Data, the New Natural Resource

Written by Claire Suttles

Founded in 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) pioneered the concept of sustainable building. The organization hit the ground running and quickly grew into an internationally renowned organization made up of 76 chapters, 13,000 member companies and organizations, and more than 181,000 professionals.
In 2000, USGBC launched LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification—and reshaped the direction of the industry.

The certification recognizes commercial, institutional, and residential projects in America and abroad that have achieved superior environmental and health performance. In addition to LEED, USGBC advances support programs, public policy initiatives, and education to support energy saving, cost-efficient, green buildings around the world.

LEED continues to provide a global benchmark for green building. The certification has progressed through four different versions to remain at the leading edge of the green building revolution. “LEED is about continuous improvement,” summarizes USGBC President and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam. After profiling USGBC in April 2015, Business in Focus sat down with Mr. Ramanujam this month to learn about the newest version of LEED and catch up on the latest news.

The latest version of LEED, LEED V4, is designed to be more flexible and performance-based to improve the overall user experience. “LEED V4 is all about performance,” Mr. Ramanujam summarizes. Specifically, LEED V4 embraces integrated performance—“not just energy performance or water performance. It is performance across the board,” that begins at the individual building level and expands to include communities and cities.

In addition, LEED V4 places an increased emphasis on water conservation. By evaluating total building water use, LEED V4 is able to give a clearer picture of water efficiency. “We have put so much time and energy on focusing on energy, but the time is now to focus on water. We have shifted the conversation to say, ‘let’s talk about a water budget and how a project actually uses and consumes water—the most precious natural resource.’”

LEED V4 also has a deeper focus on building materials. The newest version takes a closer look at what construction materials contain and how these components affect the environment and human health. Builders must consider the “overall lifecycle of the material,” from manufacturing processes to modes of transport and the impact on the building’s occupants. Reducing the carbon footprint remains a key goal, but builders have to go to the next level to ensure human health is positively impacted as well. “Is it healthy? Is it a material that you want to keep in a building that is going to house [a lot] of people? You really focus on the characteristics of the material in a deeper way.”

To remain relevant, LEED V4 is designed to keep up with rapidly advancing technology. The new version promotes the use of smart grids with a credit that rewards projects that participate in demand response programs.

Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) launched a new technology company, Arc Skoru Inc., in December 2016. The enterprise is the official host for Arc, a new, action-oriented platform designed to support the missions of GBCI and USGBC. Arc has the potential to transform the industry because it can be used to measure green performance in all buildings—not just those involved with LEED. The platform allows the industry to “look beyond LEED buildings,” Mr. Ramanujam explains. “[We are] not just implementing this performance score for buildings that are pursuing LEED certification, but we have also opened up the vision for buildings that will never pursue LEED.” As a result, the industry can approach LEED “in an incremental way.”

Buildings without LEED certification can use Arc to slowly work toward manageable sustainability improvements. These users can gradually earn LEED certification over an extended period of time, or simply improve their building through a step-by-step process. Arc is also useful for LEED certified buildings because it compares a building’s performance with other buildings.

With so much flexibility, Arc boasts a wide variety of users, from schools, government buildings, hospitals, and senior centers to health care facilities, retail centers, and industrial buildings. Furthermore, the platform is not limited to a single building; entire cities are taking advantage of Arc to gauge improvements and compare sustainability measures to other cities, communities, and projects.

Arc provides a more transparent way to share data—which Mr. Ramanujam dubs “the new natural resource”—to promote sustainability. “When we look at green building, there is a lot of anecdotal as well as analytical information out there. So our job is to now curate content in a systematic manner… the data has to tell the story.” Arc will help users to make the most of their data, advancing individual buildings, communities, and cities in the process.

The inclusion of communities and cities reflects USGBC’s expanded focus from individual structures to much larger, more inclusive entities. “We are shifting our focus from buildings to communities to cities,” Mr. Ramanujam reports. “Because I think the next big thing is about making the connection that buildings actually [influence] communities and cities.”

Looking ahead
Sustainable building is making a significant impact on the industry and the economy. “LEED is not just a rating system,” Mr. Ramanujam points out. “LEED is not just a methodology; LEED is an economic development tool.” USGBC’s 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study reports some impressive statistics and predictions.

From 2011 to 2014, the green construction market has generated $167.4 billion in GDP; supported over 2.1 million jobs; and provided $147.7 billion in labor earnings. From 2011 to 2014, LEED-related construction spending has generated $80.6 billion in GDP, supported 1 million jobs, and provided $70.9 billion in labor earnings.

The study predicts that from 2015 to 2018, green construction will generate an additional $303.4 billion in GDP, support 3.9 million jobs, and provide $268.4 billion in labor earnings. During that same time period, LEED-related construction spending will generate an additional $108.8 billion in GDP, support 1.4 million jobs, and provide $95.7 billion in labor earnings.

As the green construction industry continues to evolve and expand, USGBC is moving toward a broader vision. “We can no longer look at the market in silos,” Mr. Ramanujam remarks. “[It] is about holistic design, holistic construction, holistic operations that can generate a holistic performance… We started in silos, but very quickly we realized that without the community contacts the buildings become a little bit disjointed. So now we are trying to take a holistic view.”

This holistic view considers everything from underserved communities to smart grid inclusion in order “to create that connection to the building. So far we have been focusing on the building and around the building. Now we are going to focus on the things that the building influences [and] how the city and the community are influencing the wants and the needs of the building.”

As USGBC’s new CEO, Mr. Ramanujam is eager to spearhead the organization’s new, holistic approach. “My mission will be to actually institutionalize that vision to go deeper, broader.”

He also wants to help build a new generation of industry leaders. “My job is to continue to support the leaders in the market, to continue to grow new leaders, focus on the 21st century workforce and create a pipeline of leaders who will make market transformation happen.”

Mr. Ramanujam views the upcoming effort not as a job, but as a privilege. “Stepping into this job quickly made me realize it is not a job… It connects me to the contribution that I can make as a human being for a better planet and a better vision.”

He believes that all the pieces are in place to bring that vision to fruition. “We have all the resources. We have all the knowledge. [By] continuing to focus on leadership and continuing to build a base, that market transformation can happen not within a generation, [but] within a decade.”



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