Pressure on LEED: Threat or Boon?

Pressure on LEED: Threat or Boon?

Having spent five years at the helm of the U.S. Green Building Council, the organization that created the LEED green building rating system, I've been getting a lot of questions lately about new pressures being faced by this green building standard. First, a savvy Web-based green assessment tool called Green Globes has been introduced in the U.S. as the first real competition to LEED. Next, two green building enthusiasts have issued a fiery plea for major overhauls to a "broken" LEED.

Do these developments pose a serious threat to LEED? Let's take a look.

Green Globes enters the market. Billed as the industry's first interactive, Web-based environmental assessment protocol, Green Globes was launched in Canada in 2002 and licensed for release in the U.S. earlier this year through the Green Buildings Initiative (GBI). The newcomer's lineage actually traces back to the British "BREEAM" tool. When the import failed to gain traction in North America, one of its developers created a "Greenleaf" version that was less expensive, more streamlined, and broader in scope. Green Globes is essentially the latest installment of those BREEAM/Greenleaf products and is now recognized by the Canadian government.

Green Globes offers several very appealing features. (See an excellent review by Environmental Building News.) Interactive feedback on strategies, interactions and resources can be tailored to twenty different team roles and eight project stages. Numerical assessments are generated at stages for schematic design and construction, designed to coincide with planning and permit approvals. Says GBI, "It's like having a 24-hour sustainability consultant on line." Green Globes also directly incorporates the ENERGY STAR Target Finder plus attributes such as acoustics, integrated design, and certain life cycle assessment references. Contrary to word on the street, Green Globes does require third-party verification in order to use its logo; confidential self-assessments are also available for internal use and scenario-planning.

There are drawbacks -- many stemming from lack of market testing in the U.S. and the kind of stakeholder involvement that is a hallmark of USGBC. Association with GBI itself will also draw skepticism from some. Created to promote the National Association of Homebuilders' new green building standard, the organization is also supported by a coalition of industry groups long critical of the USGBC for its policy of barring membership to trade associations and various technical concerns with LEED. Against that backdrop, there will be considerable interest in the transparency with which GBI conducts its own programs including certification services. To help waylay inevitable questions, GBI aims to secure recognition by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a non-profit which accredits organizations and certification programs for conformity with consensus-based protocols.

LEED's growing pains. Authors of the "LEED is Broken" critique take aim at the "slow, brutal, confusing, and unwieldy" certification process that makes green building more difficult than needed. Their tough-love assessment concludes by urging a dialogue to "roll up our sleeves, get to work, and reinvent LEED so that it as inspirational, as hopeful, and as shimmering as one of our best dreams." Not surprisingly, the USGBC community is already responding in its own feisty way, offering rebuttals to some claims and suggestions for dealing with others. (Jerry Yudelson, former USGBC Board member, for example, is proposing that the Council adopt an assessor system following the tried-and-true ISO approach. USGBC's CEO, Rick Fedrizzi, has promised a thorough review with reforms on the way.)

Threat or Boon? As EBN noted in its evaluation: "Perhaps the introduction of choice in the market will clarify some issues and lead to improvements all around." I agree. Green Globes, through its user-friendly features, offers healthy competition to spur new cycles of innovation. And the certification critique is prompting just the kind of periodic check needed to keep LEED potent. Neither undermines LEED's standing as one of the greatest success stories in market transformation. Rather, this kind of "shaking out" is typical of explosive growth markets and can be welcomed as such.

And yet, the question remains: why hasn't the USGBC moved faster to develop more user-friendly tools and processes? After all, high-performance buildings and high-performance support tools go hand in hand. It can't be for lack of creative staff and volunteers; or that market concerns suddenly cropped up, although they have intensified.

From my vantage, two underlying factors may continue to challenge efforts to stay ahead of the customer service curve notwithstanding enhancements to certification: 1) a wickedly ambitious agenda and 2) evolving questions about LEED’s customer focus.

Focus, focus, focus. USGBC’s unabashed exuberance for launching new products is laudable in spirit, but presents a drag on customer service among other priorities. Ten new products are in various stages of development, pilot testing, and release since the first standard, LEED for New Commercial Buildings, was launched in 2000. (LEED for Existing Buildings and Commercial Interiors were both released last fall, but still await publication of their reference guides despite yeoman efforts.) Meanwhile, the original LEED product is in the midst of an interim 2.2 update, with 3.0 on the horizon to address a host of issues including life cycle assessments.

This is an astonishingly ambitious agenda by any measure. Aside from the technical, marketing, and educational requirements for each product, each sector brings its own political dynamics requiring care and feeding. Yes, continuing efforts to streamline and franchise workload will help tremendously. But in the end, future success will also hinge on developing a laser-like focus on top priorities and a passion to please core customers.

LEED-ership in an expanding market. It was inevitable that pressures would emerge to streamline certification. As expected, leading-edge practitioners have been making certification easier, faster and cheaper as the learning curve has flattened. Offsetting this trend, however, is the reality that 'mainstream’ clients are often less tolerant than early enthusiasts. Plus, some aspects of the review process frustrate old and new clients alike.

Add to that a longstanding ambivalence within the green community regarding the role of LEED certification. Some leaders insist that certification is the only viable way to validate green claims; others want to recognize alternative shades of green for their clients. This runs parallel to ambivalence over the Council’s primary customer focus. While we commonly speak of LEED targeting the top quartile of industry best practices, many practitioners want the Council to tend more of the mainstream market, while still others want to take their clients "beyond LEED." (Linkage of LEED tools to broader sustainability frameworks, like The Natural Step, could help reconcile the latter.)

As the market evolves, it will be helpful for the Council to articulate and sharpen its focus on the customers most critical for bringing about market transformation---perhaps leaving other parts of the market for others to serve if necessary.

The Future. The USGBC community shines brightest when it leads from a posture of strength and is open to new ideas and challenges. I’ll wager that USGBC will take these pressures in stride and use the competition to become even stronger. In the meantime, here are three suggestions for accelerating trends. After all, it’s not really a question of whether or not green technologies will go mainstream. That is evitable in the long run based on increasingly compelling needs and opportunities. The real question is how to accelerate and deepen the transformation to maximize benefits.
  1. Make third-party certification so compelling -- so irresistible -- that any green building champion would be embarrassed without the credentials. LEED may not need to satisfy all customers interested in green, but certainly those most critical for driving market transformation. Process changes that cut costs and uncertainty are half of the equation; so are steps to enhance the value of certification. It’s not all about costs, but return on investment.

  2. Encourage solid comparisons of how LEED and Green Globes perform in the market to better inform consumer choices and valuation.

  3. Relentlessly seek documentation of green building experiences -- benefits, costs, successes and failures. What if, for example, we could harness the power of LEED by awarding innovation credits for the submission of benefit and cost data using agreed-upon protocols and terms of confidentiality? What if projects were rewarded for putting in place systems to measure productivity changes (and which could be peer-reviewed)? Given the paucity of public and private research funding available, this could help stimulate new streams of data.
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Christine Ervin, former President & CEO for the U.S. Green Building Council and Asst. Secretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration, is currently writing a book on market-based environmental policy.