According to the 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, the combination of emissions from the construction of buildings and the operation of buildings accounts for nearly 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. This is concerning. Decreasing building energy consumption through sustainable construction and design processes will lead the way to a greener future for our planet. Let LEED lead the way! Say that five times fast.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) established by U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is the most used green building accreditation system in the world. LEED certification is a global symbol of sustainable achievement and provides a framework for constructing, designing, and operating environmentally friendly buildings.
In this blog, you’ll learn about the history of LEED, the certification process, and what in the world “greenwashing” means. In addition, you’ll get to read my interview with John Hardt, Vice President of Architecture & Planning at OHM Advisors.
The History of LEED
The U.S. Green Building Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded In 1993 inside the American Institute of Architects (AIA) boardroom. It was organized as a membership-based non-profit to promote sustainable practices in building and construction. USGBC followed in the footsteps of the UK’s BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), to create a certification system specifically for the U.S.
The Development of a LEED certification program was initiated by senior scientist Robert K. Watson of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and supported by the USGBC. In 1995, the USGBC partnered with the NRDC to create the LEED green building rating system. By 1998, USGBC had successfully developed LEED v1.0 and began pilot testing. LEED v2 was approved in March 2000 with an expansion to 69 credits and four certification achievements.
Fast forward to today. LEED has grown from one standard for new construction to a comprehensive system of interrelated standards. In addition, USGBC has gone from six committee members to an organization with over 125,000 staff, volunteers, and professionals. Subsequently, moving from v1 to v4.1, each version has added significant refinements. As of November 2019, the number of certified LEED projects in the US had just surpassed 100,000 registered commercial projects.
Four Steps to Becoming LEED-certified
Certifying your project involves 4 main steps:
Step 1: Register
Register your project by completing the correct documentation and submitting your payment. Costs vary based on project size, certification level, and membership status with USGBC members receiving a discount.
Step 2: Apply
To apply, submit your completed certification application and pay the certification review fee. Next, your application undergoes review by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI).
Step 3: Review
There are three parts to the review process: preliminary review, final review, and an optional appeal. Once your final application review is complete you can accept the GBCI’s final review report or request an additional appeal review. However, appeals incur an additional fee but you can submit additional information, amend the application, or add new credits. Depending on the GBCI response time and appeal review, It can take anywhere from 40-70 days to get your LEED certification review report.
Step 4: Certify
The number of points that your project earns determines the level of certification received. The certification brackets are shown below.
To learn more about USGBC’s LEED certification requirements, click here.
LEED-Zero, Net-Zero & Greenwashing
One of today's top buzzwords is "net-zero". And companies around the world are jumping on the band wagon. According to a recent report, "Navigating the nuances of net-zero targets," by the NewClimate Institute, “ The number of net-zero pledges from cities regions and companies has roughly doubled in less than a year since late 2019.
However, some in the industry question the validity of projects claiming “net-zero” status. In a recent article “Is Net-zero Greenwash”, published by Joel Makower of GreenBiz, companies using terms such as “carbon negative”, or “climate positive” may be stretching it a bit. Makower also suggests that companies may be “greenwashing” by issuing target dates such as “carbon-negative by 2050”.
Greenwashing is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is". Consequently, greenwashing is causing consumers to become more skeptical. Most importantly, it leaves clients with a product that doesn’t achieve the environmental benefits they expected.
USGBC released LEED Zero that verifies the achievement of net zero goals in existing buildings. LEED-Zero was designed to complement USGBC’s LEED program by certifying projects for zero carbon emissions, energy use, water use, and waste. Applying standards or certification to the net-zero movement should reduce occurances of greenwashing.
Greenwashing aside, the LEED plaque on a project is in most cases a mark of quality and achievement in green design and construction.
The Future of LEED: Insights from a VP of Architecture & Planning
John Hardt of OHM Advisors has a unique perspective on LEED based on his years of experience in the AEC industry. Below are the highlights from our discussion.
Can you start off by telling me a little about OHM Advisors and your role with the firm?
My name is John Hardt and I am the Vice President of Architecture & Planning at OHM Advisors. I have over 25 years of experience in the industry and have been with OHM Advisors since 2019. Our firm has been in business nearly 60 years. We are headquartered in Michigan, but our team is comprised of more than 500 team members in multiple states across multiple offices. We’re a full-service firm and our work spans across both public and private sectors. We’re also an ENR Top 500 Design Firm, which we are proud of.
How many projects from OHM Advisors have been given LEED certification?
I don’t have an exact number, probably around a dozen. What I attribute that to is a separation of sustainability goals from LEED in the marketplace. I know they are often viewed as being interchangeable. But what we are seeing more and more in the marketplace is that our clients are interested in sustainability. Either they want to be good stewards of the planet, it’s a PR move, or just simply because they want a building that’s more cost effective to operate. Clients are recognizing that the actual LEED certification, i.e., hanging a plaque on the wall in the lobby, is often a PR decision based on how they want to position themselves - maybe to their customers or maybe the community at large. Those two things are beginning to separate. Clients are realizing they can have sustainability and do all the right things for the right reasons, but it doesn’t always make sense to hang a plaque on the wall.
What would you say is the driving force behind the pursuit of greener projects?
It’s all the things that you would expect. All the things you hear on the news about global warming. We have clients that want their buildings to be environmentally friendly, as well as employees who want to pursue sustainable solutions everywhere we can. The good news is, it’s possible to design a sustainable building today without spending much extra money because the industry and the products available to us have evolved. Twenty years ago, if you wanted LEED certification, you had to go out of your way to seek out products that were manufactured for that purpose. Today most products are sustainably manufactured or at least we have sustainable options readily available. You can obtain a basic standard of sustainability without incurring much extra cost and that drives a lot of it.
Are there any notable or memorable LEED challenges you have run into?
Some of the biggest challenges have had to do with the location of the building. There have been instances, for example, where clients were interested in LEED certification, but because the building wasn’t near a green transportation corridor, we just couldn’t tick all the boxes. In those cases, the clients generally decided to do everything they could anyway because their ultimate goal was sustainability. But getting that LEED plaque from the USGBC in some cases wasn’t possible because of the physical realities of where they were building.
Do you have any flagship LEED-certified buildings that your firm is very proud of?
One LEED project we are very proud of is the IGS Energy Building (Pictured Below) in Dublin, Ohio. Obviously being in the energy sector, not only was sustainability very important to our clients but demonstrating that sustainability through LEED certification was important. IGS is the first building in Central Ohio and is also the largest commercial office building in Ohio to achieve LEED Platinum® Certification under LEED-NC. We are pretty proud of that one.
What role do you see LEED playing in a more sustainable future?
I see sustainability taking on an increasing role. LEED certification used to be a way you illustrated a building was something special and as time goes on it has become more routine. I don’t want to speak for the USGBC, but I would imagine they would see that as a success as their ultimate goal was to move sustainable design and construction into the mainstream. More than anything it’s a compliment to the USGBC and speaks to the success of LEED that this has been accomplished.
Has Newforma assisted your firm from a LEED Certification standpoint?
Only because we are relatively new adopters of Newforma, we haven’t been through a project yet where we have leveraged Newforma to help with the LEED certification process. I absolutely think it will in the future. One of the greatest things about Newforma is how it improves our document control and project communications. Both of those things are essential to achieving LEED certification.
Click here for more information on OHM Advisors.