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In praise of LEED

After an unprecedented six public comment periods, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) membership has just adopted the fourth version of its phenomenally popular rating system, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Arup has been a supporter of the program for many years, working on LEED projects since the version 1 pilot in 2001 (and, in many cases, achieving the highest possible certification).

To celebrate the release of the new version, we took a few moments to consider the program’s impact on our work over the years — and why we continue to recommend it to most of our clients.

Popularizing green

LEED’s name recognition is perhaps its greatest asset. It has created a shorthand reference that allows clients, designers, and the general public to describe buildings’ sustainable attributes in a way that is broadly understood and appreciated.

The system’s popularity has made the conversation about sustainability deeper, more rigorous, and more interesting. Thanks to LEED, the baseline awareness of the broad range of factors influencing building sustainability has ballooned over the last decade. “Looking back to the days before LEED, it was easy for buildings to claim green credentials even when they were barely clearing code standards,” Arup principal and USGBC board member Fiona Cousins said. LEED has been fantastic as a means for both promoting sustainability and reducing greenwash.

The system’s popularity has made the conversation about sustainability deeper, more rigorous, and more interesting

Its extensive market penetration has also made it a valuable commodity for property owners. Due to its name recognition even among people outside of the design field, LEED certification helps attract tenants and often increases property values. Because its value is well understood and generally predictable, clients are able to justify the money and effort needed to achieve the benchmark.

Policymakers have been paying attention as well. Many municipal and state building codes have moved towards the system, with cities like Boston requiring LEED-certifiable projects. It has also become a blueprint for mandatory standards such as California’s CALGreen. Its similarity to rating systems such as BREEAM gives it additional international credibility.

Many of our clients like to use the standard to understand what is expected of them in a particular market — for example, LEED certification is practically a prerequisite for class A office space in San Francisco. It also helps developers, owners, and property managers understand what their assets will need to look like to remain attractive to the market in the future.

Motivating and enabling a broad range of clients

LEED is a simple, effective tool for communicating with clients and encouraging specific sustainable design actions across a broad spectrum of impacts. “Over the years I’ve found that for many clients it’s simpler to buy, for example, a sustainable energy measure with the reward of getting points towards Gold than to be convinced of the CO2 savings,” said Ramon Rodriguez, who heads the sustainability and energy practice in Arup’s Madrid office.

Experienced clients who are committed to sustainability tend to use it as a jumping-off point to seek ever-higher levels of performance

The program caters to both those with deep green ambitions and those who are just starting out. By establishing metrics, standardizing performance, and setting up a common understanding of what sustainability in the built environment means, it provides a simple point of entry even for clients who rarely build. Although it requires a minimum level of performance across the whole spectrum of environmental sustainability, it offers many paths to certification, allowing different clients and design teams to pick those most relevant to their needs and ambitions. Experienced clients who are committed to sustainability tend to use it as a jumping-off point to seek ever-higher levels of performance, while those with less knowledge simply use it as a road map to help them ensure quality in their buildings.

Its breadth also helps create awareness across the design industry. While some parts of the market have traditionally been very aware of the benefits of reducing energy, for example, the LEED system encourages all participants to recognize the benefits of other sustainability measures, such as improved internal air quality, daylighting levels, and water efficiency.

Greening the market

LEED has raised expectations about building quality and materials’ environmental credentials. To cite just a few examples, there are now far more low-VOC paints and adhesives available, the market for recycled materials is much stronger, and expectations around construction waste management have been elevated.

These dramatic shifts have been very apparent on our projects over the last decade. During the first years of a multi-year, multi-site effort in Songdo, South Korea, the design team found very few options for achieving materials points. By the time we moved on to the next phases only a few years later, however, there were significantly more choices.

In a difficult economy, LEED has also created new jobs for consultants, commissioning agents, testing companies, and more.

Opportunities and challenges

The new Materials & Resources credits included in LEED v4 are an enormous step in the right direction. They have been formulated to achieve a better and more holistic representation of the role of materials in buildings and their environmental impacts. However, their ultimate success depends heavily on the detailed guidance language that is currently being developed. We believe that this process should cast as wide a net as possible, capturing different points of view from experts in many fields. Making the process, timeline, and criteria more transparent than they have been in the past could also increase buy-in for the final product.

The new version of LEED progresses the excellent tradition of encouraging design creativity and innovation through the expansion of performance-based standards. LEED v4 offers a greater challenge to the most experienced and informed practitioners while keeping the lower levels of certification within most projects’ reach.

Practitioners also have reason to be optimistic that USGBC’s new version of LEED Online will further the organization’s progress toward a simple and streamlined certification experience.

Despite the program’s overwhelming successes over the years, there are some issues to address

Despite the program’s overwhelming successes over the years, there are some issues to address. One of the main challenges remaining in the new version is a concern that has been raised by both critics and supporters: that LEED sometimes rewards intentions rather than outcomes. If the building isn’t actually used as planned, the logic runs, great design may be a moot point. The LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (EBOM) rating goes a long way towards resolving this issue, but many designers still struggle to convince owners that they should pursue EBOM certification for recently completed buildings.

Of late, there has also been controversy regarding industry lobbying groups attempting to promote the use of alternative rating systems with less rigorous standards. It remains to be seen how the matter will play out, but we stand behind our commitment to LEED and applaud organizations such as Skanska for sticking to their principles and refusing to put short-term business interests before the health of the environment we all depend on.


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Adam Friedberg is a senior consultant in Arup's New York office. Contact him at adam.friedberg@arup.com.

Kirstin Weeks is a senior specialist in our San Francisco office. Contact her at kirstin.weeks@arup.com.
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