Keeping Up with the USGBC

Posted on June 11, 2010


Even as a LEED AP, I find it difficult to stay up-to-date on the U.S. Green Building Council, who manages the various LEED certification systems. As the organization branches out, it is challenging to track changes in policy as well as understand the general strategy for what or why something happens with the organization.

To someone a little more on the green design periphery like a building owner, it can amount to noise, i.e. useless and sometimes distracting chatter that means little. LEED has been around a while and green design even longer, but there is no shame in admitting a little confusion as to what is current in sustainable design. Is the USGBC as an institution destined to get long-in-the-tooth as it grows in size, power and overhead? Are the LEED credit systems going to continue multiplying like rabbits?

Let us review the basics. Green buildings are, by definition, high performance buildings. They are designed, engineered and built to a voluntarily more stringent standard than other buildings. In effect, they are a brand-name building, with all the good and bad that come with that connotation.

The LEED credit rating systems are industry recognized tools to track the effectiveness of a building design in accomplishing green objectives as defined by the U.S. Green Building Council. The enforcement of the actual building certification is done by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), which was created to more effectively administer the certification process because the USGBC could not keep up with demand.

LEED standards do not exist merely to annoy with paperwork and pad the coffers of the creators; the USGBC does have strategy behind their systems. They created different rating systems to be more sensitive to the differences between building typologies, and to create a recognizable standard within each sector. Further granularity of LEED systems will prevent future building owners from saying ‘this does not apply to me’.

The US Green Building Council’s goal is to recognize the top 25% performing buildings as “LEED certified (on any level)”. In other words, they want to design the rating systems (through trial-and-error and a little reverse engineering) to make the threshold for LEED certification to reward the top 25% environmentally and energy-efficient designs as LEED buildings. However, this is an imprecise science.

Therefore, the point systems are constantly monitored and tinkered with. For instance, thresholds for efficiency are raised so similar achievement takes more strategy and creativity. Point accumulation totals are recalibrated so previously outstanding designs now achieve only minimum recognition; what once garnered points is now a baseline prerequisite. Their goal is to up the ante so LEED accreditation is never a diluted standard.

Similar tactics are used with the LEED Accredited Professional examination. Like the rating systems, the USGBC’s goal is to maintain the exclusivity of the credential so that LEED AP always means someone recognized as a sustainable design leader. The test has been overhauled twice, the last time about one year ago, and is also now administered by the GBCI.

Not surprisingly the updated format, additional prerequisites to simply sit for the exam, and mandatory continuing education, have cut numbers of prospective LEED APs dramatically. Prior to the new test format and requirements, successful testing was not so exclusive (read: the pass rate was quite high) and membership was growing faster than the USGBC liked. Also similar to the point systems, the USGBC has further stratified the type of accreditation (Associate, AP and Fellow) to follow the system with which a professional is most familiar.

Regardless of the LEED systems, interest in sustainable design will likely not wane to where green design shrivels up; there are simply too many practical forces driving it forward:  positive environment impact, increased energy demand and shortages, increased waste streams, and potential long-term cost savings through sensitive design.

In addition, green momentum outside the U.S., which is much more progressive and extensive, will continue. Building codes appear to be (mercifully) converging to one standard, which will likely have world sustainability initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol, written into them. Corporate governance will continue to be pushed by shareholders and a voting (paying) public to be green. In the long-term, traditional energy costs—heating oil, natural gas, electricity, petroleum—will rise and put more pressure on reducing operating expenses. Consumer interest may provide the ultimate tipping point to keep green going on ad infinitum.

All signs point to support more robust and rigorously designed and implemented LEED system standards. The key to keeping up with the USGBC will be to track the sliver of market that affects your industry or facility. In this exponentially-growing information age, the rest is just noise.