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. 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.
 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.”