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Is LEED Becoming the New Normal?

| Thursday June 26th, 2014 | 1 Comment

SkyscrapersThe LEED certification program has its roots back in 1993, when David Gottfried and Mike Italiano founded the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The aim was to promote sustainability throughout the building and construction industry, which naturally involves standard-setting, and so just a few years later, in 2000, about 60 private and nonprofit sector stakeholders gathered to launch LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Since then, USGBC has grown to 76 chapters with 13,000 member companies and other stakeholders, along with a roster of more than 181,000 credentialed LEED professionals. According to USGBC, currently more than 4.5 billion square feet of construction space have gone through the LEED system.

Just by the numbers, LEED has clearly gone mainstream. Acceptance by leading global companies like Mariott is another mainstream marker. Even the U.S. Department of Defense has adopted LEED standards to help fulfill longstanding energy conservation mandates, despite opposition from the usual suspects (yes, Sen. Inhofe, we mean you).

This poses an interesting problem. If LEED certification is the new normal, how can it make your business stand out from the crowd?

LEED basics

For those of you who are unfamiliar with LEED, there are actually five LEED variants, each tailored to a different sector of the building industry: Building Design and Construction, Interior Design and Construction, Building Operations and Maintenance, Neighborhood Development, and Homes.

Depending on the sector, property owners can seek LEED certification for work on existing structures as well as new construction.

The system was designed for accessibility, so instead of establishing one blanket level of certification there is a basic “certified” category and three successive levels of higher achievement, the now-familiar Silver, Gold and Platinum certifications.

The level of certification is awarded through a point system, which is broken down into six categories. The  Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality categories are self-descriptive. The sixth category, Innovation in Design, serves as a catchall for measures that don’t quite fit the other categories, which helps to keep the system flexible and open to new approaches.

Why choose LEED?

LEED, of course, is not merely window dressing for companies seeking to establish their green cred. The bottom line benefits are well documented in terms of operational costs and utility bills, and the point system is designed to enable construction costs at or below non-LEED standards. USGBC also points out some additional bottom line factors:

…Businesses and organizations across the globe use LEED to increase the efficiency of their buildings, freeing up valuable resources that can be used to create new jobs, attract and retain top talent, expand operations and invest in emerging technologies.

LEED buildings have faster lease-up rates and may qualify for a host of incentives like tax rebates and zoning allowances. Not to mention they retain higher property values.

There is also a growing body of evidence to support these kinds of claims. A 2012 study of hundreds of PNC Bank branches, for example, found substantially higher revenue performance at LEED-certified branches, and LEED certification has also been linked to improved employee health.

On beyond LEED

The real beauty of LEED is that it provides a platform for leveraging a company’s unique identity.

That’s because while the LEED system sets goals, there is considerable flexibility in the strategies, products and materials that achieve those goals. Even if we’re looking at a future where non-LEED is the exception and not the rule, there is still plenty of room for differentiation.

For example, just last month Triple Pundit profiled the family-owned Shore Hotel in Santa Monica, California, which is aiming for LEED Platinum certification. To earn LEED points, cement its cutting-edge image and satisfy growing customer demand for EV charging, the hotel features an advanced energy storage and EV charging platform from the company Green Charge Networks. To ice the cake, the storage system will cut the hotel’s expensive utility “demand charge” usage by up to 50 percent.

Another example of a high-visibility LEED strategy is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s new billion-dollar LEED Gold office complex in Virginia. It includes a number of LEED-qualifying features designed to educate visitors and raise public awareness about sustainable design, such as a green-roofed visitors center as well as “green screens” for one of the parking lots, and landscaping designed for water conservation and natural stormwater management.

At the other end of the visibility spectrum, the iconic Empire State Building achieved LEED Gold certification through a series of energy efficiency upgrades that are all but invisible, in keeping with its historic status.

As for the Department of Defense, let’s note for the record that it adopted LEED in 2010, only to see the Gold and Platinum aspects of the program restricted by Congress late in 2011. However, an independent 2013 LEED report provided substantial evidence of benefits to taxpayers for resuming Gold and Platinum. Unrestricted LEED goals were included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, which President Barack Obama signed in January.

Image courtesy of UL Environment 

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  • http://intercongreen.com/ T. Caine

    We can only hope that LEED comes to be seen as a standard for building. I’ve seen this as one of the two most important benefits that LEED provides to not only the building industry, but sustainability as a whole.

    LEED has succeeded in helping to raise standards, in many cases carving away the completely wasteful in deference to the thoughtfully efficient. There are components of LEED that don’t require a ton of work or even a ton of investment, but that’s all the more reason why they should simply be done rather than scrapped in some misdirected value-engineering process. We’re seeing states like New York revising their energy codes to promote the evolution of the marketplace in the direction of efficiency.

    The other accomplishment is the frontage that LEED has afforded to green building. Before LEED, sustainability in buildings was truly a niche market, pushed by a small group of dedicated designers. For better or worse, we live in a country that is defined by its consumer culture. People look for products to buy and LEED made sustainability a product that people could point to and were willing to pay for. The fact that people outside of the design and construction industry know about LEED is a testament to its success.

    Lastly, LEED is certainly not a ceiling. While a LEED Platinum building is a great accomplishment, it does not define the limits of technology or design that we’re capable of. Even other rating systems like Passivhaus are more stringent than the requirements for LEED. LEED is a base to orient a design process, but creativity and diligence can easily surpass the threshold of the system to push the envelope further.