Special Report: The Thinking Behind Version 3

LEED v3 represents the most significant change to USGBC's green building rating system since its inception in 2000.

By Douglas R. Kelly | Photography by Steve Barrett


Editor's note: LEED® v3 represents the most significant change to USGBC's green building rating system since its inception in 2000. There are many market forces that impact this kind of program, and given increasing client demand for sustainable spaces, architects, building owners and managers, and designers need to understand how these forces are driving the evolution of LEED. Stamats Business Media editorial director Douglas R. Kelly sat down with Doug Gatlin, vice president of market development at USGBC, to learn more about the changes that are coming in the world of LEED.

Kelly: Give us an overview of the rationale for the overhaul ... the reorganization of LEED into what the USGBC is calling ‘LEED v3.' What's the thinking behind that and the market forces driving it?

Gatlin: I think one of the great things about USGBC is we're a member-driven organization. We now have over 15,000 member organizations, so that's a vast talent pool to pull from, in terms of our committees that are going to create the rating systems and maintain them over time. In tapping into that expertise, we focused on subject matter experts around different phases in the building's life-cycle. So, for New Construction, which came out in 2000, [we had] architects and designers and engineers; for Existing Buildings, we pulled in facility managers, property managers, and also, building engineers, and specialists like the cleaning manufacturers and so forth. All of that was to provide content that would be technically focused and sophisticated for green best practices in the relevant areas.

The two things it was lacking-and this is not a criticism, it's just how we've evolved-were, first, it was lacking consistent reference standards across those platforms. So, to give you an example of a reference standard, in our indoor environmental quality [IEQ] section, every single rating system has a minimum threshold for good IEQ based on ASHRAE 62. So for the ventilation requirements, or CO2 measurement testing, whatever, there's a reference standard with ASHRAE. We may have had one version ... in one of the specs, and one in another, and a third in another. So we needed to go through and harmonize that, just for the benefit of the market.

This way, by getting those all on a consistent scale, the customer knows they're getting the latest and the best reference standard, and also that they don't have to learn essentially the same thing twice. So, it's no longer sufficient for us to just educate the new construction market versus the existing buildings market. I mean, owners of large portfolios, they want to use LEED across the board. So, for us to transform that, move from just a rating system that's delivered by one of the practices to where we're now being deployed throughout the whole ownership categories, we really needed to make the rating systems consistent and unified wherever possible.

The other [area that was lacking] is that the committees, when they decided on the point allocation, did it based on their best knowledge of the technical measures themselves. What happened was, there was no reference to any kind of outside standard or criteria for determining the relative impact of one environmental goal versus another. I think all of this was fine at the time, we just evolved to a point where we see now an area for improvement. If the committee members who would be interested in innovation and pushing new technologies had said, ‘well, we need to add a strategy for' ... pick a topic ... let's say daylighting; for New Construction, before it had Daylighting and Views, it was a certain number of points and credits. When it then added Daylighting and Views, one of the most important credits in all of LEED ... by adding those four points there, it inadvertently diluted the relative point weighting of everything else.

So we've gone to the authority on a whole host of environmental challenges and issues: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]. EPA has this TRACI category [Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts], and that looks at everything from climate change to atmosphere and ozone depletion, from local smog to impaired water bodies, and it puts them all in a consistent framework. So that you can say, even though there's no perfect answer, one of these issues [is] relative to the other ... [but] what's the relative weighting of those things? So we've now taken that weighting and we've overlaid it with LEED.

Kelly: I see.

Gatlin: So in 2009, all of the rating systems will be weighted according to those same externally determined categories ... those TRACI categories ... and they'll all shift to a 100-point scale.

Kelly: During the public comment phase [on LEED v3], have you heard from stakeholders about the increase in the number of points available and the ‘raising of the bar' with the total points system?

Gatlin: It shouldn't really raise the bar. In each of the rating systems, you had to meet the same percentage threshold, just not the same amount of points, because the total base number of points varied from rating system to rating system. But you always had to earn 40 percent to get Certified, 50 [percent] for Silver, 60 [percent] Gold, and 80 [percent] for Platinum. So what it should be in 2009 is, for example, 80 points to get Platinum, and that would be 80 percent.

Kelly: I see, more of a ‘metric' scale, so to speak.

Gatlin: Exactly. And we think it'll make [for] an easier tool for the market to understand and to implement.

Kelly: Part of the rationale we've been hearing about is to bring LEED into a continuous improvement [kind of] cycle. How will the revised rating system, and the reallocation and so forth, offer an opportunity for continuous improvement for these types of projects?

Gatlin: Well, first we had to get everything on more or less a level playing field. So, once you harmonize the reference standards across the different rating systems, and once you have them all into that consistent 100-point scale, then I think it creates a foundation for continuous improvement in a very rational way, and in a way that's easy to explain to the market. [It's] also transparent, which is, you know, one of our goals ... one of our requirements.

And that's just because there were too many moving parts and pieces in the old system, and we were seeing this increased proliferation of these individual LEED rating systems ... whether it was for Core and Shell, Commercial Interiors, Existing Buildings, Schools, Retail, and then once you [add] these market sector overlays, it could just get very, very complex. So by putting it all into 2009, and using kind of a Web portal interface-which we call internally the ‘bookshelf'-that means we can have the same amount of technical specificity for all those different space types and situations, without the same level of complexity in explaining it.

And so, to your question about continuous improvement, we've kind of reset the starting line for all those rating systems with 2009, and then we intend to go on to a [biannual] cycle of rolling out any subsequent changes.

Kelly: Meaning every two years ...

Gatlin: Every two years. What may happen is we may do yet one more set of revisions between 2009 and 2010, [and make] 2010 really a ‘base' year. And then it would be every two years-so 2012, 2014, and so on. That doesn't mean we're not going to be working around the clock. But as we work on credit changes or we work on innovative areas like Life Cycle Assessments [LCA] into LEED, the work can get done, but then it will get published and become codified along a more predictable schedule.

And when the market has grown to expect that on a more or less every two-year basis, it will help with their planning, and we think it'll also increase the market uptake, because there will be more certainty. And, probably, it'll also have the effect of driving people to kind of a cliff where, if [they] don't get it in now, who knows, maybe the revisions will be more stringent. So, it could drive a certain amount of the market to go ahead and do it sooner rather than later.

Kelly: Let's talk about the regional credits piece of LEED v3. Where does that stand in terms of the list of approved regional credits, and when might we see that list for public comment? And from a larger perspective, what's the rationale for the regional credits?

Gatlin: I'd like to speak to the rationale, and then ask Brendan to give you the real inside scoop on the list and the timing, because he's in charge of that. [See "Evolvoing Tools," the interview with Brendan Owens.]

The rationale is, that as green building practices have increasingly become adopted as the way to reduce the environmental impact of buildings; this isn't just a boutique thing anymore. This is something the general public is recognizing as a real way that we can solve some of our environmental problems. So they want it to be as real and as meaningful as possible. To move to the next level, in terms of ... I don't know if you'd call it stringency, but in terms of the real world impact of LEED, is to look at things that have real significant regional variation. The easiest example is water scarcity in the U.S., east of the Mississippi versus west of the Mississippi. You know, you go west of the Mississippi, especially the Southwest and the West Coast, and you're dealing with a whole different water paradigm than you are east of the Mississippi. So there should be more of a premium put on water efficiency, both on the consumption side but then also on the water treatment side as well.

Kelly: The regional credits will be structured as a bonus-type model?

Gatlin: Yes, a bonus; there's a pool of 10 credits available as bonus credits. Just like Innovation is now. So if you're familiar with the Innovation credits, there's five categories plus Innovation, so there's six categories, and those are treated like bonus credits. So, there would be 10 possible in the regional credit. But then the amount that can be allocated to one strategy versus the other will depend on that regional ‘pick list.'

So, you may not be able to get more regional bonus credits from water in this market here, but in Phoenix [for example], you'd be able to get the max.

Kelly: And could that push an organization over the finish line, so to speak? To say, look, we can get four or six or whatever additional credits here, that can push us up from regular certification into Silver certification?

Gatlin: Yes, it certainly can. You know, maybe not just one issue, but pulling two or even three regional sort of bonus issues together, where you could get up to the 10 points. That could definitely push somebody over the threshold to go from either non-certified to certified or even take them to a higher certification. And I think it's just going [to align] the value of green building certification more with the kinds of issues they face in their real situation.

Kelly: Prior to LEED v3, was there a provision for regional-type credits or was there nothing in existence there?

Gatlin: No, there really wasn't. I think maybe in certain CIRs [Credit Interpretations and Rulings] it would have been considered as adding more weight to a CIR request or a certain type of water-saving device, again in [a place like] Phoenix. But it was never codified as something that, across the board, we'd allow more regional weighting of one region versus the other.

Kelly: On the LCA part of the program, will the USGBC be setting the criteria for the LCAs-what can be measured and how it should be measured-but leave the actual assessment of the standard to third-party certification bodies?

Gatlin: That line of discussion is still a little bit open-ended right now, but Brendan can certainly tell you more of the thinking on that. I do know that we've put a lot of effort into trying to look at the ultimate environmental impact of material selection as it compares to the impact of other categories. And so, from [the environmental] perspective, we know that the life-cycle and looking at all the upstream energy-whether it's from transport energy or manufacturing energy, in the finished product or in the finished assembly-can be significant. You know, it's probably not going to be more than, say, 5 percent in most cases, of the total building's carbon footprint. But it's still significant and something that needs to be measured.

Kelly: We talked about regular updates to LEED moving forward, but what is the actual timeline for LEED v3? Are you still looking at a rollout at Greenbuild in November?

Gatlin: We're talking a full announcement at Greenbuild with an explanation of all of the substantive details, and then a launch in January 2009. You know, along with LEED 2009, these updates we've been talking about [the "guts" of the rating system], there's also our new certification model. Internally we call it ‘CERT3,' but that's just our process name. [That's] really going to be expanding the talent pool of reviewers that can do LEED reviews-not one building or five buildings at a time, but maybe hundreds of buildings at a time.

We've got contracts in place with several certification bodies-firms, global firms that specialize in third-party certification and validation for environmental and other certification regimes. [These are] folks that really participate very significantly within the ISO [International Organization for Standardization] system and process. These would be the certification bodies that do the third-party certification for a customer. You know, we haven't taken LEED through ISO. We're moving in the direction of some kind of an ANSI [American National Standards Institute] process for some components of LEED, but nonetheless, this is the same infrastructure and the same players that support all of the international standards that document through ISO, and we're really just tapping their [certification] expertise. We feel that we can train them and [give] them an understanding on each of the technical credits that are in LEED.

We've created a sister organization, GBCI, the Green Building Certification Institute. Its whole function is professional certification [the LEED AP, or Accredited Professional program] and building certification. GBCI is a standalone organization now, and they will be administering the exam and all of the support for the professional accreditation program. They will also, starting in 2009, take over the management of LEED building certification. What we will then do is to shift out of the management of those day-to-day reviews into an oversight function, where we [will] provide a level playing field in terms of technical expertise and qualification of those certification bodies. We also have all the quality control, quality assurance, and independent enforcement action to make sure they're up to snuff.

So, there's three legs to the stool for LEED v3. One is LEED version 2009; the second is this new certification process and model and moving to GBCI; and the third one is a brand-new online tool for managing the applications. That is LEED Online version 3, [which] will have a path for multiple building applications and [reviews]. It will also have our online front end. We call it the bookshelf internally.

Kelly: Does LEED Online allow multiple applications and management of multiple projects?

Gatlin: There's [currently] a screen where the project admin can look at all the buildings that he or she is the project admin for, but that's about it. It doesn't really get into volume review or volume certification like what we're going to do with the Portfolio Program.

The other nice thing about LEED Online version 3 is it will have aggregated performance metrics, in terms of key environmental metrics. So if you look at the credits that somebody might be going after, they might be going after a bunch of EA credits, a bunch of water credits, a bunch of recycling credits, et cetera. And the energy savings, water savings, and waste minimization that they've been able to accomplish for either one building or for multiple buildings, they can get a [roll-up type of] report on that information. Or, [they'll] be able to extract it, put it in an Excel file, and use it for their own sustainability reporting and tracking and [so forth].

Kelly: Doug, this has been very enlightening. Thanks for your time today.

Gatlin: You bet. Thank you.


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