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.
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.
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.
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.
“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