Rating LEED—a Leader in Sustainability Rating

By Justin Brandt

This week, the Green Buildings Action Research Team has focused on collecting more documents necessary to complete credit profiles for certification. The process has involved scouring profile applications and determining necessary data that satisfies requirements. We will soon request documentation from our stakeholder, Todd Lynch, and accrue it over the week. It is a slow-going process, but we are steadily approaching the point of filling out credit profiles and sending them in for approval. 

Analysis of LEED Certification

“Five years ago, if I asked this class what LEED was, ten percent might raise a hand.” When Walker Wells, a lecturer for my sustainable architecture class again posed this question last Wednesday, 100% of the class had at least heard of LEED, and 80% could explain its process of green building certification. It’s an incredible feat for any organization (let alone a non-profit like the U.S. Green Building Council), to achieve dominance in its market in such a short amount of time. Over 1,500,000 ft² of building space is certified on a daily basis; it is currently leading the market in sustainable building rating systems.

But when green rating systems number in the thousands, how can one be sure if a single scheme is good and means something? Sustainable rating systems often appear trustworthy, but are chosen by companies because they cater to a product type—not painting an accurate scope of green-ness. Six components help us determine which systems are best, and why LEED is leading the market for green buildings certification.

  1. Intent is obvious, environmental, and has social benefit(s). On the front page of its website, the USGBC self-describes itself as “an organization committed to a prosperous and sustainable future for our nation through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.” The mission is clear, and obviously environmental. The promotion of green living and more efficient use of resources will allow current and future generations to enjoy a healthy and comfortable lifestyle.
  2. System development is transparent and has an integrated process. Transparency is the key to trustworthiness, and LEED has maintained this relationship throughout its evolution. An integrated process of communication between numerous disciplines is used to ensure completeness and eliminate miscommunication.
  3. The system is comprehensive. The five main credit categories are sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Bonus categories include innovation in design and regional priority. LEED certification now can be obtained for new developments, existing buildings, neighborhood development, and homes.
  4. It uses accepted standards and measures. Instead of reinventing the wheel and using statistics that might overlook areas of environmental impact, LEED utilizes established and accepted measurements that are easy to interpret and establish meaning.
  5. The system has a field verification component. In honesty, LEED is a little weak in this area. Credit data is not field verified, and certification is based on projected efficiencies instead of actual savings. Furthermore, LEED version 3 is an eternal award—once achieved, the certification never goes away even if the building wanes in green-ness. However, version 4 only awards certification for five years before a recertification process is mandated to ensure a level of sustainability.
  6. It provides non-biased third-party certification. As a non-profit, the USGBC has no other objective than to capture the greatest amount of the population as possible and move them towards a greener future.
Image courtesy of UCLA Urban Planning lecturers, Ted Bardacke and Walker Wells

Image courtesy of UCLA Urban Planning lecturers, Ted Bardacke and Walker Wells

LEED is a market shift tool which aims to eventually bring policy up to a level of no environmental impact. By having the most innovative 25% of the public—“market leaders”—participate in LEED, the USGBC hopes that the other 75% will soon follow. By continuously keeping certification standards reasonably ahead of policy and maintaining this pattern, society slowly shifts towards a more ecological baseline. LEED is an innovator and transformer in how society embraces a green lifestyle; if this balance between policy and innovators continues, we can see hopes for a healthier future become reality.