For many of us, green building design is still a confusing concept. Even though LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s signature environmental rating system, has been around since the 1990s, figuring out what makes a “green building” and what steps are associated with meeting LEED requirements often seems challenging to prospective home owners.
That’s in part because of a simple, underlying principle of the LEED rating system, says Josh Jacobs, UL Environment’s technical information and public affairs manager: It’s always improving.
“Our understanding [of sustainable construction] gets better, our technology gets better, the manufacturing process gets better, our construction tools get better and the marketplace becomes more educated and adapts more,” says Jacobs. The standards that define sustainable construction gradually improve. As the USGBC updates each version of its LEED rating system, expectations that define healthy living environments are raised as well.
Unfortunately, however, understanding what’s needed to meet that new benchmark can be a time-consuming proposition. USGBC’s newest and long-awaited Version 4, which was released last fall, still presents a learning curve to both architects and contractors, not to mention homeowners unfamiliar with the rigors of LEED-compliant construction.
And that’s where UL Environment has been most successful in filling a niche. With its longstanding experience in product compliance validation, it’s had great success in finding ways to translate technical concepts and rating systems into terms that both builders and their customers can understand.
“We help manufacturers communicate their sustainable attributes to the marketplace,” says Jacobs. That attribute can be the value of new environmental design concepts listed under the LEED v.4 point system, or the integrity of a specific air quality system for that same structure.
I asked Jacobs what the fundamental questions and steps are that those new to LEED need to keep in mind, whether they are builders trying to understand the LEED v.4 certification process or homeowners considering the benefits of certifying their future green home.
What are your goals?
Just because you are building a LEED-certified building, says Jacobs, “doesn’t mean that you are going to do things necessarily from a planning any different from an every day ‘normal’ building. As with any building, you need to understand what the goal of that building is.”
Is it meant to function as a family house, an office space, a multi-family structure or a family retreat? Each have basic planning requirements irrespective of whether they are being designed to be LEED-compliant or not. Deciding on what you are trying to attain before you enlist the services of an architect or contractor will yield a better outcome, both in compliance and cost.
What level of LEED certification are you looking to attain?
LEED’s four certifications meet different needs and are determined by the points you meet in your construction. But figuring out whether you’re aiming to build a state-of-the-art LEED Platinum building with its own energy production and enhanced water-saving features, or a building that is energy efficient is an important first step.
With that comes figuring out what you want the building to be able to handle. Do you want innovative water conservation systems added, and cool roof properties to reduce the effects of global warming on your energy usage? Make sure your contractor knows what kind of “green building” attributes you’re aiming for.
What local environmental factors do you need to consider?
Green Building Councils differ from region to region because environmental demands also differ. “What matters to Seattle, Washington … is different than what matters to Atlanta, Georgia,” says Jacobs. “So the regionalization of sustainability is incredibly important.”
In some areas, city building codes work hand-in-hand with design codes set down by the GBC. In Baltimore, Boston and Vancouver, British Columbia, green building standards are enforced by city governments. The state of California also has its own state-wide green building requirements.
But equally important are those regional areas that aren’t governed by public green building codes and benefit from the optional LEED-certification program. LEED’s Indoor Quality credit system, for example, awards points for the absence of radon, volatile organic compounds and other contaminants. And UL Environment provides validation services and product guides that enhance this process, making it easier for builders and contractors to meet LEED requirements.
Both LEED v.4 and UL Environment address healthy living
Transparency, performance and the human impact of materials and environment are at the core of LEED principles. They are key to UL Environment’s programs as well. Products and systems that support these considerations will yield the greatest outcome when it comes to the operation and safety of your new home.
“UL now, with the creation of UL Environment in the last 7 years or so, is really starting to put a flag in the ground that says, ‘Look, safety needs to be redefined in our new world,’” Jacobs says. LEED, combined with UL Environment’s validation programs, has been expanding that understanding by making sure that construction guidelines go beyond durability.
“[Safety] is more than that … The new definition of safety is more all encompassing,” he continues. And ensuring a healthy living environment that is sustainable as well as comfortable is at the heart of that new safety concept.
Image credit: USGBC