Is Interest in LEED Certification Declining?

The rating system is as important as ever for continuing the market transformation to green buildings, but several factors have contributed to a decline in LEED interest.

By Robert Fleming, Contributing Writer  

As facility managers, especially if you’re in a healthcare setting, a crucial facet of the job is to ensure the well-being of people. Sustainable design and operations are like healthcare for the planet. By following the well-vetted and carefully constructed system of the LEED rating system, facility managers can rest assured that they have done their part in helping to protect the planet’s health. The spinoff effects of a commitment to LEED are far 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, healthcare 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 this been the case? This article aims to explore the reasons why the use of LEED has declined, discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the informally named “LEED Lite” approach, and explore new avenues for increasing sustainability accountability in all projects regardless of budget, client interest and other constraints.  

What happened to LEED?  

LEED was designed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) 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 rated 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: 

  1. Green fatigue is a common malady that our society is constantly dealing with. When major climate related disasters occur, we see an uptick in the demand for sustainability, only to see that demand wane as things “get back to normal.”  
  2. Greenwashing has left the term sustainability essentially meaningless. LEED purposely uses the term “green building,” but it will forever be associated with the term sustainability and suffer the consequences of the implied baggage. 
  3. The impact of COVID meant that every ounce of an organization’s energy was focused on the short-term health impacts, and little time was left to attack the longer-term (and even larger) threat of climate change.  
  4. LEED does not align with some political leanings. Some saw the requirement of LEED as an overreach by municipalities, and an overreaction to climate change. 
  5. The evolution from LEED v3 to LEED v4 reflected a significant increase in the demand for greater energy efficiency. Obtaining LEED Gold certification became more difficult, causing many organizations to shy away from using the system.  
  6. With extreme time pressures, cost cutting and general exhaustion, many are willing to leave the fight early when it comes to pursuing the “extra” work needed to achieve LEED. Without a cultural overhaul where sustainability is central to the missions of everyone working on projects, or, like the West Coast where LEED is built into the codes, the tendency to give up and just do a regular project remains tempting.  
  7. The green building rating systems marketplace has fractured into many disparate pieces. One of the strengths of LEED is its holistic, multi-attribute structure. Now, new systems have emerged that only attack a portion of the overall sustainability equation. 
    • The WELL Building Standard addresses worker health and productivity but doesn’t do as much as LEED to address the larger threat of climate change. 
    • Passive House is an excellent system for improving energy efficiency, but ignores issues of ecology, indoor air quality and more.  
    • LEED itself became fragmented with dozens of sub-categories, organized by building type needed for multiple rating systems that addressed the scale of the home and of the community. It can be overwhelming to understand, and often requires the use of a consultant or an in-house team dedicated to meeting LEED. 

The Rise of LEED-LITE 

The reality of these aforementioned changes has brought the AEC 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 results in a number of potentially distressing outcomes:  

  1. The loss of the holistic multi-attribute nature of the LEED rating system. For example, water can be a major focus with energy being unimportant.  
  2. LEED-Lite opens the door to greenwashing, as organizations can spin the benefits of one-off sustainability moves without the accountability and transparency offered by LEED. 
  3. The watering down of energy efficiency measures means that large projects with huge energy footprints will do more environmental damage than they should. 
  4. RFP’s that do not require LEED certification open the door to the dangers of LEED-Lite. 

Many organizations are still achieving 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.   

Determining A New Approach to LEED Lite 

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. It is clear that “good design,” is a part of any sustainable design approach to saving the planet. As Lance Hosey, the late and wonderful green building leader would remark: “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable.”  

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. 

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  posted on 1/16/2024   Article Use Policy

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