The LEED Green Building Certification System

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More than 1.4 million square feet of construction space is being certified every day.

Over the past 10 years, green building has grown into a global phenomenon that has changed the way we think about the built environment. As buildings, homes and whole communities of all shapes and sizes, across every market sector and reaching all corners of the globe are building green, the LEED green building program, currently in use in 119 across the world, is redefining our sense of place, creating innovative buildings, technologies, products and services that give back to their environments.

When it was established in 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) set out on a path to answer the industry need for a definition for green building. Our membership answered the call, and the result was LEED – the internationally recognized mark of excellence for the buildings that are redefining the way we think about the places where we live, work and learn.

Now, 18 years after it was first formed, USGBC has blossomed into a community comprising 79 local affiliates, more than 16,000 member companies and organizations, and 160,000 LEED Professional Credential holders.  USGBC, committed to a prosperous and sustainable future for our nation through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings, is the driving force of an industry that is projected to contribute $554 billion to the U.S. economy.

USGBC and its members, an alliance of corporations, builders, universities, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations, are working together to reduce the impact of the built environment on our natural environment, while developing cost-efficient and energy-saving solutions.

Developed by USGBC and launched in 2000, LEED provides building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions. The portfolio of high-performing, LEED projects has burgeoned into over 40,000 projects comprising over 8 billion square feet of commercial construction space.  On the residential side, nearly 12,000 homes have been certified under the LEED for Homes rating system, with nearly 53,000 more homes registered.

Why Build Green
Buildings in the U.S. are responsible for 39 percent of U.S. primary energy use and 72 percent of U.S. electricity consumption. They use 15 trillion gallons of water per year and consume 40% (3 billion tons) of the world’s raw materials. Green building offers an immediate and measureable solution to some of the most pressing issues we face today. On average, green buildings they consume 30 percent less water, 26 percent less energy and a corresponding reduction in CO2 emissions than conventional buildings. They are shown to bolster the health of our environment, our coworkers, our customers, and ourselves; the vitality of our communities; and the bottom line of our companies.

LEED-certified buildings are designed to lower operating costs and increase asset value; reduce waste sent to landfills; conserve energy and water; be healthier and safer for occupants; and reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. They qualify for tax rebates, zoning allowances and other incentives in hundreds of cities.

LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at achieving high performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

Green buildings offer a host of benefits for building owners and tenants, making them highly prized assets for companies, communities and individuals worldwide. With lower operating costs and better indoor environmental quality, green buildings are able to differentiate themselves from the competition, making them highly attractive to a growing group of corporate, public and individual buyers. Green features are increasingly entering into tenants’ decisions about leasing space and into buyers’ decisions about purchasing properties and homes.

Green building certification can provide some measure of protection against future lawsuits through third-party verification of measures installed to protect indoor air quality, beyond just meeting code-required minimums. Faster permitting or special permit assistance can also be considered a type of risk mitigation. Another risk management benefit of green buildings in the private sector is the faster sales and leasing of such buildings, compared to similar projects in the same town. Green buildings tend to be easier to rent and sell, because educated tenants increasingly understand their benefits.

Today’s savvier tenants understand and are looking for the benefits that green building spaces have to offer. The new Class A office space is green; lease-up rates for green buildings typically range from average to 20 percent above average.

The cost per square foot for buildings seeking LEED certification falls into the existing range of costs for buildings not seeking LEED certification. An upfront investment of 2% in green building design, on average, results in life cycle savings of 20% of the total construction costs – more than ten times the initial investment. Additionally, building sale prices for energy efficient buildings are as much as 10% higher per square foot than conventional buildings.

Studies have shown that green buildings outperform their non-green peer assets in key areas such as occupancy, sale price and rental rates — sometimes by wide margins. In a 2008 CoStar Group study, LEED buildings commanded rent premiums of $11.33 per square foot over conventional projects, and boasted more than 4 percent higher occupancy.

LEED Green Building Rating System
As the most rigorous and comprehensive tool of its kind, the LEED rating systems have several components but are flexible enough to apply to all building types including new construction and major renovation, core and shell developments, schools, retail (both new construction and commercial interiors), commercial interiors, existing buildings, healthcare facilities, retail, neighborhood developments and homes.

LEED is a point-based system with a total of 110 achievable points and four incremental levels of certification: Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59 points), Gold (60-79 points) and Platinum (80+ points).

Each LEED rating system has five environmental categories that a project must achieve a minimum number of points in: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources and Indoor Environmental Quality. There are two bonus categories where projects can achieve an additional 10 points: Innovation in Design and Regional Priority.

Because LEED places value on the building’s performance over time, all projects certifying under the latest version of LEED must comply with Minimum Program Requirements (MPRs) which requires projects to report energy and water usage to USGBC, among other requirements, in order for USGBC to better assess the performance of certified buildings, while driving higher building performance. As part of assessing on-going performance in strucutures, USGBC’s Building Performance Partnership (BPP) is a program that engages commercial and residential LEED building owners and managers in an effort to optimize the performance of buildings through data collection, analysis and action. This partnership among USGBC and the thousands of LEED project owners will result in the population of a comprehensive green building performance database, enable standardization of reporting metrics and analytics, and establish new performance benchmarks.

The LEED Volume Program, which launched fully in 2011, was designed to meet the needs of LEED’s biggest users, providing a streamlined approach to certifying like buildings and spaces across a company’s portfolio. It is the same LEED system people know but tailored for companies and organizations with a large portfolio of buildings. High-volume property owners and managers—commercial real estate firms like Cushman & Wakefield; national retailers like Best Buy; hospitality providers like Starwood Hotels & Resorts; and local, state and federal governments, like the General Services Administration—are using the LEED Volume Program to earn LEED certification faster and at a lower cost than would be possible with individual building reviews. With the second track of the program, LEED Volume Program for Operations & Maintenance, fully launched, USGBC is able to move further faster towards our goals of green buildings for all within a generation.

How to Achieve LEED Certification
The planning phase is vital to achieving LEED certification, as the project team, credit strategy and goals must all be coordinated and executed effectively to achieve desired outcomes. The first step is to select the project team – a team of experienced and knowledgeable design, construction and engineering professionals who have familiarity with LEED as well as green design and products. Because the demand for professionals who understand and can implement LEED has greatly increased, projects can achieve points for using a team of LEED professionals. To date, some 160,000 professionals have achieved LEED professional credentialing as a LEED AP or a LEED Green Associate.

After the team has been selected, an initial LEED assessment will bring the project team together to evaluate and identify the project’s goals and intended certification level. Using a LEED Reference Guide, checklists and other available resources, the project team selects the credits it has chosen to pursue and assigns the fulfillment of those credits to the according team members.

Once the strategy has been set, the project registers with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), the certifying body for USGBC. Using LEED Online, an online certification tool for LEED, a project indicates its intent to undergo LEED certification. Projects typically register with LEED during the design phase to ensure the maximum potential for achieving certification.

After the project has registered, the project team compiles documentation to demonstrate that the building meets the requirements of each credit. Each LEED credit and prerequisite has a unique set of documentation requirements that must be completed as a part of the application process. The project team should begin to collect information and perform calculations for all prerequisites and the agreed-upon credits. When the necessary documentation has been assembled, the project team will upload the materials to LEED Online and start the application review process.

Upon project completion, documentation is submitted for review. After the review, which generally takes about three months, the building is awarded its LEED certificate and plaque –visible symbols of this impressive accomplishment. It doesn’t end there – through BPP project’s can assess their on-going performance and impact to ensure the project is operating as it was intended to.

The Future of a Sustainable Built Environment
Continuous improvement of LEED is in the DNA of USGBC and its regular evolution is necessary to continue to move market transformation forward. As green building expertise advances and practice evolves, so does LEED, providing innovative solutions to the challenges and opportunities in the building industry.

LEED continues to be the catalyst for immediate and measureable improvement, and the next step in the continuous improvement process and the on-going development cycle of the LEED program is the next update of the LEED rating system, coined LEED 2012. The proposed update builds on the foundation of LEED 2009, including the alignment and weighting of credits and further advances the “bookshelf” framework where credits are applied to specific building types. In addition to the continued evolution of ideas, many of which were first captured even as LEED 2009 was being finalized, the draft of LEED that is opening for public comment places increased emphasis on integrated process and building performance.

The first public comment period launched in November 2010, and the second in summer 2011. Besides the usual public comment web pages at www.usgbc.org, USGBC will also take feedback from projects testing pilot credits, use input from the from a moderated forum dedicated to discussing evolution of LEED, and comments from various webinars that will be held with key stakeholders. USGBC intends for this public comment process to be generative in nature, and expects a wide-ranging dialog throughout the process.

Green building is one of the most important and exciting movements of our time as we move toward market transformation and work to insure that buildings improve our lives and change the world. It’s about healthier schools, cleaner air, more productive workplaces and stronger communities.  It’s about the benefits that will accrue to all of us in a world in which sustainability is woven into the fabric of our societies, from Beijing, Belgium to Boston, and beyond..


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