LEED v4, the Evolution of Green

It’s particularly troubling to those of us watching the energy efficiency marketplace to see one program or another take a hard hit. That’s why the 2010 class action lawsuit by Henry Gifford against the US Green Building Council – the parent organization of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) – had such wide-ranging responses from both efficiency experts and the public.

When Gifford led the charge – for fraud, wire fraud, unfair competition, unjust enrichment, deceptive trade methods, and false advertising (with Sherman antitrust and RICO violations thrown in just to make sure nothing was missed) – the building energy efficiency movement turned into a flooded anthill. Some professionals couldn’t get far enough away from the maligned USGBC: others kept going back to try and close the floodgates of criticism.

Did the USBGC deserve to be dragged through the mud? Yes, said Gifford, who admitted that LEED criteria had cost him lucrative efficiency work because he doesn’t participate in the system. No says the USBGC, which pointed out that Gifford capitalized on the difficult metrics of LEED before 2009, and then persisted in the same vein even when LEED made requirements stricter and began demanding proof.

Moreover, Gifford isn’t an engineer, and his efforts were more damaging to “green” building – the real focus behind LEED – than an entire cohort of anti-greens wearing funny hats and carrying placards.

Not to mention that much of the pressure behind the controversy was the result of LEED standards (e.g., Cradle to Cradle materials certification) which plastic industry professionals say left them out of the green construction loop. In fact, it was this bias that inspired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to support another green building leader, the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition, which reportedly manages to mesh green building with chemically-derived materials.

Enter Brendan Owens, Vice President of LEED technical development, who works with volunteer committees to elaborate and streamline LEED rating systems. In this role, Owens is also focused on LEED’s newest evolution, LEED v4. Owens liaises, via USGBC’s executive committee, for ASHRAE/IES/USGBC Standard 189.1, a 2011 metric for “total building sustainability” that can be applied to all but residential low-rise buildings. He is also a representative to the International Code Council for the International Green Construction Code, and on the board of directors for the New Buildings Institute, where his qualifications as a licensed professional engineer help craft new green-building developments.

It would be wrong to suppose that the 2011 lawsuit turned LEED into the ugly stepsister. In fact, according to Owens, LEED recently crossed the 20,000 certified commercial project mark globally, with another 45,000 buildings in the pipeline. On the residential side, 16,000 homes meet LEED standards, and another 30,000 to 40,000 are in the queue.

But Owens refuses to get into the minutae of green. Instead, he says:

“What LEED v-4 represents to me is the natural evolution of the green building market over the past 10 to 15 years, and the increasing ability of the construction industry to engage in high-performance green building both domestically and around the globe.”

As the causative agent, he cites a significant transformation in the status quo of the building marketplace.

“We have seen technologies that were considered “fringe” 10 years ago become mainstream strategies that are popping up in building codes all over the world.”

From Owens’s perspective, V-4 advances the definition of high performance by focusing on green verification, where significant design-to-operation performance gaps create precisely the kind of seeming obscurantism that Gifford complained about. Unfortunately, Gifford’s lawsuit merely muddied the waters and left an undefended frontier that anti-green (and anti-climate change) individuals used to their advantage.

Fortunately, LEED’s four certification levels (Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum) have not changed, and the use of formerly “brown” materials (like plastic) will get a pass of sorts. That is, LEED hopefuls will be encouraged to use green materials, but will not be penalized for using ‘bad’ ones (Owens’s word, not mine).

“The materials market, as much as any other venue, has experienced significant transformation. The revisions that were made in November of 2013 were a complete reworking of the way that we think about the materials from which we make buildings.”

LEED’s Cradle-to-Cradle lifecycle assessment of materials remains very important, but it may not be the deciding factor in certification. As Owens notes:

“We also encourage builders to focus on the other things that the lifecycle assessment – and the way it is currently practiced – isn’t very good at exposing. For example, what kind of impact a product has on human health, or its effect on the ecosystems from which it is extracted.”

For example, bamboo – used in everything from floors to furniture, and even in eating utensils – is billed as ultra-green (fast to replenish itself, needing only a little water, easy to process). But if the bamboo grove being harvested is also the habitat of beloved panda bears – not really bears and symbolic of peace rather than the occasionally lethal aggressiveness of real bears – the product is definitely not green. One would be better off using real oak parquet.

It is this significant shift in the way project teams are encouraged to think about materials that Owens feels is most important. For example, when asked about biofoam, an insulative agent derived from soybeans, he replied that ‘there is no such absolute as a “green” material (or a red one, or a brown).”

“It’s a question of how you use it, and the alternatives. We are encouraging product teams to focus on materials for which disclosure activities have occurred. This includes not only a green profile, but a human health profile and a sourcing profile. When you have all three, you have a complete picture of the product.”

Bottom line, says Owens, LEED v-4 is focused on “intregrative processes, design and operation” – a wholesome approach that most would agree supports and furthers the aim of green building.

Now if we could just get everyone to agree on what those aims are ….

2 replies
  1. Quentin Parker
    Quentin Parker says:

    The problem with LEED the way it was is the financial feasibility. Bldg Owners simply feel the rewards by far are too expensive and too much effort to administer. A simplified, more direct approach governerned by the private industry initiatives proposes a much more efficient rating eval and cost benefit directive. Energy use in, calc’d waste and conversion out, then lifecycle on major components only.

    • Jeanne Roberts
      Jeanne Roberts says:

      A large number of industry insiders agree with you, but discarding LEED would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. A gradual trimming of the waste might be in order, though.

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