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Destination: Certification

6 steps to navigate LEED 2009 and v4 for existing buildings

By Janelle Penny

6 steps to navigate LEED 2009 and v4 for existing buildings.

For the next 11 months, your LEED for Existing Buildings certification plans will face a fork in the road.

Projects can register under either LEED 2009 or v4 until Oct. 31, 2016, when the field narrows to just v4. So which is best for your facility? Whichever path you’re on, it’s vital that you chart smart. Consider these six steps to lay out the best route to certification success.

1) Ask the Important Questions
Your first step should be examining both versions to figure out which one will best help you meet your goals. Answer these three questions with the help of your project team to find which system fits:

What are my plans beyond this upcoming certification? If you plan to recertify in the future, v4 might be the best choice. Each LEED-EB certification is valid for five years, so there could be a new LEED revision out by the time you start looking at certification again. Jumping from LEED 2009 to whatever comes after v4 will be more challenging than simply moving from v4 to its successor. When the time comes, there’s also a chance that you’ll be able to recertify under v4 for the same reason 2009 is still available – the previous system is typically kept open for a short period after the upgrade is released.

“Going with the newer rating system really means you have a longer horizon to recertify under the same system,” explains Corey Enck, director of LEED technical development for USGBC.

Two projects have obtained v4 certification for existing buildings so far, Enck adds, both from the beta program USGBC used to fine-tune their drafts of LEED requirements before balloting started. The finished version now in use divides credit requirements for existing buildings into two categories – establishment and performance – to make the recertification process easier. The establishment section of each credit refers to tasks you’ll only need to do once, such as writing policies or installing infrastructure. The performance section governs ongoing tasks your project team will tackle regularly, like audits, occupant surveys, and tracking and metering.

“During the recertification review, teams will have to do much less documentation because they’ll only be focusing on the performance part of each credit. They won’t need to change the establishment credits if their practices didn’t change,” says Enck.

Who is in my building? Owner-occupied facilities tend to have different goals than tenant-occupied ones, explains Jeff Williford, consultant for Paladino and Company, a green building and sustainability consulting firm.

“Owner-occupied buildings are not driven by tenant retention, so they pursue LEED for other reasons and try to really optimize their O&M strategies,” says Williford. “For tenant buildings, there’s an added reason for certifying – attracting or retaining tenants to keep leasing rates up.”

Certification strategies also differ depending on the audience, Williford adds. Owner-occupied buildings typically yield a greater volume of information, and products are purchased for the entire building by a central department. However, managers of tenant-occupied buildings still have the opportunity to exert some influence on their tenants’ individual purchasing practices.

“Don’t just go in and ask for purchasing or other operating data,” recommends Williford. “Try to explain to them how their contribution plays a role at the larger level and show them the output data compliance reports that you’ll ultimately send to the USGBC for review.”

What are my end goals? “The fundamental difference between the two systems is that v4’s going to focus you on your company values as a way to navigate through the credit system,” says Brad Pease, director of signature buildings practice for Paladino and Company. “LEED 2009 had a number of points that were not necessarily connected to business outcomes. Project teams would tend to document these because they were easy and then be frustrated because they felt their time was not well spent. V4 takes away those meaningless credits and should encourage teams to first determine what they want to get out of the program, then select credits that align with their project goals.”

The new version of LEED offers a handful of credits optimal for bottom-line-driven companies, Pease says, as well as credits rewarding a focus on emissions and attention to occupant wellness.

“What’s powerful about LEED v4 is that it allows you to find your own path without mandating so many minimum performance requirements that it starts to exclude the marketplace,” says Pease. “The way it’s constructed around the five to six environmental impact categories is a real testament to the system. It affords you the opportunity to select the strategies that align with your values.”


2) Study the Prerequisites
The 12 prerequisites for existing buildings in LEED v4 are similar to their predecessors, but the bar has been raised higher. As your next step toward certification, compare the requirements of the prerequisites – especially in the Energy & Atmosphere category – to help you chart a clearer journey.

The minimum energy performance in LEED 2009 requires an ENERGY STAR score of at least 69. In v4, that number is now 75 – the same score required to gain ENERGY STAR certification for your building. In addition, the extra points available for above-the-minimum energy performance have evolved to reflect the higher baseline.

“V4 begins to really reward the highest-performing buildings with regards to energy performance,” notes Williford. “Once you get up to an ENERGY STAR score of 87 or 88, or all the way up to 95, you can potentially earn a lot of points for that energy performance. In version 2009, the higher your ENERGY STAR score got, the less additional point earning potential you had. Scores in the low 90s had only two to three more points available.”

The updated energy requirements create a double-edged sword, however. Michael Alexander, senior sustainability project manager at the commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley, worked directly on LEED-EB 2009 certification for 455 Massachusetts Ave. in Washington, DC. It earned ENERGY STAR certification every year from 2011 to 2013, increasing its score from 78 to 86 and earning 11 points for energy performance toward its 2013 LEED-EB Platinum certification. The same building submitted under v4 would earn only nine points from that credit.

“A score of 75 gets four points in 2009, but none in v4,” adds Alexander. “I think people have mixed feelings on that – there’s a need to improve, but it also excludes a lot of buildings. Will it discourage more buildings from pursuing energy efficiency, or will it incentivize them to improve?”

3) Optimize MEP Systems
At Michigan Plaza in Chicago’s East Loop, the process of revamping mechanical systems started all the way back in 2005, when MB Real Estate first took over management and leasing for Michigan Plaza LLC’s two-tower office complex, which dates from 1981. “Due to the age of the buildings, there was a significant capital investment that needed to be addressed,” explains Steve Hennessy, vice president of asset management for MB Real Estate and general manager of Michigan Plaza.

The team kicked off an eight-year phased upgrade that would facilitate earning ENERGY STAR and LEED certifications, including low-flow fixtures in the bathrooms, LED retrofits in common areas, and upgrades to existing motors (including the installation of VFDs). Both towers also received new chillers and refurbished cooling towers.

“LEED was our ultimate goal,” Hennessy says of the project’s early days. “It certainly tells current and prospective tenants that our buildings have done and continue to do all that’s possible to operate efficiently and reduce operation costs.”

However, you may not need to renovate extensively to boost resource efficiency if your structure is newer, Alexander notes. For instance, 455 Massachusetts Avenue didn’t require replacement of entire plumbing fixtures with low-flow versions – adding aerators to faucets and showerheads and installing flush kits on toilets was enough to reduce the flow. Its certification team also obtained an ASHRAE Level II energy audit, which helped them identify opportunities for energy efficiency projects.

“What was helpful in this instance was that the porcelain in place was modern, so it could support a lower flow than an older porcelain model,” notes Alexander. “That was a big piece that helped us achieve additional points.”

4) Involve Occupants Creatively
You’re required to conduct surveys at least once every two years for the Occupant Comfort credit in v4 (and can choose surveying as a path toward the Alternative Transportation credit), so why not use the data to inform other practices that lead to more points? For instance, dissatisfaction with indoor air quality could spark an idea for more efficient filters that also allow you to lower fan speeds, creating an energy savings opportunity. (For more ideas on creative occupant engagement, see “Battle of the Kilowatts” on page 30.)

“Know your audience when you’re approaching them around sustainability,” advises Alexander, whose work on 455 Massachusetts Avenue included both occupant comfort and transportation surveys. “Understand what their hot points are to understand where you’ll find the most value, whether that’s through cost savings, engaged employees, or environmental friendliness. Start the conversation with the most valuable touchpoint and work down from there – that’s where we found success.”

Smart surveying strategies are also handy for tenant-occupied buildings. In Michigan Plaza’s case, MBRE initially attempted to recruit enough participants for the tenant comfort and transportation surveys via email, but when they came up short of the required number, the team physically relocated to the lobby and manned tables with surveys to meet the target. “This was actually a good thing because it allowed us to explain the process to our tenants,” Hennessy says.

Some of the tenant comfort surveys also illuminated larger problems.

“We used the surveys to see if there were any improvements we could make,” adds Hennessy. “Since the tenant in many cases is responsible for the design of their space, we sometimes find that if there is a larger problem, it’s usually because the space wasn’t designed efficiently. We were able to go in, look at the issue, and say ‘You need another VAV box in this area.’”

The plaza’s managers haven’t stopped there. MBRE sends out copies of its Eco-Guide for Tenants annually (it’s also available online) and encourages staff in each office space to adopt the sustainable practices detailed in the guide.


5) Engage Service Providers
Do you outsource any management services, such as landscaping or basic cleaning? Helping them adopt greener, healthier practices is key to several credits in both current versions of LEED.

At the Massachusetts Avenue property, teams brought pest management, landscaping, and janitorial providers on board by collaborating to meet the same high cleanliness threshold, but without adversely impacting the environment. The organization implemented an integrated pest management program and also worked with their cleaning vendor to utilize third-party-certified green chemicals that are biodegradable and nontoxic.

Irrigation was also of concern, so the 455 Massachusetts Avenue team partnered with their landscaping provider to use native and adaptive species (where feasible) that require less water, pesticides, and fertilizer than other plantings. “We also worked with them to use more manual practices as opposed to gas-powered equipment – they can trim and sweep with manual equipment rather than gas-powered,” says Alexander. “They still use some gas-powered equipment, but the goal is to use less. For snow, they use a more environmentally friendly ice melt and shovel snow rather than use gas-powered snow blowers.”

6) Create a Green Company Culture
Maintain your momentum toward certification by encouraging a culture of sustainability, both among members of your facilities team and among the rest of the building occupants, Alexander suggests.

“Facilitating the process is a lot easier when everybody’s on board,” adds Alexander. “That should start now, even if the building might not pursue LEED for a year or two. Everyone can start doing little things like implementing recycling bins and talking to vendors.”

Preparation for recertification should ideally start as soon as you achieve the initial certification. No matter which version of LEED you’re recertifying under, you’ll have to prove ongoing high performance. Michigan Plaza, which is due to recertify in 2017, is aiming for continuous improvement in the years leading up to its recertification application.

“Just because you received the designation doesn’t mean you don’t have to continue to honor those practices and track your energy,” says Hennessy. “Our goal is always to do better. Our ENERGY STAR score went from 78 to 84 and is now at 86, so we’ll keep improving the operations of the building and anticipate even more improvement. The job is never done.”


Case Study #1

455 Massachusetts Ave.
Washington, DC

Size: 247,000 square feet

Built: 2008

Original Certification: LEED-EB 2009 Platinum, awarded in 2013

Planned Recertification: LEED O+M v4 (formerly known as LEED-EB)

Other Designations: ENERGY STAR certified in 2011, 2012, and 2013 (its most recent rating is 81)

Sustainable Strategies:

  • Conducted ASHRAE Level II energy audit to identify energy conservation opportunities
  • Retrofitted high-performance plumbing fixtures
  • Instituted more earth-friendly practices for purchasing, landscaping, waste, pest control, green cleaning, and exterior hardscape maintenance
  • Implemented ongoing tenant educational programs to encourage sustainable practices
  • Started a robust recycling program to divert waste from landfills
  • Designed a landscaping program that minimizes potable water use for irrigation

Case Study #2

Michigan Plaza
(205 and 225 N. Michigan Ave.)
Chicago, IL

Size: Comprised of two towers joined by a lobby. The tower at 205 N. Michigan is 44 stories with 976,555 rentable square feet, while the other is 25 stories with 969,053 rentable square feet.

Built: 1981 (the 225 tower) and 1984 (205)

Original Certification: LEED-EB 2009 Gold, awarded in 2012 (both towers were certified as one unit)

Planned Recertification: LEED-EB 2009

Other Designations: ENERGY STAR certified in 2011, 2012, and 2013 (its most recent rating was 86)

Sustainable Strategies:

  • Implemented water efficiency projects expected to reduce consumption by approximately 4.05 million gallons annually
  • Instituted a recycling program that has diverted 22,175 pounds of furniture and electronic equipment from landfills
  • Developed tenant outreach efforts, including the Eco-Guide for Tenants detailing green strategies for tenant spaces and their expected benefits
  • Created a green cleaning policy
  • Recycled 80% of construction materials

Case Study #3

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Headquarters
Washington, DC

Size: 211,000 square feet

Built: 1996

Original Certification: LEED-EB v2.0 Gold, awarded in 2009; LEED-EB 2009 Platinum, awarded in 2013

Planned Recertification: Unknown

Other Designations: ENERGY STAR certified every year from 2007 to 2011, plus 2013 (its most recent score is 82)

Sustainable Strategies:

  • Reduced daily water consumption by 39% between 2007 and 2009 to earn original certification; to recertify under LEED 2009, the building saved 33% more water than the LEED baseline requires
  • Upgraded to a highly efficient cooling system
  • Installed real-time energy management software to track and manage consumption
  • Offset 100% of energy consumption with renewable energy credits and carbon offsets
  • Instituted alternative transportation program rewarding the use of hybrid cars, carpooling, and mass transit; about 85% of building occupants used alternative transportation as of December 2013


Janelle Penny is senior editor of BUILDINGS.