How LEED Has Rocked The Built Environment

Theresa Lehman was among the pioneers in the building sustainability movement that began to take hold in the mid to late 1990s. While studying for her bachelor degree in construction management, which she completed in 1998, she heard of this new program called LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, created to inspire construction teams to plan and build more sustainable spaces.

Lehman was hooked then, and she’s still hooked, insisting that she’s “passionate about making a difference” today in her role as the director of sustainable services at Miron Construction Co. Inc. in Neenah, Wis.

But even Lehman admits it was a slog to get the sustainability ball rolling in her construction world. “I’m not going to lie,” she confesses. “It was an uphill battle to educate people on what sustainability was and why it was important to minimize waste in the building process.”

Lehman, who today is a LEED fellow and holds the LEED AP BD+C, ID+C, and WELL AP designations, was practically the lone voice in the Wisconsin wilderness because “everyone” in the building industry was oblivious to the need for and the specifics of sustainability. “In Wisconsin, anytime you drive past a landfill, statistically 60 percent of what’s in there is construction waste,” contends Lehman. “That’s pretty sad. There were no recycling programs — none. To even set up a recycling program on a construction site before you started construction was hell.

“I’d call or go visit material suppliers, and I’d ask them the recycled content in their products,” Lehman adds. “They’d give me that blank, deer-in-the-headlights look like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ LEED was groundbreaking, holy cow, totally-shaking-up-the-construction industry stuff.”

Nearly 20 years later, LEED is embedded in the industry and sought after by many pursuing construction projects. It’s still also continuing to push leaders to break new ground in building sustainability.

In case you missed it

LEED was launched as a beta program in the late 1990s but formally introduced in 2001, according to Brendan Owens, chief of engineering at the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Buildings Council (USGBC); it originated and still operates LEED.

The program is a rating system that grants building owners points for actions they take to increase sustainability in their properties; based on points awarded, buildings can be designated as certified, silver, gold or platinum. LEED is available for the building design and construction process (BD+C), the interior design and construction process (ID+C), operations and maintenance (O+M), neighborhood development (ND), and homes (its shorthand is its name: homes). The USGBC regularly tightens standards to continue to make additional advances in sustainability.

Admittedly, LEED has had less of an effect on the residential than commercial building industry, says Owens. He believes a variety of factors have made it more difficult for LEED to penetrate the homes market, and the biggest may be that it’s hard to communicate the value of green construction to consumers.

That said, the USGBC has certified more than 28,700 commercial projects in the United States, according to a spokesperson. They’re spread out across sectors and located in all 50 states. Internationally, LEED buildings are in 164 countries and territories, and more than 25,000 commercial projects outside of the U.S. participate in LEED.

Additional numbers tell a dramatic story of LEED’s effect on sustainability. According to a 2015 study for the USGBC by Booz Allen Hamilton [http://go.usgbc. org/2015-Green-Building-Economic-Impact-Study. html], from 2015 to 2018, LEED-certified buildings are expected to create as much as:

  • $12 billion in energy savings
  • $149.5 million in water savings
  • $715.3 million in maintenance savings
  • $54.2 million in waste savings

Those numbers should continue to expand considering that today, reports Owens, the USGBC is designating almost 2 million square feet of property as some level of LEED per day.

Beyond the numbers

Though the cold, hard facts show that LEED has helped the planet, LEED’s effect on the built environment may be even greater.

“Up until LEED was created, some people were involved in trying to create more sustainable buildings and landscapes,” recalls Russell Perry, who’s both an American Institute of Architects fellow and a LEED fellow; he also holds the LEED AP BD+C designation and is director of sustainable design at SmithGroup JJR in Washington, D.C.

“But there wasn’t really a consensus on how you define success,” he adds. “So we created LEED. It consists of lots of different parts, and to the extent that some of those ideas, tools and metrics are totally embedded and baked into everybody’s work every day, LEED has been a massive success everywhere.”

Here’s just one example of a LEED-influenced shift. “There was no consensus about how to do energy modeling … and what the measures of success would be,” recalls Perry. “Now everybody does energy modeling, and everybody does commissioning. It’s the same for low-volatile organic compounds in finished materials. There are any number of aspects of LEED that weren’t at all prevalent back then — that were very much fringe activities — that are totally common in that everybody does them today.”

Owens also believes LEED has shifted paradigms inside and well beyond the building world. “You could probably make a very compelling argument that the ripples have been bigger than the stone with LEED,” he contends. “I think about the fact that when my friends go buy paint, they’re buying low-VOC paint not because I’m telling them to, but because paint manufacturers responded to the incentives to create paints that offgas less. They completely shifted their industry from the traditional solvents they were using to much more healthy formulations.

“You can find those types of fingerprints throughout the building industry,” notes Owens. “They’re the indirect result of all that happened because the green building movement rewarded manufacturers that took leadership positions with their business.”

That process has touched many more aspects of everyday life than most people realize. “The way LEED handles materials and resources has changed over time, but it has essentially done the same thing for the products marketplace that it did for the building marketplace,” reports Aurora Sharrard, who holds the LEED AP BD+C designation and is executive director of the Green Building Alliance in Pittsburgh. “It’s creating the framework that helps somebody figure out what is a green product. Whether it’s carpets, external lighting, or toilets, what does it mean, and what should I be considering at the single-attribute level and when it comes to life-cycle impacts?”

Perry says LEED will continue to question the acceptable definitions of green. “What we thought were front-line things 20 years ago are now standard and common,” he asserts. “For example, we’re now having deep discussions about material toxicity. We knew it was an issue, but now we’re discussing how to measure it.”

Case in point: Halogenated flame retardants. They’re often added to petrochemical-based foams, which are extremely flammable, that are then used as insulating materials or in such products as chair seats. “There’s a legitimate question of how much exposure there is from that,” says Perry. “It’s a complicated question. It has to do with how much is used, the age and health of the person using the material, how much air flow there is in the room, and so on. If it’s safe for a middle-aged man, is it also safe for a nursing mother? We’re now saying, ‘Let’s identify those hazards, and where we can, let’s use something else.’”

The USGBC has also been doing “quite a bit of work,” says Owens, to influence building codes with sustainability in mind, both in the United States and, with its partners, internationally. But what impresses Owens most is research showing that green buildings aren’t just good investments for their owners but are also broad economic drivers.

According to the 2015 Booz Allen Hamilton study, LEED will directly contribute $29.8 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2018. By 2014, the green building industry had supported more than 2 million workers. In 2018, it will contribute $75.6 billion in wages nationwide.

Success begets success

The very public accomplishments of the LEED program have prompted other organizations to create programs to further promote sustainability and green building.

“The sheer number of green and measured-performance labels and certifications for buildings and products that have cascaded from LEED in the past 20 years is indicative that LEED has more than influenced a market — it has moved it,” reports Sharrard.

“It indicates that the market for green buildings and our understanding of what is a green building is evolving,” she says. “There are different evaluation measures for different types of buildings and spaces and at different time points. This increase in third-party national certification is indicative of different aspects of the built environment. What we see with these other certifications — that aren’t LEED — in Pittsburgh for the thought-leading buildings is that they’re very often LEED-certified and certified as something else, too.”

One of the most prominent of the new programs is the WELL building standard created by the International WELL Building Institute. It pushes building designers to consider users’ health, happiness, mindfulness and productivity.

“To me, LEED is primarily about decreasing quantity,” says Lehman. “How much water is used? How much energy is used? How much material is used? WELL is about increasing quality. What is the water quality like? What is the lighting quality? One of the things that’s coming is the ability to have your LEED project data flow into the WELL data. That’s just one example of what the next level of sustainability is.”

Lehman has worked on a building that incorporated the goals of improving its occupants’ health and wellness, the Lake Mills Elementary School outside of Madison, Wis., which is LEED v4 Platinum. “The idea was to create a high-performing, healthy environment,” explains Lehman. “One of the results that was surprising was that the shop teacher moved into the new portion of the school and was able to stop taking five tablets of Zyrtec a day.

“We also looked at the metrics for the previous five years, and in the first year after it opened, there was a 75 percent reduction in distributed allergy and asthma medication in the school and a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism,” says Lehman. “There was also a drop in communicable illness from 136 to 32 in the first year. The health metrics were crazy off the charts, and the whole sustainable community was like, ‘Wow!’”

The most challenging program today is the Living Building Challenge created by architect, designer and environmentalist Jason McLennan. “It’s a monster,” says Perry. “It’s fabulous. LEED is a system that acknowledges there will be negative consequences of everything we do in building, but let us minimize those and push toward zero consequences as quickly as we can.

“The Living Building Challenge says, ‘Forget that; let’s imagine what the perfect building looks like and do that,’” adds Perry. “The prerequisites are net-zero energy, water and waste, and no materials from the toxic red list.”

Perry’s own firm has completed the challenge with the Chesapeake Bay Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, Va. “It’s a remarkable thing,” boasts Perry. “It creates all its own energy, uses only water captured from the sky, and was built without toxic chemicals. There will be a time when we can do that for a typical building.”

G.M. Filisko is an attorney and freelance writer who writes frequently on real estate, business and legal issues. Ms. Filisko served as an editor at NAR’s REALTOR © Magazine for 10 years.

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