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LEED 2012 Revisited

With a fifth public comment period on the horizon, the USGBC’s Scot Horst explains the initial pushback against LEED 2012 and what led to its transformation into LEED v4.

By Penny Bonda, FASID, LEED AP

With a fifth public comment period on the horizon, the USGBC’s Scot Horst explains the initial pushback against LEED 2012 and what led to its transformation into LEED v4.

Last spring, the design world was abuzz with grumblings of dissatisfaction over the newest iteration of the world’s most popular green rating system—and then it happened. Originally scheduled for membership balloting this past June, LEED 2012, as it was then known, had its name changed to LEED v4 and the balloting process delayed a full year until June 2013.

This was—and still is—shocking news to devotees of LEED. Since its very beginnings a decade and a half ago, we have watched it evolve from one rating system into many—sometimes painfully and not without controversy, but always, it seemed to me, with a paternal type of protectionism. LEED was our validation of the types of buildings we wanted to design, build, maintain and inhabit. It assured us that we were doing our part in protecting the planet.

And it worked. LEED certifies nearly 2 million square feet of commercial space every day, has surpassed 2 billion square feet certified in more than 130 countries, and has 7 billion square feet of registered projects in the pipeline. LEED for Homes is also racking up impressive numbers.

It hasn’t been just a success of square footage; LEED has also helped support the American economy during one of the worst downturns in our history (something the presidential candidates might want to pay attention to). “The journey to this milestone has energized our economy—funneling $554 billion annually into the U.S. economy alone—and has helped support 7.9 million jobs across the U.S.,” said U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) President, CEO and Founding Chair Rick Fedrizzi back in July.

Although LEED continues to thrive, the USGBC would not have delayed the 2012 ballot without certainty that the measure would fail to achieve the required majority of the membership vote.

Scot Horst, USGBC’s senior vice president for LEED, confirmed as much during a recent interview.


I&S: So what went wrong?
scot horst: There were a number of contributing factors but primarily I attribute this to lessons learned. We shouldn’t have rushed the release, especially in this economy, and without having fully developed solid supporting tools and infrastructure. Also, we weren’t hearing support for many of the changes. In the past when we’ve updated rating systems, we’d hear complaints and reluctance to change, but people seemed to realize the value of the changes. This time we weren’t hearing very much that was positive.

Essentially you had set up an arbitrary deadline you were rushing to meet when in practice there wasn’t an urgent need.
sh: That’s right. The challenge with any sort of update and improvement comes when people are satisfied with the product, and people are pretty happy right now with [LEED] 2009. It’s a combination of thinking; we need to keep improving and the question is how much and how fast. We clearly heard we did too much too quickly.

Many criticized LEED 2012 for being overly complicated—not in terms of the environmental benefits but in the implementation.
sh: Complication is such a challenging issue. When I look back at LEED v1.0, it is so elegant and had such a huge impact on the market. But over time, a lot of people and committees added more ideas and more credits with increased complexities. So that’s one area.

The other is, again, we rushed credits out too quickly without letting people see how the submittals, reference materials, education and other tools would also be changing. For example, LEED Online has 100,000 people on it every day. It is very stable, but as we’re rebuilding it we’re going to go back and make it simpler, more elegant, quicker and less complicated. The perception of increased complexity is largely because we haven’t communicated the whole picture.

Are there specific credits receiving the most criticism?
sh: The Materials & Resources category received the most comments but it was also most in need of a significant update. The current MR credits represent very old thinking from the ‘90s and haven’t changed much since then. Plus, their impact on market transformation is substantial, especially for manufacturers. Some have been pushing back pretty hard on what the environmental benefits are, but we haven’t done a good job of explaining that eventually these changes will be very advantageous for everyone.

How big a role is the American Chemistry Council (ACC) playing in this? I understand they are marshaling their members—27 trade associations—in an attempt to do away with two new credits that reward efforts to remove highly toxic chemicals from buildings.
sh: It’s very interesting to look at the history of those credits and the unique interest of the American Chemistry Council. We heard nothing during LEED 2012’s first and second public comment periods. Just as the third public comment period was about to close, we received a frantic set of emails from the ACC and its members about wanting to submit. So we extended the deadline and got about 16,000 comments.

During the fourth public comment period, ACC insisted we remove the credits in response to their input, and threatened to use their influence to make sure that federal and state governments don’t use LEED. It’s a really remarkable diorama of super re-engagement by a group whose main goal is to make sure as little is known about their industry as possible.


The two credits under attack by the ACC are voluntary—they encourage rather than require compliance—and need be applied to only 20 percent of the materials used in a building to earn LEED points. They represent a modest achievement by any definition, but remain important to all of us who have and will continue to work tirelessly to create healthy interiors.

The USGBC has survived attacks in the past from big money in the chemical, wood and paper industries, and has managed to keep their self-interests out of the LEED system thanks to the passion and perseverance of the people who actually use and implement LEED on a daily basis.

The organization has also started fighting back. In a July 12th entry on the Huffington Post, Fedrizzi described those who advance their narrow view of the world as “scoundrels of the worst sort… in their effort to protect a status quo that is good for them but not so much for the rest of us…” It’s a statement that many in the A&D community can agree with, but it remains to be seen if LEED practitioners will speak out and join the fight enmasse against these powerful industry groups.

Fortunately, most of the changes to the other credit categories have not been controversial. Many involve title changes, reorganization, updated reference standards, higher thresholds, guidance for international projects and metric conversations.

The USGBC has scheduled a fifth public comment period to run from October 2 to December 10, 2012, which will include the annual Greenbuild Conference and Expo. We don’t yet know what the new draft of LEED v4 will look like, but there will assuredly be much discussion about not only the proposed changes, but also the process. We do know that v4 will be beta-tested, LEED 2009 will remain available to projects for three years after the release of v4, and—perhaps most importantly—the USGBC will maintain the high standards, consensus process and transparency we have come to expect from them. Talk about lessons learned!


Penny Bonda, FASID, LEED AP ID+C works in the fields of environmental consulting and communications, and is a prominent writer and lecturer. She is the founding chair and a primary author of the LEED Commercial Interiors rating system. Her published works include Sustainability Matters, written with the General Services Administration, and Sustainable Commercial Interiors (Wiley). She is a founding partner of Ecoimpact Consulting, a collaborative offering sustainable strategies for better business.