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Guest Post: LEED – Not just a pretty plaque, and certainly not perfect

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By C. Sylvan

A building revolution is happening right under our noses. And it looks like this (see left). You may have seen this plaque at the entrance to Office Depot, in the lobby of your office building, or at a multi-family housing development in your area. This plaque means that the building has achieved LEED certification. LEED has become the industry standard for commercial green building and has created definitions and benchmarks in an industry where a cohesive guideline did not previously exist. Whether or not LEED truly achieves higher levels of sustainability and energy efficiency is still a topic of much debate.

What Is LEED? Not Just a Pretty Plaque.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, as it’s commonly known, is a points-based third party verified green building certification, essentially a “definition” for green building that awards points for pursuing sustainability measures in categories including sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design, and regional priority. LEED was created by and is managed today by the US Green Building Council, a member-driven non-profit organization. Companies that are members of the national USGBC contribute to each new version of the rating systems, released in 3 year cycles.

There are four levels of LEED certification based on fulfilling 8 prerequisites and the number of points awarded through a third party review process—certified, silver, gold, and platinum.

Projects that have completed the third party review process and have been awarded certification receive a plaque, which you will often find displayed in a lobby, although some buildings choose not to display the plaque at all, as is the case at the Palazzo in Las Vegas (see picture), one of the largest certified hotels in the country (they received Silver certification in March 2008).

Today, there are LEED certifications available for commercial new construction and major renovations, single family homes and residential apartment buildings less than 3 stories, commercial interiors, operations and maintenance, and even community planning.

Why Do Buildings Pursue LEED?

LEED certification is a way to differentiate buildings with documented sustainability criteria from those that claim to be “green.”

At a minimum, a LEED certified building will protect stormwater channels from erosion during construction, reduce water usage from the current standard by 20%, provide for pre-occupancy verification of major building energy systems operation, minimize impacts from refrigerants, meet a minimum specified level of energy performance, which is 20% more efficient than the most stringent energy codes in the country, meet minimum indoor air quality standards which are also equivalent to some of the most stringent code requirements in the country, separate non-smokers from smokers, and provide for the collection of recyclables for building occupants.

In addition to completing these prerequisites, a building will have pursued additional sustainability criteria, from increasing levels of energy performance to providing access to public transportation or using low-emitting adhesives and sealants. Theoretically, the higher the level of certification, the more sustainable the building.

In several municipalities, authorities have chosen to specify that publicly owned buildings achieve a minimum of LEED Silver certification in lieu of adopting a comprehensive energy conservation code.

For institutional new construction, LEED certification has become something like a standard, essentially becoming an overlay for local codes and ensuring minimum energy performance and indoor air quality standards regardless of the municipality. Depending on the points pursued by each project, the lifecycle cost of operating and maintaining the building should be reduced significantly in addition to providing for increased worker productivity and reduced absenteeism.

Why Every Building Isn’t LEED Certified

The EPA points out that once a building is designed, its performance must be measured and verified against its energy usage predictions, a feedback loop that is critical and often missing in the building lifecycle. This critical feedback loop for energy usage is missing in the most commonly used LEED rating systems, those for new construction and major renovations.  And although the USGBC has instituted new measures in its most recent rating system to provide feedback, there is no accountability to improve performance if it is found to be less than anticipated.

LEED certification is earned based on design and construction criteria ONLY. Before a building has even been formally occupied, it is feasible to earn LEED certification. Once that LEED certification is earned there is no recertification required over the lifetime of the building.  Not to mention that at no point in the review process did anyone from the LEED third party review group visit the building to verify the accuracy of the drawings or building material submittals.

LEED is, for the most part, a closely reviewed and rigorously documented honor system, meaning that it would be possible for someone to falsify information and receive certification.

Also, LEED certified buildings may or may not be significantly more energy efficient than their counterparts depending on the municipality, the single factor that ensures the largest potential reduction in life cycle cost of the building.

There are 110 points available in the new construction LEED Rating systems, and only 40 are required to achieve the certified level (see figure). It is feasible to achieve certification without pursuing energy efficiency levels above a baseline, meaning that if your certified building is constructed in an area that has the same minimum energy requirements, while your building should perform 20% better, it’s feasible that your building’s energy efficiency will be even with similarly sized buildings. If your building was certified under a less recent version of the LEED Rating system (2.0, 2.1), it’s possible that your energy performance could be WORSE when compared with similarly sized buildings.

What The Future Brings

Regardless of whether you are a proponent or detractor of LEED today, its impact on the construction industry is undeniable. Manufacturers who just 5 years ago were vague on the recycled content of their materials, the location of their materials extraction and manufacture, and their volatile organic compound content, now provide environmental and health impact data in documents available electronically through their websites. Energy efficiency of buildings has become a common conversation in building design meetings. And what started 20 years ago as the idea of an energy efficiency model code has evolved into what is referred to today as a “green building” model code, encompassing energy efficiency in addition to site and transportation access, indoor environmental quality, and materials selection (ASHRAE/USGBC/IESNA Std 189.1 P). LEED has been and will continue to be a testing ground for sustainable criteria, and when market adoption for a set of criteria has reached a critical point, the test criteria will become standard.

So next time you see a plaque on the outside of a building, you will know that it is not just a plaque, it’s a symbol of the transformation of our built environment.

Photo Credit:

  1. Photo of Office Depot LEED certification plaque © by the author of this post
  2. Photo of the Palazzo building at the Venetian © by Alex537 and used with their permission under this Creative Commons license.
  3. Screen shot of U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating system checklist from USGBC website (www.usgbc.org).

About the Author:

C. Sylvan (penname) is a LEED AP BD+C and a LEED consultant and instructor. C. Sylvan has managed certification of schools, offices, and everything in between.  Much like the LEED rating systems, C. Sylvan is constantly evolving, balancing idealism with reality in the built environment to transform the way we interact with our buildings.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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