The Look of LEED a Decade Later

How Sustainable is Sustainability’s Benchmark Standard?

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Ashley Katz is manager of communications for the U.S. Green Building Council.

Elizabeth Gharib is a LEED AP with Green Living LLC in Austin, Texas.

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Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 8:30 am | Updated: 2:30 pm, Wed Apr 13, 2011.

What uses nearly 40 percent of America's primary energy, 13.6 percent of all U.S. potable water (15 trillion gallons a year), 40 percent of global raw materials (3 billion tons a year), accounts for 39 percent of all CO2 emissions and comprises 15 percent of U.S. gross domestic product?

Buildings. Buildings. And more buildings.

Make that more than five million commercial buildings and some 120 million existing homes that most, including President Barack Obama, believe squander away precious energy and resources.

His Better Buildings Initiative, according to a U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) press release dated Feb. 3, intends to catalyze private-sector investment through a series of incentives to upgrade offices, stores, schools and universities, hospitals and other municipal and commercial buildings.

USGBC President, CEO and Founding Chair Rick Fedrizzi said, "For all of those committed to the idea that green buildings can create jobs, save energy and save money, this is a great day, and the entire green building movement is incredibly grateful for President Obama's leadership in this critical step forward for America.... We know that green buildings can and should be front and center of any credible jobs program."

It's easy to understand USGBC's endorsement for the vital importance of green building by the White House. For more than a decade, the council has championed green largely through its voluntary, third-party certification LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Demand) ratings that stand at the leading edge of green building efforts.

The council believes that greater building efficiency can meet 85 percent of America's future demand for energy and that a national commitment to green building could create 2.5 million jobs and contribute $554 billion to U.S. GDP through 2013.

For LEED, the question may well be, how sustainable is this sustainability benchmark standard?

According to Ashley Katz, manager of communications for USGBC, LEED was launched in 2000 and only covered new construction and major renovations for commercial, institutional and residential buildings of four or more stories, with a focus on office buildings.

"Today, over 40,000 projects are currently participating in the commercial and institutional LEED rating systems, comprising 8 billion square feet of construction space in all 50 states and 117 countries. Nearly 10,000 homes have been certified under the LEED for Homes rating system, with nearly 45,000 more homes registered. More than 8,000 commercial projects have been certified and nearly 30,000 registered," said Katz.

She added that Canada and 17 other countries have established their own green building councils to develop global consistency for green building.

The USGBC has 79 affiliate locations in the U.S., 16,000 members and more than 162,000 LEED professional credential holders. There are now at least 12 different categories (See sidebar), including LEED for Healthcare, which launches this spring. Members will soon vote on the LEED v4, the fourth LEED version since 2000. Public input on v4 is being accepted until July 2011.

Certification is available for all building types - new construction and major renovation, core and shell developments, schools, retail (both new construction and commercial interiors), commercial interiors, existing buildings, neighborhood developments and homes.

LEED is a point-based system by which building projects earn points for satisfying specific green building criteria. Within each of the six LEED credit categories, projects must satisfy all prerequisites and earn a number of points from a variety of other credits. The six categories of the commercial and institutional rating systems are Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality and Innovation in Design.

LEED for Homes and LEED for Neighborhood Development have several unique categories tailored to those project types. There are 100 possible base points; additionally, projects can earn up to six Innovation in Design points and up to four Regional Priority points.

The number of points earned determines the level of LEED in four progressive levels: Certified (40 to 49 points), Silver (50 to 59 points), Gold (60 to 79 points) and Platinum (80 points and above).

LEED projects can also earn "bonus points" for implementing green building strategies that address the important environmental issues facing their region. A project can be awarded as many as four extra points, one point each for achieving up to four of the six Regional Priority Credits.

Of course, trying to build and manage the evolving global structure of a certification system as all encompassing as LEED is bound to draw some criticism.

Katz said participants have to realize that LEED is evolving and there are still a lot of misconceptions about green building, for example, a green building might not be a smart building and vice versa.

"Technology and best practices change. The LEED of 10 years ago is quite different. Today, everything can be done online. There are more and more incentives and financing to build green. We have greatly expanded our tools, like education, to communicate what it means to be green. Our goal continues to be transparency for our members, LEED professionals, clients and anyone who works with the council," Katz said. Improving education also benefits the process of certifying LEED professionals, Katz noted.

"Cost is an issue that people raise," Katz continued. "‘I can't build green because it will really cost me.' Actually, certification costs can be as low as $2,500 for a small project and cannot exceed $22,000, the cost of certifying a building with 500,000 sq. ft. or more. The initial registration fee is $900 and gives the project team access to a variety of resources, including LEED Online. Once a building is certified, there are no additional costs.

"Annual dues range from $300 for contractors and builders with annual gross revenues of less than $250,000 to $12,500 for product manufacturers, building controls, service contractors and distributors with gross annual revenues exceeding $10 billion."

Katz said there are instances where up-front LEED costs might slightly exceed estimates, but experience has shown that building owners quickly recover overruns.

In a 2003 report, "Green Building Costs and Financial Benefits," written by Gregory H. Kats, a founding principal of Capital E, a Certified Energy Manager and a LEED AP, an analysis of the savings from green building found from a review of 60 LEED buildings that the buildings were on average 25 to 30 percent more energy efficient, but it also attributed substantial benefits to the increased productivity from the better ventilation, temperature control, lighting control, and reduced air pollution.

Elizabeth Gharib is a LEED AP with Green Living LLC in Austin, Texas. Her company has provided LEED project management, energy modeling and commissioning service since 2006 on more than 30 LEED projects.

"Our work spreads across all building types and LEED rating categories - core and shell, commercial interiors, schools, offices, warehouses and federal projects. Our niche is new midrise multi-family projects. Green Living works throughout the U.S., Mexico and the United Arab Emirates."

Gharib said USGBC is always working to improve the LEED process. "While the system still is not perfect, it has come a long way over the past several years - clarifying the point structure and improving the online process."

For Gharib, the high cost of LEED certification is somewhat of a myth. "Our client experience has been one percent for Silver and less than that for just the basic certification. Cost does increase as one attempts higher rating levels - Gold and especially Platinum - but many of these costs would accrue for any project seeking high levels of sustainability or profile. The driver is the investors who do not want to be stuck with an obsolete building. So which is more costly?"

In her experience, a larger issue is that LEED project management is a new member of the team.

"It is difficult for the client to understand what it is they are purchasing, which means there is some discomfort in deciding who to hire, what is in the scope and how the proposals differ from each other," Gharib said.

"Then there are the design professionals who might have the LEED credentials (passed the LEED exam), but do not have any applications experience. That is huge! The owner needs to understand how to compensate the design team members - which ones? How much? But once the owner has a team that has made it through the process, it really flows the second time around," said Gharib.

Another issue raised is that of possible decertification, said Gharib. "An article that ran in the ‘San Francisco Business Journal' in January 2010, ‘Risk of LEED Decertification Looms Large for Real Estate,' stated, ‘...a little known provision in LEED 2009, which allows LEED certifications to be challenged and removed any time after they have been certified, presents a threat to all existing and future LEED 2009-certified projects.

"Scot Horst, USGBC senior vice president for LEED, responded to that: ‘The idea that there is this new thing called decertification is inaccurate. The way LEED works is we have a rating system; you send us information about your project and we certify to that. But let's say that there was someone out there who lied about the prerequisite information or unintentionally provided inaccurate information. We have always had a policy to go back and say this isn't what it was represented to be. That is nothing new,'" Gharib continued.

"LEED is the gold standard, which makes it a target for debate," said Gharib.

Katz added that the only way certification can be lost is if the building was found to have violated LEED prerequisites. Also, a new building can go after certification in another category, for example, Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance.

Blogger Jetson Green (Twitter at @JetsonGreen or connect on Facebook at JetsonGreen) weighed in on LEED in a 2008 posting.

"I understand some of the issues with LEED, and I'm certainly not drinking the Kool-Aid. I avoid bureaucracy, councils and regulations just as much as the next free-market American. But that said, I think we're seeing a lot of phony green claims out there and LEED helps me gauge the level of authenticity.

"I also agree that a building can go beyond LEED and do some incredible things in terms of legitimate sustainability. I mean, with some LEED projects we're at the ‘less bad' stage, whereas with others we're at the ‘Wow! You can do that with a building?' stage. That's cool," wrote Green.

"Those that experiment with the former will be convinced and seek after the latter. But still, I don't think LEED is mutually exclusive with super green structures that are legitimately sustainable, net carbon neutral, and/or positive energy buildings. On a building's path to greatness, the road can be paved with LEED certification. I do believe."

Katz said that one of the biggest contributions LEED is making is to spread the word about green building, which, in turn, is prompting many cities and municipalities to offer tax breaks, expedited permitting and other incentives to green builders. Or they simply jump on the green bandwagon.

St. Paul, Minn., opened a new LEED Gold police station in December 2007 that according to a news release, exceeds the Minnesota State Building Code for efficiency by 40 percent and reduces long-term operating costs. It is 48 percent more energy efficient than traditional commercial structures in a state that is ranked 10th in the U.S. in green building square footage per capita.

"Saint Paul is proud to use LEED standards to guide our building and development process for our western district police station. We aimed for a Silver rating and were able to achieve Gold - one degree higher. It is a clear sign of our willingness to go above and beyond when it comes to sustainability in Saint Paul," said Mayor Chris Coleman.

PPL Electric, headquartered in Allentown, Pa., offers up to $10,000 for LEED projects in its 29-county service area in eastern Pennsylvania - up to $5,000 for the application to be certified and another $5,000 for becoming Gold certified.

"This program, which has funded about two dozen projects since 2007, has been well received," said Donald Bernhard, PPL's manager of community and economic development." For us it is being a good corporate citizen because we are supporting green building, something that makes perfect sense. It has generated a lot of interest. And we don't even mind that we are encouraging people to use less of what we sell."

Katz said that LEED is not just code or bare minimum, or only the bottom line. "It's about climate change, the environment and health benefits for people. We do spend about 90 percent of our time indoors."

Matthew Holtry, a full-time consultant for PRIZIM Inc. and a seasonal journalist for Triple Pundit, wrote, "LEED-certified "green buildings" consume less energy, require fewer resources to build and generate less waste than conventional buildings. Oh, and they have higher market value. And did I mention their occupants are happier, healthier and sometimes even smarter?

"That's not some hippie propaganda. Those are all findings from well-documented studies, including a (lengthy) one from the (General Serices Administration) - the 'landlord' of most non-DoD government property.

"When I had an opportunity to meet with Horst, I joked with him about everyone's favorite LEED point laughingstock: bike racks. He knew it would come up. It always does. It is a perennial favorite for controversy: a developer gets one point for installing a bike rack and locker rooms. Some criticize the credit as ‘too easy.' After all, redeveloping a multi-million dollar brownfield site also gets just one point."

Holdry said Horst emphasized those were precisely the conversations LEED hopes to encourage. "While giving workshops, he noted a frequent 'light-bulb' moment for people who have been doing construction and development the same way for their entire lives. ‘The LEED Rating System gives them a new way to look at the process and a new way to think about development,' Horst explained."

Holdry said this is precisely the type of visionary thinking that underlies the LEED rating system.

"These conversations are important. They drive thinking, questioning, and change."

And for LEED professionals like Gharib, "Any time we work on Gold and Platinum projects, it is very special. Most projects aim for LEED Silver, but our biggest successes come when we can help clients push the envelope and are able to achieve higher ratings, while still staying on budget.... We are most proud of our success and experience in producing LEED certified buildings..."

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