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LEEDing the Way to Green Buildings

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Former Vice President Al Gore will reportedly take space for his investment company in a Durst building going up near Bryant Park in New York City. A selling point to him was that the building is pursuing LEED Platinum status, the highest level of environmental probity. The certification process is moving with all deliberate speed - it just may take longer than he expects.

Number of Buildings "Pursuing" LEED Certificates in the NYC Area: 250 or More

The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program is very successful, starting with the publicity it has been getting and the number of billboards in midtown New York City advertising developers' pursuit of different levels of LEED certification. A significant number of real-estate advertisements mention LEED certification achieved or in process. LEED is a project of the U.S. Green Building Council based in Washington D.C. I was asked by the Sallan Foundation to look at LEED through the prism of my work on standard-setting, accreditation and certification dating back 40 years.

As the advertising suggests, hundreds of developers are pursuing LEED-certified buildings or renovations in the NYC area, with 155 projects listed on the area Green Buildings Council registry as being in the process and more than 200 additional buildings in NY State (no regional breakdown available) pursuing their certification confidentially.

Actual NYC & Metro LEED Certifications, 2004-2007: 14

The idea of consumers using their buying power to shop for a greener and better world is at least 20 years old (the first edition of Shopping for a Better World appeared in 1988). LEED takes this to the renter and buyer of office and residential space. The focus initially was on buying at supermarkets and the "conscious consumer" has persuaded European supermarkets as a group to use their massive buying power to encourage suppliers to become certified against environmental and social standards.

However, I was surprised to find that the number of buildings actually certified to LEED standards is just 14, according to information through September 2007 I obtained from the NYC area chapter of the Green Building Council. The first NYC area certification was in April 2004 at the Gold level, the only certification that year. In 2005, one more was added at the plain-vanilla certification level. In 2006, eight more were added, including the first Platinum certification. This year, 2007, added four more through September. The fact that only one project is certified to the Platinum level - an architect's office in the Flatiron District, not an entire building - suggests that this level is very hard to achieve.

Good Second-Party Certification

LEED is mostly second-party certification because LEED creates its own checklist standard and then goes through the list to award points for each achievement. Third-party certifications require an independent accreditation body and an independent standard-setting body. LEED could well evolve into a third-party system since it has multi-stakeholder committees in place.

A major plus of the LEED program is that it appears to offer a solution to the problem of encouraging leaders as well as laggards. The layered approach to certification deals well with this issue. Activist NGOs tend to target industry leaders (sensible enough for publicity purposes) while broader industry practice tends to lag behind. The LEED program offers eight valuable lessons on how to motivate both ends of the industry.

1. The Yardstick, the LEED Point System, Is Easy to Understand. Each good deed, like an Eagle Scout badge, gets you a point. Reduce water usage in the landscaping by 50 percent and get one point. Reduce overall water use 20 percent, one point. Divert 50 percent of construction waste, one point. There are 69 possible points in six areas. The bar is pretty low at 26 points for plain-vanilla certification of a new building. The point requirement goes up for silver, gold and platinum (minimum of 52 points). Only six points are required of all building projects: fundamental building systems commissioning, minimum energy performance, CFC reduction in HVAC&R equipment, a room for storage and collection of recyclables, minimum indoor air quality performance and environmental tobacco smoke control.

2. The First-LEED Level Bar is Easy to Achieve. To persuade the average business that a certification is worth getting, it must appear attainable. That means a low entry bar. Apart from the six required points, all it takes to get a plain LEED certificate is 20 more points. Beyond that, builders can aspire to silver, gold and platinum certification.

3. The LEED System Is Flexible. The 20 points beyond the first six to qualify for first-level LEED certification may be chosen from six different areas. Sustainable Sites (14 points possible), Water Efficiency (5 points), Energy and Atmosphere (17 points), Materials and Resources (13 points), Indoor Environmental Quality (15 points), Innovation and Design Process (5 points). The last was added because of complaints that the point-mongering approach gave insufficient recognition to overall environmentally friendly design concepts.

4. LEED Offers Challenges for Industry Leaders. If green purchasing is a luxury good, then the Green Building Council has done a good job of promoting its top brand, the Platinum certification. In New York City, having been attacked for environmental failings in his previous office, Al Gore was eager to move into a building with a LEED platinum rating. Battery Park City now has a building, "The Visionaire", that was designed to qualify for the platinum LEED rating. The Goldman Sachs building in Jersey City uses wood that is 100 percent compliant with LEED requirements. Ground has been broken for the first green NYC school. Stop & Shop and Giant Supermarkets are building LEED-rate green supermarkets. The US Green Building Council is so confident in the difficulty of achieving the highest level of certification that those who do will get all their certification fees ($2,000-$12,000) refunded for any building that achieves LEED Platinum.

5. LEED Builds a Green Industry. The point system encourages builders to do certain things and buy certain products that help the green-building industry to grow. For example, a building gets a point for having an architect who is a LEED Accredited Professional, which encourages architects to get LEED training. Market researchers SBI (Specialists in Business Information) predict that the market for green building materials will grow from about $2.2 billion in 2006 to $4.7 billion in 2011, a growth rate of about 17 percent per year.

6. LEED Is Scalable and Expandable. The LEED approach started with office buildings and spread to other types of buildings - applying the green focus to the built environment, such as offices, schools, hospitals, homes and communities. The ratings are in place for New Construction, Existing Buildings, Commercial Interiors (applicable to tenant improvements), Core & Shell,Schools, Retail, Healthcare, and Homes and are used by architects, real estate professionals, facility managers, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, construction managers, lenders, state and local governments across the country for public-owned and public-funded buildings and federal agencies like the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Energy, and State.

7. LEED Uses Third-Party-Certifications. One simple way to get points in the LEED program is to buy products that generate points, in particular certain building materials. The Green Building Council blessedly doesn't try to reinvent the wheel and set its own standards for building materials but instead endorses standards of third-party certifications of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, described as "the most comprehensive" rating), Green Seal, Scientific Certification Systems (Green Cross), Green Guard, Carpet & Rug Institute, Building Green Inc., Energy Star Roof program or others. The FSC rating clearly complies with the principle of separation between accreditation and certification. The FSC sets the standards for the wood that is certified and then accredits other nonprofit organizations (like Rainforest Alliance) or businesses to certify that the wood meets the standards. This is best practice according to the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance (ISEAL).

8. Standard-Setting Is Broad-Based and Transparent. The standards for the rating systems are developed through a multi-stakeholder process led by volunteer LEED committees. Members are practitioners and experts from many parts of the building industry. Stakeholders can comment and review and members vote on new rating systems. The system has an open appeals process. Ratings are now being developed in Neighborhood Development and comments have been flying fast. Moving from buildings to neighborhoods is a leap of Spiderman dimensions. Meanwhile, LEED will need to catch up with the backlog of applications or nudge applicants to get their paperwork in.