LEED and Yoga THREE: Systems Thinking

One of the most powerful changes in the suite of LEED rating systems is a move to systems thinking. From its origins defining specific sustainable attributes of materials and design, the language and the approaches and the documentation have all moved to more comprehensive, holistic goals and proof mechanisms.

Language is the new yoga pose I have mentioned in previous posts, and in language changes such as “stormwater” now morphing to “rainwater” we are learning to see the positive potential in proper resource management. Using such terminology also leads us to think about these resources in relation to all aspects of use, so “rainwater”, as an example, is not “stormwater we must dispose of”, but a resource to be measured and managed for use on site for plantings, in the building for flushing, and in artistic ways to engage occupants, just to name a few applications. Many more opportunities reveal themselves with proper use of language.

rainwaterTake that holistic view a bit further and you will quickly understand some other big and useful changes between LEED 2009 and LEEDv4. These are the sun salutations that help you engage every part of your body in a fairly fluid routine, for the purpose of power, relaxation AND flexibility. The previous poorly named Stormwater Design credits were split into “Quantity” and “Quality” assessments in the past. These are now combined into one Rainwater Management credit, which as mentioned turns precipitation into a valuable and manageable resource. Similarly, the Urban Heat Island Effect was previously split up to assess strategies for roof separately from strategies for non-roof. These are now combined into the single Heat Island Reduction credit. The aspects of roof and non-roof are still called out within the credit approaches, but combining them into one credit goes a long way to understanding that we are not dealing with a building separate from a site, and we can more clearly understand that nature and design are inseparable. Per EBN’s LEEDv4 Tips , it is tougher to obtain the credits under LEEDv4 simply because it is now an all or nothing calculation. The systems thinking makes greater sustainability sense overall, and, at least in the short-term as we learn, this will pose challenges in our processes for design and for documentation. But these are challenges that will truly inform our work.

We see the most dramatic (and most highly debated) leaps to system approaches in the Materials and Resources Credit Category. There is a credit that seeks Life Cycle Impact Reduction for the whole building, and that is the ultimate in thinking systemically. One option within this credit is to perform and improve the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the project including these elements:

LEED v4 Impact CatagoriesLCA is a highly specialized and emerging strategy for truly understanding the impacts of our buildings on our world. Notice I don’t say “on nature”, and I do this intentionally in order to reinforce the fact that the built environment and the natural environment are inseparable and ideally co-beneficial. This updated LEED system is moving that thought forward with credits such as Life Cycle Impact Reductions. Knowing our effects on the above listed systems is not only powerful, but imperative as our climate worsens and our resources become tainted. This information will help us to not only do less harm, but to identify where we can beneficially inhabit our shared planet. Yes, I am starting to speak yoga-speak as I find MY center and work toward balance. LEED is as well.

The Materials credits also used to call out different aspects of sustainability separately. Separate credits for local in various permutations, for recycled content, for reused materials, for rapidly renewable and for certified wood. This was a great start, but super specific and certainly not holistic. A bamboo flooring could be rapidly renewable yet glued with highly toxic glues and shipped from the other side of the world! Now we have three credits that each deal with holistic elements of product manufacture and delivery: ingredient disclosure (through Health Product Declarations or HPD), process/resource and waste disclosure (through Environmental Product Declarations or EPD), and sourcing disclosure. Though there are still three separate credits here, they form a significant step forward in understanding manufacturing and supply systems inputs and outputs. They are looking at complete systems and transparency of information for smarter, comprehensive decision-making. Similar to knowing the sugar and protein contents in your packaged foods, HPDs are forms that report all ingredients and list which, if any, of those ingredients are of concern in recognized lists of toxins of concern. The HPDs gain support through Green Screen, Cradle to Cradle and Declare and are informed by chemical lists mostly from the State of California which is very forward thinking on toxic burdens, and the EPA.

EPDs provide detailed assessments of the materials inputs and outputs including energy and water. How does the making of wallboard, for example, use water? How much water does the process use, what contaminants does the process add and how is that “waste” managed? As I’ve mentioned, these three credits represent a significant step forward. I expect that future versions will further integrate these materials parameters for assessment and do more to align Indoor Environmental Quality Credit Category and the Materials section. This would help us to assess fully the inputs, outputs, processes, sourcing, effects on the building on users and on nature in use, and even the social responsibility aspects such as labor practices and other stewardship into our awareness of product.

What else is moving toward better systems thinking? Lighting in the Indoor Environmental Quality Credit Category used to be split into Control and Quality, and these are now combined in v4. Enhanced Indoor Air Quality Strategies now encompasses many ways to improve air quality, instead of separating them: walk off mats, natural ventilation, CO2 monitoring for outdoor air needs, contained closets for any toxins, and high-level MERV filtration.

Two other items that really help in a huge way to move toward complete systems thinking, and optimizing systems in tandem, are the Integrative Design credit, which stands alone at the front of the LEED system pack, and the Site Assessment credit in the Sustainable Sites credit category. Regarding yoga, think of these as totally centered meditations, or as the moment in each pose where you re-align and assess where you need to square your hips or extend your heals to the floor. They are internal and external, and extremely aware.

Discovery of Energy Optimizations

Discovery of Energy Optimizations

Integrative Process credit category requires the team to first discover aspects of improvements in energy use and in water use, and then implement, meaning to determine what improvements (even if none) the team will include and describe the rationale as to why or why not. There is power in this. First, it asks questions to get the team thinking larger than the linear point structure of LEED or code by talking about systems. Second it compels optimization of these systems in relation to other building systems, truly crossing silos that have been inherent in design, construction and operations teams.

Note that this list pushes thought to not just the pure energy systems, but to the recognition that the building enclosure is, in essence, an energy system for thermal gain and loss. Even that the users in the building will affect the energy profile through plug loads and user patterns. Finally, we are also getting back to the roots of good passive design strategies by assessing the siting. For many of you reading this the response will be “of course, that’s obvious” but look at all the buildings you see out there. Do they turn to or away from the sun or do they simply “face” the road no matter what? We have all but forgotten the first steps to energy efficiency, and this push for complete (high level) assessment can do much to remind us.

Site assessment does nearly the same thing to help us understand, once again, our integration with sun, wind, rainfall, soils, and hydrology as well as the contaminants that previous uses have introduced to the site. By assessing these items, we gain not arbitrary information, but knowledge of significant opportunities we can exploit at that specific site. Knowledge is power. If we know the wind comes from the east 90% of the time, it is easy to choose casement windows that can harvest that airflow and naturally ventilate our building part of the year.  If we do not know, we cannot benefit. In the same regard we can avoid disasters. If we assess soils and discover the mineral content is too great a burden for the ground cover plant we planned to use, then we can easily choose a different plant, before they all die off and the owner complains.

I guess we could call it not just systems thinking, but preventive design care. Yoga, anyone?

Where does LEED need to focus in the future? I am being incredibly bold, here, but I feel some language still needs to change and that systems thinking could be still stronger, once the market starts to understand the concepts. Construction Waste Management, as I mentioned in a previous blog, needs to transition to Construction Materials Management, and this could encompass any building reuse strategies as well as diversion from landfill and modular design and delivery planning. I do like that CWM planning is now a prerequisite, though. That is a positive stretch.

Daylighting is still separate from lighting in LEEDv4. In a truly systems approach, all lighting quality and control no matter the source would be assessed together, and probably include views as well, as our eyes perform very differently when affected by the full range of nature’s influences and the spectrum of natural lighting. This would begin to bring in some aspects of Biophilia, as subject for in-depth discussion in other blogs. But imagine the influence in assessing visual acuity with no qualifier for how that lighting quality was obtained? This would also make the point clearer that it’s not just about the lighting (daylighting or electric lighting or neon lighting for that matter) but the reflective lighting from surface and the management of glare. These components are certainly touched upon in the current system, but not integrated thoroughly enough for us to fully understand designing for visual comfort and health.

I would also expect renewable energy to become more whole, by keeping on-site and off-site in one credit. Let me be even bolder and say we should assess all energy systems together. The integrative process credit starts to do this, but it would be great to also see this connection in the Energy and Atmosphere credit category. Currently the Optimize Energy Performance credit is separate from Renewable Energy Production credit is separate from Green Power and Carbon Offsets credit. If we combined these credits we would have a significantly more powerful (forgive the pun) understanding of the relationships between RE and EE, which does not currently (again, a pun!) happen. In NY we call RE and EE together Clean Energy, which is an improvement, but that term needs much more marketing time and traction in order for the industry to understand in an interrelated way. Theoretically we should decrease energy use first through efficiency strategies, then add RE to make up the difference. In the real world this does not happen nearly as often as it could. And, if we are more honest about the market, we must seek to optimize the energy profile overall to reduce emissions and eliminate fossil fuel use. This may, in some places, mean use of RE in a different way, or even the acceptance of a little waste (as in use of some biofuels) to improve the life cycle impact overall through reduction of emissions or quicker and closed life loop. Ne consideration may be a move to carbon emissions or GHG reductions, instead of energy use reductions.

You can see we still have a long way to go in the green building industry. We have stretches we are familiar and comfortable with, and new poses that will challenge us for some time to come. In fact, individually, we may never figure out a particular twist and bend: half-moon confounds me and likely always will. The point is to seek and learn and grow in our respect and collaboration with the world around us. Therefore we know these truths: “you must unlearn what you have learned” and “do or do not, there is no try” YODA (close enough to Yoga, don’cha think).

Thanks for stretching and growing stronger, more flexible and more in-tune,



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