True Green Cities / Raising the Bar For LEED

The new version of LEED, LEED v4, was overwhelmingly approved by a vote of the membership last month – a landslide actually with 86%.  It took almost three years of rewrites and public comment periods, and there are still a lot of questions and even controversy about the new version.  This article on Leeduser by Tristan Roberts describes the controversy in the best way I’ve read so far.

Who can vote? Only the official representatives of a LEED member company can vote.  Anyone could comment on the drafts but you have to be a member company to vote. My company is a member company and I did cast a vote, for example.  The new market version of LEED v4 will be launched at Greenbuild in Philadelphia this November.  We will be easing into it however.  LEED 2009 (the current version), which represented landmark changes when it was launched, will coexist with LEED v4 and will remain open for registration until June of 2015.

How Did Historic Buildings Fare?

This historic building reuse project in Seward, Alaska will fare better under LEED 2009 than LEED v4

This historic building reuse project in Seward, Alaska will fare better under LEED 2009 than LEED v4.

What are the big changes? For historic buildings the best news is the retooled Materials & Resources Credit now called Building Life-Cycle Reduction Impact.  Now any building listed in the National or State Registers and/or locally designated automatically gets 5 points.  This is a credit that those of us in the historic preservation world have been battling for since 2007.  It replaces the Building Reuse credits that gave up to 3 or 4 points depending on the percentage of building structure reused. Those credits were cumbersome and didn’t really address the cultural significance of historic buildings.  Is five points enough?  No, I don’t think so, but it is movement in the right direction.  If the “Optimize Energy Performance” credit can get up to 16 points, I still think there’s room to improve with this MR credit.  So let’s applaud positive change and move on.

Some of the bigger impacts to historic and existing buildings can be found in credits that we may not have looked too closely at during the comment periods. I know I missed some of them.  Everyone liked to complain about the bike rack credit (too easy to get) but the bike rack credit implicitly approves alternative transportation approaches which historic buildings traditionally scored well on.  The new credit requires bike racks and bicycling as part of a biking network.  That isn’t quite so easy to get.  I’m working on a project in a rural city that doesn’t yet have a bike network.  It’s in Alaska where dog sleds are more common than bikes.  And we just might apply for an innovation & design credit for the use of bike sleds!  While I say that not too facetiously, the question becomes, “is the new version of LEED pushing the bar up too quickly? Can our actual infrastructure support some of these changes yet?”

One of the most significant changes is in the Optimize Energy Performance credit.  LEED v4 adopts ASHRAE 2010, which has a much higher bar with energy requirements.  I voted wholeheartedly for this improvement during the public comment period. But then I actually tried to apply it to some projects and saw the dilemma.  Like Russell Perry from the SmithGroup who is quoted in Mr. Roberts’ article, I worry that this new version of LEED may be moving ahead too quickly.  “He explained that he wanted to see LEED v4 go back to the drawing board because changes in LEED v4 are “in some cases too abrupt, the path to project success is significantly less certain, and the effort to comply will be measurably increased.” After 13 years of incredible success for LEED, Perry fears “a LEED drop-off that could be a crash.”

It’s Not Just About the Points But…


National Historic Landmark buildings like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building recently have achieved LEED Gold under LEED EB:O&M (LEED 2009). If they could only have achieved Certified with the same level of effort and cost, would their owners have pursued LEED?

So my biggest concern with LEED v4 is that it is moving ahead and raising the bar too quickly.  Of course it’s good to push buildings to be more sustainable in every way, but, if the changes are so sudden and the impact on achieving LEED so great, will that ultimately damage the field?  Many, many owners (most of whom are not big corporations) want to do the right thing but just might be scared off by the impact some of these changes will have on their ability to achieve LEED.  I just scored two projects I’m working on using both LEED 2009 and LEED v4.  With both projects they did incredibly better under LEED 2009.  They could each achieve LEED Gold and possibly platinum with some changes to the design approach.  However, with LEED v4 they couldn’t even get to Certified (the lowest level).  For the past 13 years projects and clients have been achieving LEED with certain expectations.  The incredible jump in some of those expectations now, could lead to a decision to just not even try LEED.  And that’s not good for anyone.  What LEED has done is raise the bar of our expectations but raising it so high so that very few can reach it overnight may start to put it into the aspirational range of products like the Living Building Challenge which still only has 4 “Living” projects and 3 “Petal” projects.

How Did I Vote?

I struggled with my vote for the month the voting was open.  I waited nearly till the end but ultimately I voted “Yes.”  I voted “yes” because like others quoted in the Roberts’ article, I believe we have to move forward.  We need to improve our resource and energy efficiency.  If we don’t raise the bar, we’ll never do better. I did add comments to my vote – I asked USGBC to further study the unknowns (like the MR products disclosure credits) and to allow flexibility in interpreting the credits, especially when the real world has not yet met up with the aspirational one.  We can’t bury our heads in the sand, but we do need to be realistic and see how these changes impact the market. I am concerned about how it will impact my clients and projects and for that reason I am highly encouraging my current clients to register under LEED 2009 before June, 2015.

So in the meantime, I highly recommend you read Tristan Roberts’ take on it.  It’s very useful and informative.

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