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LEED: Evolution and Expansion

The top 10 biggest changes to the leading green rating system

By Janelle Penny

The top 10 biggest changes to the leading green rating system.

More than 4.3 million people live or work in a LEED-certified building. Does that include your building occupants?

If you’ve been considering a green building designation, know that the path to LEED certification is about to change. This month, the USGBC premieres LEED v4; while it’s not quite a departure from previous versions, v4 is nonetheless a sizable step forward for the most widely recognized green building certification.

Start your journey by checking out these 10 landmarks on the new roadmap to LEED certification.

1) Major Reorganization
The LEED umbrella hasn’t just expanded – it’s been restructured. Users can now choose from four broad categories that include 21 building types (see graphic at right). Though the number of choices has increased, most actually target a narrower field of buildings.

The New LEED Layout

The four rating systems now cover 21 specific building types in addition to catch-all categories for existing buildings, new construction, and neighborhood development projects. Where does your facility fit?

Building Design & Construction

  • New Construction& Major Renovations
  • Core & Shell
  • Schools
  • Retail
  • Data Centers
  • Warehouses & Distribution Centers
  • Hospitality
  • Healthcare
  • Homes & Multifamily Lowrise
  • Multifamily Midrise

Interior Design & Construction

  • Commercial Interiors
  • Retail
  • Hospitality

Neighborhood Development

  • Plan
  • Built Project

Building Operations & Maintenance

  • Existing Buildings
  • Retail
  • Schools
  • Hospitality
  • Data Centers
  • Warehouses & Distribution
  • Centers
“You get to eliminate all of the noise from the project types that don’t apply to you,” explains Brad Pease, director of signature buildings practice for Paladino and Company, which served as a technical editor for the upcoming LEED v4 Reference Guides. “In past rating systems, they tried to write requirements that encompassed all building types from warehouses to office buildings to freeway rest stops. When you do that, you run into a number of gray areas and it’s hard to tell whether some things apply to your building type. It appears more complex, but it’s actually simpler in that if you have a warehouse, you have a different set of requirements that are actually applicable to you vs. trying to interpret an office requirement for unoccupied space.”

Offerings for O&M have grown especially quickly. LEED 2009 included one option specifically for existing structures, LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance. Users can now choose from a broader selection under the general “LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance” menu, which is intended for existing buildings undergoing improvement work with little to no construction. Specialty O&M systems are available for retail, schools, hospitality, data centers, and warehouses or distribution centers, as well as a general Existing Buildings rating for other types of existing facilities.

“For schools, for example, there were a number of new credits in LEED 2009’s Building Design & Construction for Schools that weren’t viable for existing schools, which had to use the general O&M rating system written with commercial offices primarily in mind,” explains Chrissy Macken, assistant program manager for LEED v4. “The same was true for existing retail – in the BD&C retail adaptation, we included specific calculations for how to address transient occupants like customers and how to address certain supply chain issues. We wanted to move those over into the existing building adaptations.”

2) New Category
The basic structure of each rating system remains the same – you’ll fulfill the prerequisites and then add optional credits as you’re able, with each certification level requiring the same number of points as in previous versions.

However, when you look at a sample scorecard, you’ll see a new category – Location & Transportation. This essentially splits the Sustainable Sites category into two pieces, explains Macken.

“Any credits related to the context of where a project is located, such as amenities and infrastructure available because of the attributes of a particular location, are now in the Location & Transportation category,” says Macken. “That includes density, quality of transit, bike networks, and high priority sites that incorporate brownfields. Sustainable Sites is now limited to how you can maximize your design in terms of the ecosystem and habitat that exists there.”

This development marks the biggest organizational change in LEED v4, Macken notes.

“In general, we tried to combine and streamline credits,” Macken explains. “For example, reducing the heat island effect used to be two separate credits – now it’s one credit assessing both roof and non-roof. The same is true with the two stormwater credits from 2009 for quantity and quality control – we’ve combined them into one rainwater management credit that looks more holistically at the design for utilizing rainwater as a resource on-site. That has allowed us to streamline the calculations and documentation.”PageBreak

3) New Credits
One new Energy & Atmosphere credit offers a point for making your building demand response-capable, even if your utility doesn’t currently offer demand response; two points are possible if the project is enrolled in such a program.

“The purpose of the credit is to use market demand to change the supply side of energy,” Macken notes. “It encourages utilities to offer these programs to the market and, in turn, forego using energy from less desirable sources during peak demand hours.”

You’ll also notice several changes to the Materials & Resources and Water Efficiency categories. Water Efficiency now addresses all water end uses and encourages the use of the EPA’s WaterSense program, which is essentially an ENERGY STAR label for water-efficient fixtures – learn more about it on page 28. Materials & Resources also encourages smart use of more labels and certifications than the previous version of LEED, Macken notes.

“There are a number of new concepts like encouraging project teams to use products that have Environmental Product Declarations and address source issues beyond wood by looking at other harvested, extracted, mined, and quarried materials,” Macken explains. “There is now a credit that encourages project teams to use products with material ingredients reported. The intention is to accelerate transparency through the adoption of these types of labels and increase the amount of information available to consumers.”

4) Site-Specific Accommodations
In many cases, the new system compensates for site-to-site variations that can affect the feasibility of certain credits. For example, LEED 2009’s Alternative Commuting Transportation credit has evolved into Quality Transit, allowing USGBC to factor in commuters’ likelihood of using public transportation instead of only focusing on whether or not such alternatives are available somewhere nearby.

“Now we’re looking not only at whether transportation is available, but also the frequency of trips, because the No. 1 indicator for whether people will use public transit is the frequency of service,” explains Macken. “We want to start pushing requirements more toward indicators that will help us predict whether more people will use public transportation options, and therefore have improved performance in terms of carbon reduction from transportation.”

Inside the New O&M Credits

Joining the renamed and reworked credits in LEED v4 for Building Operations & Maintenance are these nine brand-new options.

Future versions of LEED will build on the performance aspect, Macken adds. For example, Quality Transit may include requirements for the quality of the walk from a soon-to-be-certified building to the nearest public transport.

“We’re looking at walking distance to transportation as opposed to radius from the building. If there’s a six-lane highway between a building and public transport and there’s no walkable route, that’s not an effective way to get occupants to use public transport,” says Macken.

5) Higher Energy Standards
Mulling a major renovation? The requirements for the Minimum Energy Performance prerequisite and the Optimize Energy Performance credit for v4’s Building Design & Construction systems are now tied to the more stringent ASHRAE 90.1-2010 instead of the 2007 version.

To fulfill the prerequisite for major renovations or new construction, you’ll have to demonstrate an improvement of 3% over the baseline set by 90.1-2010, as opposed to 5% for new construction or 2% for core and shell, and comply with all mandatory provisions set out in the standard. For Operating & Management projects, ASHRAE 90.1-2010 is used to determine climate zones for projects outside the U.S.

“According to a variety of studies, the 2010 version is about 20% more stringent than the previous one,” Macken notes. “There are also a number of new mandatory measures ASHRAE has put in the standard, so there will definitely be a bit of a learning curve for project teams to get acclimated.”

The mandatory provisions in the wide-ranging 90.1-2010 impact HVAC, lighting, power, equipment, and more, so make sure you’re familiar with ASHRAE’s updates before embarking on the process.PageBreak

6) Submetering
Categories for both energy and water now require at least whole-building metering, with optional submetering credits available.

“It’s great to measure consumption at a whole-building level, but it’s even more beneficial to submeter so you can see what part of the building may not be performing as designed,” Macken explains. “Are several of the systems using too much water or energy, or are there one or two areas that are far away from the performance targets the project intended? Having that information available helps teams achieve better performance outcomes.”

7) Reportable Data
The new submetering option joins a host of credits that encourage benchmarking of not only energy and water, but other trackable indicators of facility health. Two of the new data requirements:

Water analysis. The structure of the Cooling Tower Water Use credit now recognizes differences in water quality between locations, so you won’t be penalized if your cooling tower can only reuse water for a few cycles before it exceeds filtration levels or operation is otherwise impacted.

“The analysis helps the credit be more responsive to the specific circumstances of each individual project,” says Macken. “If we were to set a specific baseline for all projects, many would have a difficult time meeting the threshold and others would have a very easy time depending on where they are, which would fail to make the credit performance-based. This way, projects achieve the cooling tower energy and water efficiency that makes the most sense depending on the quality of water in their area or on their site.”

Carbon and emissions. The Renewable Energy and Carbon Offsets credit (worth up to five points in O&M or two in BD&C) offers incentives to either utilize renewable energy or purchase green power, carbon offsets, or renewable energy certificates. Carbon offsets require you to calculate how many metric tons of carbon you can offset with your purchase, resulting in a concrete way to track emissions.

“If you go through the LEED rating system, you’ll be able to report your carbon footprint in a way that hasn’t always been there in the past,” explains Pease. “Now you’ve got a rating system that speaks the same language as your stakeholders, and there’s almost a direct chain between how your building is operating and what you can report to investors, community groups, or customers. It’s a foundational shift.”

8) Documentation
Like its predecessors, LEED v4 still requires considerable paperwork. However, the evolving paperwork stipulations are moving in a direction users should find more favorable, Pease says.

“Documentation has always been a challenge with LEED because it costs money to prepare,” explains Pease. “If you are submitting paperwork that doesn’t help you achieve the design direction, it’s just more things to document, which becomes a strain on the process and the rating system. This time, what USGBC has tried to do is make sure that whatever calculation you’re performing or document you’re producing to help design systems, that’s what you submit. They’ve tried to reduce the amount of busywork in the rating system and turn it into more constructive work.”

9) Transition Period
Typically, the USGBC sunsets registration for a retiring LEED version after the latest one has been available for about six months. This time, users will have roughly a year and a half between LEED v4’s debut at Greenbuild this month and LEED 2009’s registration closure on June 1, 2015.

“This is the longest amount of time we’ve ever offered two different versions of a rating system for registration at the same time,” says Macken. “LEED v4 is a big step for the market, and we wanted to give project teams the option of easing into the new system; for example, this gives the design community more time to start integrating LEED v4 into their offerings over the next couple of years. We expect a benefit from giving the market the time it needs to absorb a new program.”

3 Places to Advance LEED Learning

USGBC: Not sure where to start? Begin with the organization steering LEED’s development, located at The credit library offers all credit language for LEED v4 or any of the past systems, while the Resources menu includes reference guides, promotional materials, and more.

Green Building Information Gateway: See what other buildings are doing to meet certification at The database aggregates information submitted to LEED Online during the certification process.

Free tools: LEED v4 references both the DOE’s ENERGY STAR and the EPA’s WaterSense. Both programs certify green products, and ENERGY STAR also provides the web-based Portfolio Manager benchmarking software referenced by several credits.

In the coming months, the USGBC is set to release a new reference guide for v4, Macken says. The certification experience itself has changed, from different documentation requirements to improved reference content, Pease adds, which necessitates a different approach from users.

“If you set a goal for LEED Gold or Platinum, that’s great in that it forces you to look at certain credits you may not understand. However, that tends to be a scarcity approach because you’re spending the majority of your time on the credits that are most difficult to achieve, possibly the ones with the least amount of performance impact to you,” explains Pease. “If you take the abundance approach and say ‘What do I want to get out of the LEED experience?’ and ‘What are the metrics I want to improve on?’ and select credits that help you answer them, then you know you’re using a meaningful rating system because the credits now align to your values.”

10) What’s Next
The development of the new system was spurred partially by the growing percentage of projects earning Gold or Platinum certification under previous versions, which indicated that it was time to raise the bar, Macken says. The revision is part of a continuous improvement cycle meant to encourage further growth as the market delivers increasingly higher performance.

“I think 5 to 10 years from now, LEED v4 is going to seem pretty tame. That’s simply because the rate of market adoption is going up so quickly,” says Pease. “In just a few short years, we’ve gone from people having known about LEED to tenants and customers demanding it. I walk into my local home improvement store and see a LEED plaque on the wall – that to me is a dramatic change. It’s no longer about trying to win more market share – I think it’s about making a positive impact.”


Janelle Penny is senior editor of BUILDINGS.