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The Launch of the First Industry Standard for Green Buildings
Environmental Design & Construction Magazine
Written by Tom Paladino
May/June 2000

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) recently launched the building industry’s first standard for green buildings. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System ™ , or LEED ™, as the standard is commonly referred to, represents the industry’s definition for what constitutes a green building. Further, it provides a mechanism by which the industry can measure, or rate, the level of "greenness" of a building.

The USGBC is a national coalition representing all segments of the building industry. Its members include architects, engineers, product manufacturers, building owners, environmental groups, utilities, universities and federal, state and local governments. The coalition boasts as members industry leaders such as Armstrong, Carrier, Forbo and BP Solarex, and architectural firms ranging from large national firms like HOK and Gensler to sole proprietors. The USGBC began developing LEED over five years ago, when it recognized the need not only for a common definition of a green building, but also for a mechanism to provide market recognition for building owners and design and construction teams that achieved a high level of environmental performance for a building.

The launching of LEED is taking place over several months. It began in January with the offering of training workshops. In late March, the first of 12 certified buildings (depicted in the photographs throughout this article) were announced. Other activities, including the offering of consulting services, the launch of an interactive website, and the completion of a reference guide, are all planned for the near future. The new version of LEED (2.0) has just completed its fifth balloting. As a consensus document, it must be unanimously approved by the USGBC members.

Completing this standard was no easy feat given the diversity of the coalition and the complexity of the issue. But the strength of LEED is the process by which it evolved. Over the past five years the green building industry has matured radically and so has its first standard.

Developing a Tool for the Industry

In its original format, LEED was organized in alphabetical order (Asbestos to Water Quality) and served as an inventory tool, listing a host of building features, strategies and goals that could be applied to any building type. Credits or points were given for successful accomplishment of the measures, and a minimum achievement of 50% of the available points was required to achieve a "rating." The earliest buildings involved with LEED typically used only parts of the system, incorporating only those elements that seemed most applicable and desirable for their project.

Although having an inventory tool or checklist was useful in making sure nothing had been forgotten on a project, it was cumbersome when trying to trade off building features that had a competing influence on system or building performance. For example, it has become common knowledge that indoor air quality can be compromised with a building that is tightly sealed to improve energy efficiency. However, in the original version of LEED, one often had to make a trade-off between the two, employing either maximum ventilation for maximum indoor air quality, or minimum ventilation for maximum energy efficiency.

Based on feedback from the earliest users of LEED, the system was reworked to add an understanding to this trade-off. The next iteration of LEED (referred to as Version 1.0) grouped measures, or credits, into five environmental goals. This focus on environmental performance in addition to environmental attributes made LEED an attractive tracking tool, affording a more rigorous analysis of possible measures that all team members could understand. The five environmental goals are: Planning Sustainable Sites, Improving Energy Efficiency, Conserving Materials and Resources, Enhancing Indoor Environmental Quality, and Safeguarding Water.

Field Testing LEED

Despite growing support for LEED an ever-increasing number of projects using the system, Version 1.0 was not ready for an official launch. While the environmental goals helped facilitate use of the system, users reported that there were still many "bugs" that need to be addressed.
With funding from the US Department of Energy, the USGBC launched a pilot program to help them better understand how LEED was being used in the field. In addition to technical feedback, the USGBC sought advice on what kinds of support tools it should develop to ensure LEED’s usability by a broad spectrum of the building industry. The day the Pilot Program was launched, over 20 projects signed up. Ultimately, more than 60 projects participated in the program during 1999, including the 12 that were recently certified.

The pilot projects were offered technical support to aid their understanding on everything from the intention of a measure to which strategies would yield them points. Pilot projects posted questions to a dedicated website and received feedback from the Ruling Body, and committee of volunteers comprising USGBC members from various disciplines. Over a 12-month period, more than 200 questions were posted on the website. Subcommittees for each of the five environmental goal areas were also established and populated with experts to provide additional assistance to the pilot projects and to help rework the credits that were identified by pilot projects as unclear or inconsistent.

The pilot program culminated in a two-day industry review of LEED, hosted by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation at their Pocantico Retreat on the Hudson River. The review was a brainstorming session by 50 industry experts, including building owners, municipal agencies, architects, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers, environmental advocates, federal governmental officials, industrial hygienists and industrial psychologists. Participants addressed issues raised by the Ruling Body, subcommittees and pilot projects, as well as areas they thought might create future obstacles. The combination of field testing and expert review resulted in a final document that could be worthy of widespread industry support.

Stimulation Performance

The Pilot Program raised some fundamental questions about what environmental building features should be rewarded and why. In particular, coexistence of prescriptive and performance measures within the system was found to be confusing and often contradictory, and not adaptable across different geographical regions. The prescriptive measures dictated the specific action that must be taken to acquire points, while a performance measure suggested a goal of a certain level of performance that the building team should aim for. This contradiction was particularly evident in the energy section, which awarded points for employing specific efficiency strategies, such as waste heat recovery and natural ventilation heating and cooling, as well as achieving an overall efficiency level exceeding the ASHRAE standard 90.1. The pilot teams reported that LEED’s prescription of these two strategies in particular gave the strategies unfair weight because the teams would be awarded points for employing them, in addition to being awarded points for their contribution to the overall efficiency of the building. In addition, design teams might be encouraged to employ these strategies even in situations where they were not appropriate or where they actually worked against the overall efficiency of a building, simply because of the number of points they represented. In the new version, these prescriptive strategies have been wrapped into the credit for the overall energy performance.

The pilot projects found many inconsistencies. For example, the design team for the Oquirrh Park Speed Skating Oval in Salt Lake City, UT, is taking care to protect the site from topsoil erosion during construction. The credit in LEED for which they were applying only allowed for protection from stormwater erosion. But the problem in their geographic region is topsoil erosion from wind, not stormwater runoff. It was apparent that the project had met the intent of the LEED erosion credit, but in a different way from that envisioned by the USGBC.

Upon review, the Sustainable Sites subcommittee proposed two separate credits- one credit to address stormwater management and another to address erosion and sedimentation issues. This distinction was made because in some parts of the country, like in Utah, erosion is actually an air quality issue, and not water quality issue. In addition to the clarification of the points, these types of discussions resulted in major changes to the format of the LEED document as well. Each LEED criterion now has a statement of intent that describes the goals and objectives as well as the environmental benefit of the measure.

Encouraging Flexibility

In addition to eliminating prescriptive measures in favor of performance-driven measures, LEED’s flexibility was also increased through a credit equivalence option that allows projects to apply for credits for which they believe they had met the intent, but not the stated practice. For example, the Marion County Courthouse project in Washington State was well underway when the commitment to pursue LEED certification was made. The timing, therefore, made it difficult for the design team to include salvage items in the new project. However, by conducting an extensive salvage effort and finding outside practical uses for over 90% of the building materials recovered from two small structures demolished on the site, the team met the intent of the credit, which calls for an increased utilization of salvaged materials.

Rewarding Innovation

Another flexible element added to LEED 2.0 as a result of the Pilot Program are innovation points. These points are available to acknowledge strategies or technologies that either significantly exceed the performance goals of a credit, or are so new or advanced that an appropriate credit has not yet been incorporated into LEED. For example, Oquirrh Park Speed Skating Oval was awarded innovation points for using a highly efficient cable suspension that significantly reduces both the amount of structural materials needed and the overall volume of air that requires conditioning. The system requires 1,105 fewer tons of steel than the conventional arena roof structure, which, calculated at $1,400/ton (the average cost of steel for suspension structure), also saved them over $1.5 million. The structural depth of the system reduces the interior volume of air by 9% (880,000 cubic feet), thereby reducing the HVAC system capacity by 9%.

To recognize and encourage such innovations, Version 2.0 authorizes up to four "catch-all" innovation credits. These points will not only encourage projects to continue to "push the envelope," but they will also help LEED to evolve by continually supplying new strategies and technologies that can be incorporated into future iterations. Projects petitioning for these credits must state the intent of the feature, and explain the technologies and strategies using a standardized format.

Challenging the Industry

The pilot projects contributed greatly to the "debugging" of LEED. Equally important, they helped USGBC understand how LEED is being used in the marketplace and what benefits it brings to projects. At the Navy’s Bachelor Enlisted Quarters in Great Lakes, IL, the design was one credit short of the certification level it sought. A review of the project revealed that the tree coverage was low, so the Navy decided to purchase approximately $10,000 worth of additional trees to capture the needed credit.

At the Sundeck Restaurant, the Aspen Skiing Co. and their team struggled to meet LEED’s non-smoking prerequisite. Various architectural and engineering solutions were proposed to meet the intent of the credit, including separately ventilating the air creating an outdoor corridor between the bar and the restaurant. Ultimately, the owner decided to ban smoking from the facility to capture the credit.

In many similar cases, the availability of a nationally recognized standard and the tangible benefit of a higher LEED score and a "greener" building have motivated building owners to commit targeted funding for green building features. These examples show standards for measuring performance. By creating the ability to make comparisons with peer projects, the Rating System generates a friendly competition among development teams, and provides a framework for rewarding tough decisions to go green.

Debunking the Myths

One broad-ranging benefit of the LEED program has been its ability to illustrate that green buildings do not necessarily have to cost more. The pilot projects helped highlight these benefits. The EPA headquarters in Kansas City, for example, determined that the project would go green at no additional expense. Using "off-the-shelf" or existing technologies and strategies, the team will qualify for a LEED rating, as well as successfully meet the EPA’s environmental goals and the developer’s financial goals.

The pilot projects proved that there are many technologies available on the market today that can significantly improve upon a building’s environmental and overall performance at the same cost as a traditional building. LEED has also been able to prove that green buildings do not slow down the construction process. The Navy’s Great Lakes Bachelor Enlisted Quarters were designed and constructed in just two years. Another myth that the Pilot Program has dispelled is that green buildings are somehow less attractive that non-green buildings. Many of the pilot participants will receive recognition for the designs as well as their "greenness".

"Despite the fact that LEED has not been considered official until now, it has already shown itself to be a powerful tool in the industry. It has been embraced in the public sector by commercial, industrial, and multi-use building owners. Based on the pilot project experiences, LEED is successfully fulfilling two critical needs in the building industry, first as a design guide, and second as a market incentive mechanism.

"Because the Bren School has achieved a LEED rating, the Santa Barbara campus and the University of California system as a whole are now reevaluating the way they build buildings and how they use energy. It is even sparking master planning questions."

Mo Lovegreen, director, University of California, Santa Barbara and Lisa Matthiessen, project architect.