Pure Genius

The future of LEED

Posting in Design

The LEED green building ratings system has been criticized for being limited in scope and difficult to achieve. Can the USGBC bring it to the masses? We drop by to find out.

Scot Horst stands behind a podium on a stage in Toronto. “I want to tell you this story,” he says. “It’s a 400-year old story.

"It’s called the Tempest, and it was written by William Shakespeare.”

There is a drum set on stage left, and as Horst speaks, masked actors walk behind him, carrying two-dimensional props: a palm tree, a rowboat, a few painted men in tights.

“Now 400 years is a pretty sustainable number, isn’t it?" Horst says, smiling. "We can only hope that some of the stuff we’re doing lasts 400 years."

In the audience, some people are wondering if they’re in the right room. After all, it’s the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild conference. And Horst is the executive ultimately responsible for the standards and procedures that make up LEED, the national ratings system for more efficient buildings. But there he was, last November, telling the story of Prospero and his enemies, of magic and monsters.

It was a curious affair. Instead of wielding PowerPoint slides, Horst's tools were masks created by his daughter. The Tempest is not a tragedy, but rather a story of love and redemption, he explained to attendees. And just as Prospero has to fight off his enemies, green building has to battle its own adversaries.

“Prospero creates this storm and responds to the storm -- and how he responds makes all the difference,” Horst said from the stage. “We have our own storm. Ours is a storm of consumption.”

After the conference, attendees told Horst--a former opera singer--that the theatrical performance put their project work in context in a new and exciting way. “The core of innovation is introducing new ideas to old models,” he said. “We wanted to share information in [such a way that people would] act on that information.”

Change and innovation are underway at the USGBC. Horst wasn’t orating about storms and monsters simply because he adores Shakespeare -- no, it's because he recognizes that the movement to bring about greener buildings faces some serious obstacles. He knows as well as anyone that LEED’s enemy is largely its own complexity.

The LEED system, which has certified more than 40,000 green building projects around the world, plans to roll out its new streamlined 2012 guidelines in November, the latest update since 2009. The new rating system will increase the technical rigor of the ratings, broaden its reach yet still attempt to be more user-friendly. In other words, the new LEED will make it less of an administrative headache to earn a shiny plaque to hang inside the lobby of a building.

But the most significant change may be a renewed effort to get people excited about the process -- or as one industry executive said, to "restore the romance" in building green.

LEED: A FOUR-LETTER WORD

To learn more, we visited Horst in his naturally bright corner office at USGBC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“The issues aren’t as important as the fact that we need to get people involved,” he said. "We don’t need to focus on the awful chemicals or the wasted fuel and water. We just need to focus on getting more people to understand that actions they take add up to huge amounts of difference. That’s how you create a change in economic patterns -- based on a large number of people engaged in a similar purchasing activity.”

No one claims that LEED is a perfect system. USGBC’s own offices -- with waterless urinals, kitchen composting and automated light- and heat-sensitive shades -- still suffer from acute annoyances, such as packages of bulk paper towels in which each roll is individually wrapped in plastic. But over the years, the system has evolved from one that relied on cumbersome binders of data for narrow applications to one that became automated and spans a nearly complete ecosystem.

Critics of LEED say the process remains complicated. The assembly of paperwork required for certification can be daunting at best, and there are loopholes that allow building owners to take shortcuts. These shortcuts may yield LEED certification but ultimately prove less energy efficient over the long run.

For example, you can change a toilet's diaphragm rather than revamp the entire plumbing fixture to restrict the amount of flow. But it's more likely to provoke users to flush multiple times, consuming even more water than the original arrangement.

Nevertheless, some say it remains difficult to earn LEED certification without an outside consultant who has already navigated the rule set. Al Skodowski, director of sustainability for real estate firm Transwestern and the 2013 chair-elect for the USGBC's board of directors, said it would be helpful at times to have a "LEED for Dummies" to help connect the vision of a better building with the tools available through the LEED program.

“I tell people: LEED is a four-letter word,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, and it’s scary to a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

The problem? People get “LEED fatigue,” a despondent condition building owners, developers and consultants develop as they try to navigate through the maze of LEED prerequisites and credits.

“You’re going to get frustrated, myself included,” he said. “There have been a fair number of times you submit your information and they ask you for something they’ve never asked for before. Or it takes 10 to 15 percent longer than you expect. It just gets old.”

Despite the challenges, there there seems to be no lack of consensus within the green building community on the benefits of building to such standards. Transwestern says that its more than 70 LEED certifications are successful, based on the waste and water reductions for each building alone.

“Lo and behold, every one of them performs dramatically better, with lower operating costs, and higher levels of comfort and tenant satisfaction,” Skodowski said. “So it does work.”

INFO YOU CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT

With all of the data required to be collected and monitored in LEED-certified buildings -- say, how many days a year a cooling system is working at capacity, or the percentage of each day during which natural light is sufficient-- it was only a matter of time before high-tech tools arrived on the scene.

USGBC, for example, recently introduced its new App Lab. Third-party apps are integrated with LEED data to allow users to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of LEED projects through real-time management.

The council also rolled out a pilot version of the Green Building Information Gateway. GBIG is a web-based system that provides a view of the green building landscape and allows users to search for projects and compare them based on LEED credits and achievements. Chris Pyke, USGBC’s vice president of research, said GBIG would allow Starbucks, for example, to look at Peoria, Ill., and determine the local workforce, lease rates and existing or pending LEED and Energy Star projects.

“I can begin to get a sense of the level of green building activity in Peoria,” Pyke said. “It gives context, and it tells me -- if I wanted my project to be above average -- how many points I’d need to keep up with the market. That’s rich information. Before, you’d have to hire a consultant to do that.”

Pyke holds a Ph.D in geography and was hired to make research a key player in green building. He's the kind of guy who checks a display in his home each night to see how much energy his house used that day (“I’m just that kind of nerd," he admits).It takes just a few moments talking to him to understand why he's so excited about unleashing the USGBC's data.

“My interest is in understanding how what we’re doing with green buildings is transforming markets,” he said. “We’re at a transition now, trying to use the information more effectively.” He said each year the data will provide more and more information about location, consumption, savings and solutions. “Once you start knowing that, you won’t know how you could live with out it,” he said. “Why would you go back to manually entering the information? Or to not know what’s going on around you?”

The GBIG project makes it easier to put that information in the cloud -- and once there’s information, there’s competition. “This is real estate,” Pyke said. “And real estate folks are really competitive. They want their asset to be above average.”

DO THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS?

In a nondescript building on Connecticut Avenue, just a stone's throw from the White House, Mike Newman is standing behind his desk. And he unquestionably has the data bug.

Newman, a Transwestern chief engineer who still uses a Rolodex and has a janitor-sized key ring hanging from his waist, is in the middle of his first LEED project. It's the modernization of a 1964 office building that will involve replacing its exterior façade and mechanical, ventilation and control systems.

Already, the retrofit is saving $200,000 a year on energy bills, largely because the new chillers use one-third less energy. “Some engineers thought there was a risk using this new technology,” Newman had said earlier that day, standing among shiny new pipes in the chiller room. “But it sounded so cool to me.”

At his desk, he showed off screens where he can see the chillers, look at diagnostic tools and tell when, for instance, a filter needs to be changed.

“There are fewer complaints from tenants when I get here in the mornings,” he said. “When it’s done, I’ll be able to adjust every office temperature from my computer, whether I'm at the office or on vacation. In winter, I can take away the breeze by offsetting the fan speed between supply and return. And in summer, when you want a little breeze, I can do that.”

The LEED certification that Newman and the building owners seek is that for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (or "E-BOM" for short), which involves maximizing operational efficiency and minimizing environmental impact. The scope of the certification includes cleaning and maintenance issues, recycling programs, exterior maintenance programs and system upgrades.

For many building owners, the pursuit of LEED certification is more about marketing than genuine concern for the environment, Skodowski said. But it doesn't matter, so long as the process leaves behind a better building.

“If that gets them exposed to LEED and gets them talking about LEED, that’s great,” he said. “A lot of people understand that LEED makes a difference in their building. Are they doing it to make a difference environmentally? The jury is still out.”

In many cases, organizations such as Fortune 500 companies or government agencies pursue LEED merely to fulfill a requirement. “Maybe they did LEED so they could check the box," he said. "But then if the property manager gets into it and takes it to the next level, the means justify the end.”

Horst agreed that getting people engaged and making LEED part of the dialogue is critical, but he also wants to reach the point where people are spending money on the “right thing” because they want to get a credit, not because they have to.

“The real problem is what we’ve been dealing with since the ‘60s,” he said. “How do you get people to give a hoot?”

Certainly, using technology to allow users to see what is happening with their buildings and energy use will make the greening process more fun and competitive, and it will make people feel like they are part of something larger. As Horst said, there’s something very American about LEED: the concept of getting people excited about the big picture. In this case, the renovation of the built environment.

But the enemy remains at large, in various shapes and sizes. Horst -- who saw global warming firsthand on a trip to Antarctica -- said people living in his northeastern Pennsylvania neighborhood still, inconceivably, burn their garbage.

“[USGBC] plays the role of keeping some momentum going toward this big change,” he said. “But we aren’t all the pieces of it. Ultimately it has to come from all sides.”

“We’re so obese in the way we use things. Right now, it’s simply finding ways to reduce our gluttony to ease the pain...until our leaders get it together.”

Photo illustration based on original by Tom Byrne

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure