us to the next level.Kelly: What have you gotten in terms of feedback with the first public comment phase?Owens: We had 5,816 public comments in 30 days. So it was the most comments we ever received on anything. I think it was a very impressive industry-wide performance. I think the process that we use is intended to get that kind of support, and we learned so much from public comments I think the general sense of the comments is that people can understand what we're doing overall. The bulk of the comments that came in were looking at specific issues, and I think that serves as a really great... seed sowing for [future] versions of LEED. Because we have this continuous improvement cycle, we'll be able to take the comments we got this time through and say, all right, [perhaps] we can't do it now, but this is a great idea and we can either put it in with the next update to the cycle, or we can find a way to introduce it as an alternative compliance to an existing requirement. It's a way to make sure we're on top of the market and responsive to what they've been asking us to do.

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