On the heels of LEED’s 15th anniversary this year, it’s a fitting time to look back on why the program was created, where it’s headed, and how to get the most out of the popular sustainable building rubric. As LEED evolves, there are efforts to create a more holistic approach to certain areas of the program, and it will become more rigorous procedurally, to the potential exclusion of certain types of building projects.
Developed by the USGBC in 1998, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) was intended to help building owners and operators find ways to be environmentally responsible and resource-efficient through an attribute-based performance credit system. LEED set out to allocate points based on the potential environmental impacts and human benefits of each credit across five major categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.
The current version, LEED v3, was launched in April 2009, and at the time, encompassed a new structure for making sure the rating system incorporated current technology and addressed priorities like energy use and CO2 emissions. In preparation for the next generation of the program, LEED v4, which is currently in beta and due to be launched this November, changes from the current version fall into three main categories: new market sectors, increased technical rigor, and streamlined services.
LEED v4 will be significantly different than the versions before it. This update will include a major format change, as opposed to the small tweaks the program has seen in the past. The new version will consist of cutting-edge approaches like Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and prescribed third-party certifications, adding a new layer of transparency to the program as a whole. All former parallel, use-specific programs, such as LEED for Schools and LEED for Healthcare, will be folded into the main program, making for a more easily-navigable checklist of criteria for any given project. Also, LEED v4 promises the aforementioned streamlined services, which comprise the online submission system and a process by which backup materials can be more easily submitted. This paradigm shift leaves the attribute-based system behind and leans toward a more fully integrated building rubric.
In recent years, LCA has surfaced as an alternative to the LEED Materials and Resources credits of the past, which had been criticized for encouraging builders to go for individual materials that don’t necessarily complement each other or contribute to the overall goals of a project. LCA uses a scientific process to evaluate environmental impacts of a product’s raw material procurement, manufacturing, delivery, deployment, use, deconstruction, recycling, and disposal. Following this practice allows construction professionals to look at the building’s impact as a whole and the entire project in a more “big picture” way. In LEED v4, LCA is limited to building creation, but it will naturally grow to include use phase effects (such as energy use), deconstruction, and disposal/reclamation.
All told, the changes anticipated in LEED v4 will undoubtedly make the program a more attractive option for some builders, but the added rigors of the new version will likely make LEED prohibitive for many others. While it will be ideal for high-profile, large-budget projects like schools, hospitals, and professional office buildings, for many bread-and-butter commercial buildings, such as warehouses, plants, or strip centers, the program might prove too rigorous and expensive to remain a realistic option.
A core issue is the third-party certification element: These third-party verifications play a large role in the new level of transparency that the USGBC is pushing for, but it’s going to mean that a whole portion of the industry could be ready to say goodbye to LEED because of the cost of compliance in a market segment with traditionally lower margins. Even though the USGBC will streamline the submittal process, the amount of work users will have to do to prove compliance is going to increase many times over and much of that burden will shift to the building product manufacturer. A few manufacturers are already enrolled in approved third-party programs, and the submission process will be relatively easy for them. For manufacturers who are going through this certification process for the first time, however, their work will increase significantly, as they adopt a whole new set of rules, layered on top of those they already follow. Also, manufacturers who depend on proprietary chemistry to add value could be forced to reveal trade secrets by having to submit to third-party certification. There’s a reasonable likelihood that, under this new paradigm, these manufacturers would rather abandon LEED than show their hand to competitors.
The builders and architects of projects affected negatively by this change will have some reprieve, however: Since each version of LEED has a targeted 7-year life, LEED v3 will be available until 2016, even after LEED v4 is formally launched late this year. This gives builders, at a minimum, 2 more years of LEED v3 if that option works best for their project. After 2016, the market might have to split. It’s expected that alternate green-building programs that are more attribute-based (such as GreenGlobes) and the “green codes,” such as ASHRAE 189.1 and IgCC, will be waiting in the wings for these market segments. These systems are less complex, expensive, and time-intensive to apply.
In the future, it’s likely that LEED will continue to come out with an updated version every 3 to 4 years. LEED will continue to raise the bar in order to keep up with new sustainable building research and remain the cutting-edge green construction standard. ■
About the Author:
Bob Zabcik is NCI Building Systems’ director of research and development. He is a LEED-accredited professional and a registered professional engineer with more than 20 years of experience. He serves on several professional committees, such as the MBMA Energy Committee and Sustainability Committee, as well as several task groups of those committees. He is also on the board of the Cool Metal Roofing Coalition and serves as the director of their technical committee. To learn more about NCI Building Systems, visit www.ncilp.com, or to contact Bob: bobz@ncigroup.com.
Modern Contractor Solutions, November 2013
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