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Update of LEED Program Scrutinized by All Sides

NOAA's Satallite Center in Suitland, Maryland
The GSA is reviewing whether to continue to use the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program to certify the sustainability of its new structures, as it did when constructing NOAA’s Satellite Center in Suitland, Maryland. NOAA

The update of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, originally scheduled to be released last year, is still being debated by everyone concerned.

February 26, 2013—Since its debut in 2000, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program has become “the common language of green building,” according to Lane Burt, the policy director for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the Washington, D.C.-based organization that created LEED. Certainly Burt may be biased, but the facts bear him out. There are approximately15,000 LEED-certified buildings across the United States, and 2.7 billion sq ft of LEED buildings worldwide. LEED certifies 2 million sq ft per day, and there are some 190,000 LEED-accredited professionals to help developers, designers, and engineers navigate the rating system.

“What sets LEED apart is the fact that it is the industry standard,” says Burt. “You’ve got people who speak the language.”

It has also been the de facto standard used by the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees the design and construction of new federal buildings. But change may be coming. The GSA is in the midst of a federally mandated review of its green building rating system, a review it conducts every five years. A preliminary report issued last March showed that a rival rating system, the Canada-based Green Globes, narrowly aligns better with federal standards for new construction than LEED—although LEED aligns better for renovating existing buildings.

It’s unclear when the GSA will make a final decision as to which rating system or systems it will use in the future, but the matter appears far from decided. Early in February the agency issued a 60-day request for information to garner “additional public input on …how the federal government can best use green building certification systems,” according to a notice on the GSA’s website

 Wayne L. Morse Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon

The Wayne L. Morse Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, achieved a
gold level certification from the LEED program, but the GSA is
considering several other green building standards as LEED
continues to upgrade its program. Wikimedia
Commons/M.O. Stevens

Observers note that private industry looks to the GSA to set the green building benchmarks it will follow. In some of the public hearings that the GSA has held, “Some of the larger property portfolio managers in the country have admitted to that being the dynamic [that is] currently underway,” says Justin Koscher, the vice president of public policy for the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing, (CEIR), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

The GSA is considering not only Green Globes, which is overseen by the Green Buildings Initiative, but also the Living Building Challenge, a cutting-edge, “all-or-nothing” program developed by the Cascadia chapter of the USGB—a “rogue” chapter of the organization, as one architect puts it. The stakes of the GSA’s decision are not lost on the USGBC. “Of course it’s important,” Burt says. “We compete for business [from the] GSA just like we compete for business from the private sector.”

The LEED program is updated roughly once every three years to incorporate more advanced standards; the current standard, LEED 2009, dates to that year. But controversy has kicked up over the latest revamp of the ratings system. Originally dubbed LEED 2012, the proposed system has felt greater pushback from industry, causing delays and leading to a renaming of the system, to LEED v4.

“Previous updates to LEED were more restructuring and shuffling,” says Burt. “This is more of a content update to LEED.” LEED v4 will prioritize energy efficiency, water efficiency, and cost savings. And it raises the bar over LEED 2009. “The minimum LEED-certified building will be more energy efficient and water efficient than the previous version,” Burt says. “What used to be best practice is more of a standard practice now.”  

For the new standard to pass, 60 percent of the USGBC’s members—which constitute some 13,000 member organizations—must approve it. “You have to get a whole lot of consensus for LEED to be updated,” Burt says. If approved, LEED v4 will operate alongside LEED 2009 until 2015, giving practitioners time to adapt.

 The Empire State Building

Private owners often follow the GSA’s lead in determining which
green building standards to use. The Empire State Building
achieved a gold-level certification from the LEED program in 2011.
Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Schwen

But right now consensus is hard to come by—v4 is already in an unprecedented fifth public comment phase. The target date for the new criteria being placed on a ballot is June. And there’s growing pressure from industry. Last July critics of LEED v4 banded together to form the American High Performance Building Coalition (AHPBC), also based in Washington, D.C. The coalition’s members include the American Chemistry Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Society of the Plastics Industry, as well as numerous construction and building trades workers’ organizations. Its goal is to create a unified voice for industry organizations that believe their concerns weren’t being heard by the USGBC. The AHPBC’s criticisms of the LEED process come down to two main areas—transparency and technical rigor.

“There’s no clear process or rules for how credits are proposed or developed,” says Koscher, whose organization is a member of the AHPBC. “We’ve suggested to them ways that they can outline that process and can make it more transparent for those of us who don’t sit on specific LEED committees and consider ourselves general stakeholders in the green building industry. … We’d like to make all the credit proposals public, identifying who submitted the proposal and the technical justification for the proposal on the USGBC website.”

Further, he says, the USGBC receives very complex, technical comments about the rating system that aren’t adequately addressed by USGBC staff. “If you have an HVAC company submit comments by their engineers, who have spent 25-30 years working in the industry,” he says, “we feel that you may need the same technical expertise on the other side to understand and respond to those comments.”

Of course, some charge that the industry is merely trying to weaken green standards. Craig Silvertooth, the president of the CEIR, says his coalition’s objective is not only to include industry more in the process but to involve academia as well. He takes green roofs as an example. “Proper design and science behind green roofs involves people with horticultural degrees,” he says. “If we’re making judgments about what a proper green roof looks like, we believe people with backgrounds in that particular field of study should be involved.”

Burt says LEED’s review process is “completely transparent,” and notes that many members of the CEIR are also USGBC members have already commented. “We hear from everyone on everything that we’ve proposed,” Burt says. “You can see every comment we’ve gotten and every response we give back. From that perspective, [transparency is] nothing new for us.”

He acknowledges that some parties “didn’t feel satisfied with commenting in technical development and looked for other avenues to get their point across …” But he notes that the process allows for all comments made to be publicly reviewable.

And version 4 has received more than 22,000 comments. “That is why it’s taking a while to develop,” says Burt. “It’s not any single issue that’s causing the delay. It’s the fact this world has gone from nothing to a real industry very quickly.”

Koscher sees the delays as a sign that the public comment system has become inadequate. “If public comment is the channel through which industry is going to participate in the future, that process must be expanded to accommodate the technical and evolving nature of the LEED program.”

The conflict is not new, says Mark Frankel, the technical director of the Seattle-based New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit organization working to improve energy performance in commercial buildings. It’s just that the industry has gotten better organized. For example, wood certification has been a battleground for years, and now, he notes, with LEED v4, the “American chemical industry has been very aggressive trying to convince the USGBC not to put any chemical disclosure language in LEED 4.” Such language would make it easier to identify potentially toxic chemicals that are used to manufacture homes.

LEED’s growing success may explain the growing intensity of its critics. “USGBC and LEED used to be a much smaller movement,” Frankel says. “The green building movement was much smaller, and maybe thought of as less of a concern.” That’s no longer the case. According to a study by McGraw-Hill Construction, the green building market is expected to hit $135 billion by 2015.

Ralph DiNola, a principal of Green Building Services, a Portland-based consulting firm, says the USGBC must engage in a delicate balancing act. “I think what’s at hand is the U.S. Green Building Council has to answer to a lot of people because they’ve been so successful over the past 12 years, and so what they need to do is balance advancing the standard with not changing it too rapidly,” DiNola says. “People on the leading edge say LEED needs to keep up or it will begin to be less relevant. Codes are catching up.”

Burt notes that LEED is voluntary, and that if the system becomes too onerous, no one will use it. “Everything we do has to look at where the market is, where the market’s going,” he says. “And then we try to assess what is leadership? What is worthy of a leadership distinction? That’s what we’re providing and validating.”

However LEED and its competitors evolve, there’s tremendous room—and many argue tremendous need—for genuine sustainability. “We need to ask ourselves, what are we trying to achieve?” says DiNola. “We are a far cry from sustainability in the built environment. Being in harmony with the earth, being in harmony with nature, not taking more than our rightful share. We still have a ton of work to do.”


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