To LEED or Not to LEED…

Oh, such a loaded title. Loaded because of the moment we find ourselves in.

  • Part of this written reflection is based on my own work in updating contracts and guidance documents to help staff achieve our goals for better buildings and transformational achievements in energy, health, and carbon reductions.
  • Part of it comes from nearly two decades working with a variety of green building rating systems, from simple to complex, and from checklists limiting damage to “do good”aspirations.
  • Part of it comes from what is quickly becoming my passion, my art, and my calling: the understanding of transitions, transitional language, and iterative learning.

And all of it centers on our initial steps into green building achievement, with LEED as the prominent tool.

Quick primer – LEED is for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it is a toolkit and a checklist that truly brought us our first and most reliable understanding of what a “green building” is. It was created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) a not-for profit that has truly transformed the building market. This system has introduced awareness of toxins in building products, includes 102,000 buildings plus to-date, and is in use in over 178 countries to inform and drive greener building practices and products.

Unfortunately, LEED also got us used to using a checklist approach to greening our work. We are now faced with un-learning so we can re-engage to learn what we must do now for true systemic achievement. We must engage in a process that is robust, flexible, inclusive, and likely different for each project.

You see, a checklist cannot be all-encompassing. Every question does not apply to each project. A checklist does not understand the possibilities in a project because a checklist is like energy code – the smallest and most simple rendition of what can be done.

If you are a parent or guardian, think about your child and how they might be inadvertently pigeon-holed into, say, an education track by someone who doesn’t know them well. Inevitably, the values, interests, passions, and fears of your child will be missed or misunderstood by that uninformed plan. If you care about your child, you will absolutely insist that all information be considered so the pertinent information can be found, even if that info is not on the generic assessment/planning form.

We must insist that all information be considered, so the pertinent information can be found and then applied to support the success of our project.

This is not to blame the USGBC in any way. They started from nothing, and have helped us to learn and grow and change. USGBC has also been diligent in revisiting their rating system(s) to update them regularly, ensuring they would always pull the market forward, leading from a bit ahead of the comfort level.

We must engage in a process that is robust, flexible, inclusive, and likely different for each project.

Recently, the focus of the USGBC has been on ARC, which is a platform for continually understanding building performance during operations. This platform ties to Energy Star Portfolio Manager, which is an EPA nation-wide info-repository and rating platform initially focused on energy, and now including water and waste metrics. ARC can also connect directly to building management systems (BMS). It puts green building performance into the hands of facility managers and helps drive understanding of fossil fuel use, costs on a yearly basis, human comfort in the building, NPV (net present value) metrics, pipeline planning for projects, and more.

Shifting to ARC is a valuable attempt to get away from the checklist approach. In fact, the language of the USGBC has changed over the years to speak about LEED as the instrument or the implement to achieve…but we were taught 20+ years ago to use the LEED checklist to set goals for the project, and this is now a ridiculously hard habit to break.

One of the issues I am trying to figure out is how to guide design project managers, per their request, as to what state mandates and laws apply to their particular projects. Everyone hates my answer, even though it is 100% true: they all apply, if they apply.

What laws and mandates apply to my project? They all apply, if they apply.

We are at a point on our transition (the transition of the world, BTW, not just of the building industry) where we need to stop looking for guidance from outside, and look for the truth from our position within and involved with the work. No one should need to tell us what to do, specifically. In fact, they cannot, because they don’t know what is needed in our time, with our program, in our situation. They should be able to say “do better” and we, as responsible adults, team members, insightful experts, can define for this specific project and circumstance what “better” is. The goals of the state, the aspirations related to climate, equity, closed-cycle, community activation, and more, each apply differently to each project that we encounter. And the only way to figure out HOW they apply is to think about them, push them around, see how they inform the work, apply them and see what you and your team can discover, together.

  • Only then can you see what the goals for the work could possibly and rightly be.
  • Only then can you find the tough decisions that must be made in order to achieve as much as possible within the real and useful constraints of budget and schedule.
  • Only then can the Natural systems, the architecture, the built infrastructure, the user engagement, and the engineering all come together into a cohesive whole.
  • Only then can you determine how the project is supporting state mandates and laws, decide to what level that achievement takes place, and define how to document it.
  • Only then can you truly reach for the aspirational goals we ALL must reach for in every single project while designing and choosing the correct achievements for that one singular project.

Only then can we achieve what we must achieve in our building projects, of all scales from small renovations and repairs to large urban planning, to have a beneficial impact on climate, equity, health, and Nature’s systems, including us.

The question is not “To LEED or not to LEED”. The question is, and always should be, how can we do better, this time?

Think and be greener,


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