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Decoding the future of LEED®

Yesterday I was working with a client on LEED certification for a new building planned for Redwood City, California.  He made the comment that there is little need for LEED here in California, where the CalGreen building code requires new buildings to meet high standards for energy, water, indoor environmental quality, and waste diversion.

To a certain extent, he is correct.  A recent DNV GL study comparing LEED with CalGreen showed that meeting some variation of CalGreen could help achieve up to 56 LEED points, enough for a Silver certification.  But a thoughtful response to his comment requires a look at the big picture, and consideration of another question: What is LEED’s ultimate end game?

LEED’s rise in popularity
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system was conceptualized in the late 1990s as a framework for defining green building and benchmarking building performance.  One of the most important aspects of LEED is ever more challenging performance criteria with each new version that is released.  This stimulates a shift in the built environment towards highly efficient, healthy buildings, which the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) aims to achieve within one generation.[1]  But what will those buildings look like?  And is this really possible in one generation (roughly 30 years), considering 15 years have already elapsed?

The first LEED buildings were certified in 2000 as part of the LEED version 1 pilot program.  The founders—volunteers and administrators with the USGBC—set the performance criteria to be achievable by roughly 25% of new buildings entering the U.S. market in 2000. Only three buildings were certified that year.

As LEED’s popularity grew, so did the numbers.  By the end of 2003, 75 buildings had been certified, including buildings in Canada and India.  That number exceeded 700 by the end of 2006, jumped to over 5,000 in 2009, and soared over 21,000 in 2012.  Today, there are almost 40,000 buildings that have successfully negotiated the LEED certification process around the globe, from Argentina to Zambia, and another 41,000 that have registered for certification.

Influencing markets and policy
The growth in LEED’s popularity has influenced changes in the marketplace, as the founders had hoped.  For instance, building materials now contain fewer toxic chemicals as a result of consumer demand and, as awareness of LEED grows among building occupants, owners increasingly seek the accolades that come with the highest levels of LEED certification.  Some of my clients, including Fortune 100 companies, see LEED as an attractive lure for top talent who are considering more than just salary when selecting an employer.  And once those talented individuals are on board, the same companies are using LEED as a way to benchmark indoor environmental quality that promotes healthy, productive work environments.

As the market responded to the LEED frenzy, so did legislators, which resulted in a myriad of green building ordinances and, in California, CalGreen, which essentially forces broader change by raising the performance baseline required of all buildings.  Historically, other governments have followed California’s lead when it comes to sustainability.  We can expect that the regulations created in California will eventually provide a framework for other cities, states, and countries.  Even the laggards, the Class B and C buildings, will need to step up their game to meet code.

The carrot or the stick
This is all good, right? Generally people see the transformation of the built environment toward the green building end game to be a good thing, so the question becomes how to get there quickly and cooperatively.  Is it better to lead with the LEED carrot or the regulatory stick?

We need to do both. Voluntary, incentive-based certifications like LEED, Living Building Challenge (generally considered the most challenging building certification), and BREEAM (LEED’s European rival) address the front end of the green building movement with buildings that can afford to push the envelope and try novel approaches to improving performance.  Incentives stimulate creativity: innovation flourishes among design, construction, and operations teams striving to achieve one more LEED point or reach the next level of certification.  They set the stage, create the buzz, and provide the wisdom for other building teams to follow suit.  And other buildings will follow, if for no other reason than to meet code.

The risk is when the code starts to catch up with voluntary certifications and people like my client begin to ask, what’s the use?  LEED has struggled to stay ahead of California’s aggressive building code (Title 24/CalGreen) due to pressure from manufacturers who would rather not produce LEED-compliant materials.  Opponents of LEED have also taken legal action in an effort to stymie the green building movement.  LEED must strike a delicate balance between what the market can afford and how high to raise the bar.

The day when LEED has served its purpose
The latest, most challenging version of LEED, v4, was released last year.  However, a two-year phase-in period has been provided, allowing building owners to opt for the weaker v3 and practically achieve LEED simply by meeting code, at least in California.  Buildings are not required to register in v4 until October of 2016.  Predictably, to date only 15 buildings have been certified and only 83 have registered in v4 (including one DNV GL client).

This suggests the LEED frenzy is cooling.  Perhaps all of the low-hanging fruit have been picked and incremental improvements in performance are becoming more and more difficult with current technology.  Perhaps certifications alone are not enough to move the market.

On the up side, awareness has improved considerably and there is still demand for high performing, healthy buildings.  So what are the next steps? What does this mean for green building consultants?  How do we continue to innovate in a rapidly changing market?  Is obsolescence of certifications a real concern in a world where sustainability is becoming increasingly important?

The key is a clearly defined end game.  For the green building community, that end game is the day when all buildings generate more clean energy than they consume, when all the rainwater that hits them is captured and reused, when it’s just as healthy to be indoors as it is to be outside, when buildings enhance and regenerate natural environments… get the picture?  That’s the day when LEED has served its purpose, and green building is the norm, not the exception.

Learn more about DNV GL’s services related to sustainable buildings and communities.


[1] From www.usgbc.org: the USGBC is “a diverse group of builders and environmentalists, corporations and nonprofits, teachers and students, lawmakers and citizens that share the same vision of a sustainable built environment for all within the next generation.”

4 Comments Add your comment
Avatar Chris Khan says:

Jordan, I enjoyed your video of Uptown Monterey and I am very happy that you had the foresight to video document the whole process. I don’t really understand on what basis opponents would take legal action against a voluntary certification. As for the end of innovation carrots such as LEED, I think that there is always a place for recognizing and rewarding innovation and improvement beyond existing standards. I imagine that LEED could venture into rewarding design for reusability to make deconstruction cleaner and easier and designing for upgrade to reduce the future costs of add-ons or improvements as technologies advance at an ever-increasing clip.

Jordan, very interesting article. Thanks for sharing. Perhaps there will always be the higher achiever clients that want that additional certification no matter what it takes.

With LEED being a labeling system with different generations there is the interesting confusion that a LEED platinum V3 is not the same as a LEED platinum v4 although they would carry the same plaque, right ?

I found the LEED accreditation process to be a very good educational overview of contemporary high performance market standards. Perhaps the USGBC educational program will become more relevant than the building certification program in the years to come. Educational curricula are easier to adapt and evolve than buildings.

Any idea on how the educational vs building certification activities of the USGBC compare ?

Thanks for posting !

Avatar Jack Brown says:

LEEDs has certainly met obsolescence in terms of Electric Vehicle demands. When Leeds noted a Toyota Prius burning gasoline is more energy efficient than a Tesla Model S was their first SNAFU as they are hybrid focused and not battery EV focused. Their second is their points given for Alternative fuel vehicle preferential parking with no accommodation to provide Public EVSE charging opportunities in those spaces. The real environmental impact and drive to get to EVs is with ample charging capabilities where people live and work. LEEDs outdated language does not account for this and is in desperate need of an update.

Jordan Daniels Jordan Daniels says:

Hi Jack,

Thanks for your comment – I’m glad my blog inspired you to express your concerns about electric vehicles. Unfortunately, I believe you might have received some incorrect information. The LEED for Building Design & Construction v3 credit, SS4.3 – Alternative transportation – low-emitting and fuel-efficient vehicles, actually includes electric vehicles (EVs). I have excerpted the credit language below for your reference.

The nice thing about LEED is that most of the credits are performance-based, not prescriptive. For instance, LEED doesn’t say Prius’s garner points but not Teslas, or vice versa. Instead, vehicles simply need to meet the minimum performance criteria to get the LEED point, with no mention of their make and model. The intent of credit SS4.3 is simply to “reduce pollution and land development impacts from automobile use”; the choice of how is up to the user. The options listed in the LEED credit include
* providing preferred parking spaces for electric vehicles and/or low-emitting/fuel efficient vehicles, or
*providing alternative fueling stations (including EV chargers), or
*providing electric vehicles and/or low-emitting/fuel efficient vehicles fleet vehicles, or
*providing an electric vehicle and/or low-emitting/fuel efficient vehicle sharing program for building occupants.
If there is another alternative method not listed above, the user has the option of pursing an Alternative Compliance Path to demonstrate the intent of the credit is met. This encourages the user to innovate, which is good for everyone.

You might be pleased to hear that v4 has raised the bar a bit higher by requiring not only preferred parking for “Green Vehicles”, but also EV charging stations or liquid, gas, or battery facilities.

As an interesting side note, electric vehicles are sometimes assumed to be emission-free, but that depends, of course, on the source of the electricity used to charge them. An EV charged with electricity generated at a coal-fired power plant is responsible for more emissions than one charged with electricity from solar power, for instance. According to LEED v4, a vehicle is considered a Green Vehicle if it achieves a score of 45 or higher on the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) annual vehicle rating guide (or local equivalent for projects outside the U.S.), including electric vehicles. ACEEE Green Vehicle score for EVs depends in part on your region’s electricity generation mix. They have also incorporated a way to adjust the percentage of renewable energy used to charge your electric vehicle when determining its Green Vehicle score.

I think you and I are both looking forward to the day when most, if not all, vehicles are truly emission-free and charged with clean, renewable energy. LEED is doing a lot to drive the market toward this end game by raising performance baseline that users must meet to achieve those precious LEED points. Even without LEED, many building owners are installing charging stations to meet demand. And drivers increase that demand when they chose to drive an EV or plug-in hybrid. All this effort combined moves us closer to the end game, which was the point of my blog.

Here’s how LEED v3 defines a low-emitting and fuel efficient vehicles:
“For the purposes of this credit, low-emitting vehicles are defined as vehicles that are classified as Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) by the California Air Resources Board. Fuel-efficient vehicles are defined as vehicles that have achieved a minimum green score of 40 on the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) annual vehicle rating guide [Europe ACP: Low-Emitting and Fuel-Efficient Vehicles] [South America ACP: Low-Emitting and Fuel-Efficient Vehicles].

Here’s the website with complete language for this credit: http://www.usgbc.org/node/1732305?return=/credits/new-construction/v2009

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