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Sustainability is like healthcare for the planet. By following the well-vetted and carefully constructed system of LEED, facility executives can rest assured that they have done their part in helping to protect the planet’s health. The side benefits of a commitment to LEED are wide-ranging. Customers see tangible proof of the institution’s commitment to sustainability. Attracting and retaining top talent remains an ongoing need, and LEED helps to keep employees happy and more productive through better access to daylight and healthier air quality. In addition, organizations benefit from a higher civic leadership position due, in part, to its use of LEED. At the global scale, LEED helps to mitigate the negative effects of climate change which aligns with the climate commitments made by many organizations.
At its core, LEED is an amazing system because it inscribes a deep level of intentionality, accountability, and transparency into the process of designing and constructing a green project. Despite the obvious benefits of pursuing LEED, there is a general decline in interest and use of the system. Why has that been? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why the use of LEED has declined, discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a “LEED Lite” approach, and explore new avenues for increasing sustainability accountability in all projects regardless of budget, client interest and other constraints.
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) designed LEED to transform the marketplace and bring sustainability to the forefront of all design projects. In short, it succeeded. USGBC imagined a time when LEED would not be necessary, with local building codes elevated to match LEED and green building practices becoming ubiquitous. Some of that did in fact happen—especially on the West Coast of the United States, which has traditionally been more proactive as it relates to green legislation. Since the inception of the system, more than 3 billion square feet of LEED certified space has been constructed. Prior to the recession of 2008, LEED was well on its way to widespread adoption. Both the economy and the desire to address climate change were strong. But times and priorities change, and we’ve seen hard-won efforts by USGBC erode for several reasons, including:
These changes have brought the buildings community to a critical juncture in both the green building movement and the adoption of LEED on mainstream projects. The perceived cost and complexity of achieving LEED has led many institutions to pursue “LEED Lite” or “LEED Certifiable” projects. LEED Lite implies the use of the LEED categories to hold the design and construction teams accountable, without the expense and time of submitting the documentation necessary to obtain the plaque on the wall. The problem with LEED Lite is that it allows organizations to pick and choose which parts of LEED to pursue and which parts to jettison. This result in a number of potentially distressing outcomes:
Still, well-organized, intentional organizations, and design firms, can achieve positive sustainability results without the LEED process itself. But that requires a deep commitment to sustainability, working in tandem with a design culture where green metrics are built into every project regardless of the client’s demands.
Despite potential roadblocks, there are viable avenues moving forward. One approach involves taking the concept of LEED Lite and transforming it into a simple, customizable system that works for everyone. While it’s true that this approach contributes further to the movement away from LEED, we must also realize that the costs and time barriers of LEED are simply out of bounds for many organizations. As a response, this updated approach begins by acknowledging barriers to entry and a desire to hold ourselves accountable to a set of core principles that includes sustainability. We should seek consistency between what we say about sustainability and what we do on actual projects.
A system that hinges on the use of the AIA Framework for Design Excellences’ ten categories of performance related to sustainability, where the categories mimic the LEED, WELL, and Passive House standards as well as the inclusion for resilience and social equity in the design process is powerful.
This ideal system is customizable based on building type, budget, and client interest. This begins by setting internal sustainability goals across the board before the start of each project, using national baselines and performance levels on previous projects as benchmarks. These goals can then be shared with collaborators to further drive the conversation about holding ourselves accountable to achievable and affordable goals. This might include a greater focus on well-being, greater energy efficiency, or another category. It is the process of goal setting itself that is both educational and culturally transformative. It speaks to the real core of LEED’s strength: intentionality. This presents a viable path forward for organizations looking to hold themselves more accountable and increase transparency.
Broadly, USGBC did the right thing by maintaining its dedication to high performing buildings. We are in need of a high standard that is both legitimate and effective in pushing ourselves towards the kind of future we want to see. For those organizations not pursuing LEED, the use of LEED Lite should still have teeth—the potential exists for a less impactful, but more consistent approach to incorporating sustainability in a given facility. It is better to pursue some level of sustainability on every single project as opposed to pursuing LEED on a limited number. This is how we can make sustainability efforts mainstream across the board, while moving the needle towards a more intentional culture that prioritizes integrity and sustainability.
Robert Fleming, AIA, LEED AP, NOMA, is Sustainability Director at FCA.