The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is on a mission to transform buildings and communities. Through LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the world’s most widely used green building rating system, the organization has been helping architects, building owners, developers and more meet their sustainability goals since the 1990s.
Of course, construction, design, and operating standards of buildings have changed remarkably since then, and as USGBC says, LEED’s hallmark is “continuous improvement.” USGBC has recently updated its LEED rating system with the help of technical advisory groups that contribute a wealth of expertise and knowledge from the market. The newest version of LEED is LEED v4.1, more inclusive and transparent than ever before, with solutions to address unique markets and a data-driven path to measure performance.
So far, the new version has received very positive reception in the market. At the moment, the LEED rating system can be applied to almost all space types including new construction, existing buildings, interior spaces, residential and even entire cities and communities.
“For the first time, we’ve added a metric that is truly focused on greenhouse gas emissions. People are excited about what is in the rating system, as it really addresses the needs of the time,” says Melissa Baker, Senior Vice President of USGBC.
LEED v4.1 has already been tested among some users who have undergone the latest certification, coordinated through GBCI and supported by USGBC’s network staff. USGBC looks forward to having more customers pursue certification and provide feedback to ensure its continued relevance and accessibility to a global marketplace. After all, LEED is used in 175 countries around the world.
Projects currently pursuing certification under LEED v4 are welcome to substitute version 4.1 credits on their project – a low-risk way to test the waters of the new requirements using new measurement software.
In addition to encouraging private planners and developers to certify projects under LEED’s new 4.1 version, USGBC also encourages owners of current LEED buildings to recertify themselves to protect their asset and maintain their sustainability investment. As USGBC announced in late 2018, all LEED projects are eligible for recertification.
“You can’t manage what you aren’t measuring. We know how critical it is to make sure that projects that achieve recognition for new construction or existing buildings certification under LEED continue to perform as they were designed, and are well operated so that those owners can see the benefits, whether it is the savings or production of renewable energy,” Melissa Baker explains.
When USGBC set up the recertification system, the same categories such as energy, water, waste, transportation—as well as the larger human experience, which covers air quality amongst other things—continued to be measured. However, USGBC strived for a way to allow projects to use data to track and understand their performance.
Today, USGBC is powering its LEED certifications and re-certifications through Arc. Arc is a data measurement platform that allows buildings to input their data to benchmark themselves and improve performance. Both LEED certified buildings and projects that are taking steps toward certification can use the software to input performance data and streamline the documentation process.
“Project teams are able to track data, whether its energy use, for example, or renewable energy produced. They can also reach out and survey tenants to track occupant satisfaction,” Melissa Baker describes.
Metrics ranging from tenant modes of transportation, to indoor air quality, all the way up to annual greenhouse gas emissions can be measured and compared with other high-performance buildings around the world. The user-friendly tool is not only valuable to green businesses by showing them exactly where and how they can improve their facilities, but it is also appreciated by their investors, who value the transparency that only cold, hard data can provide.
“We’re also leveraging this benchmarking tool as a documentation pathway for the LEED Zero program. We’re providing streamlined ways for data to really speak for LEED certification and LEED Zero as part of our digital strategy,” adds Emma Hughes, LEED Project Manager at USGBC.
LEED Zero is a complement to LEED certification that recognizes buildings with a net zero resource balance over the span of a year. For instance, LEED Zero Carbon facilities produce a net zero of CO2 emissions, LEED Zero Water facilities achieve a potable water use balance of zero, and LEED Zero Waste facilities achieve at least a 90 percent overall diversion rate for solid waste. The LEED Zero Program was launched in late 2018. Brazilian engineering and green building consulting firm Petinelli certified the first project in 2019 achieving LEED Zero Energy for its headquarters in Curitiba, Brazil.
In order to meet these rigorous goals – which USGBC is working to ensure are the new normal – Emma Hughes tells us that it is critical that building owners get onboard early in the project, and that the goals are agreed upon by multiple project stakeholders. In this way, designers and builders can ensure that efficient building systems are in place, including HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems. These systems must not only be ecologically responsible, but also deliver high-quality air, water, and electricity to the occupants to maintain a truly healthy and sustainable environment. This boosts occupant wellbeing beyond status quo market expectations.
Next, teams must consider the sources of the resources the building needs to run. USGBC promotes onsite renewable energy, given its positive impacts on resiliency and the surrounding community in a world that struggles with the negative health repercussions of pollution.
In terms of managing earth’s most essential and precious resource – water – a mindset shift is needed so that it is used to its full potential within building systems. “We haven’t seen any LEED Zero Water projects that are certified yet, but we are seeing candidate projects that are interested in understanding the strategy. They are going onsite, harvesting and treating rain water, and using that as potable water. Another strategy that we are seeing is teams treating their graywater and reusing it onsite for appropriate end uses, such as toilet flushing and irrigation,” Emma Hughes informs us.
Hughes points out that another creative strategy would be for project teams to look critically at their landscapes and the area surrounding their buildings and consider ways to better manage water onsite that mimic the natural water systems. “That might mean turning a previously existing parking lot into something like a constructed wetland, for example,” she suggests.
According to the USGBC website, “LEED Zero represents a new level of achievement in green building that is not just attainable but is the goal of LEED certified projects around the world.”
So how can developers get to this stage, where we are not just saving energy, but using net zero amounts of it – or even generating it so that we are giving more than we receive? “Our mission as an organization is green buildings for all within a generation,” says Melissa Baker. “And we know we are not going to be able to get there without public-private adoption at all levels to see LEED certification impact not just Class A offices, but buildings across the world and now cities and communities as well.”
USGBC’s intent has always been for voluntary adoption of the LEED rating system, especially for those that want to be able to continue to show leadership and designate their property or their portfolio of properties as very high performing. LEED provides that distinguishing mark of third-party certification that shows that they have those methods in place to stand out amongst their peers.
“That intention has not changed, and we see that whether it is public sector adoption for their properties, public sector incentives for the private sector to use LEED, or the adoption of LEED by Fortune 500 and even Fortune 100 companies,” Baker continues.
USGBC will continue to increase voluntary adoption of global, regional and local LEED goals as a standard applicable to all. This allows even large multinational companies to be able to adopt and implement LEED standards across their worldwide portfolio.
“We will continue scaling up our programs and offerings to ensure we are having the maximum impact towards the goal of realizing our mission of green buildings for all,” says Emma Hughes.
LEED v4.1 is certainly a step toward that mission, and USGBC welcomes feedback on its new version. Now with the implementation of a new data-driven benchmarking platform, there has never been a better time for those interested in taking their sustainability goals to the next level to see if LEED certification is right for them.