In this article, Brenda Martens, LEED Fellow and Founder of aedify, outlines LEED Version 4. She discusses how v4 differs from v3 and the consequences of the delayed release of v4. Plagued with difficulties and delays, v4 has been the most controversial release of LEED to date, but it raises the baseline of what we consider a green building to be and it’s important for the industry to work with the new rating system now rather than waiting for the market to catch up. Brenda covers more information about LEED v4 in her course Leed Project Management.
- LEED v4 has been carefully considered and makes the “right” environmental choice. It speaks to the quality of views, and rewards the cumulative benefits of the many sustainable attributes of materials, rather than looking at those attributes in isolation
- LEED is not, never has been, and never will be “perfect, but is meant to represent the performance of the top 25% of buildings. As its adoption is delayed, building codes will have performance requirements that overtake those of LEED 2009 (v3)
- LEED v4 allows the reduction in the total waste generated to earn the same credit, and additional credit as “exemplary performance” for projects that both reduce the waste generated and divert what waste they do produce from landfill
Putting the “Leadership” Back in LEED
At the end of October last year the US Green Building Council made the unexpected announcement that they would delay the full adoption of LEED Version 4 an additional 16 months, extending the original date from June 2015 to October 2016. This announcement took most in the industry by surprise, with the USGBC initially citing a poll (given only to a fraction of the attendees) taken at their annual GreenBuild conference as an indication that the market is not yet ready, where 61% of the respondents were either “not ready” for the adoption of v4, or “unsure.” When pressed, the USGBC released the information that the “overwhelming factor” in the decision was that fewer than 400 projects had registered in the rating system over its first year, as compared to nearly 5,000 projects that registered for LEED 2009, its predecessor, in its first year on the market. It should be noted however that this is not a fair comparison. When LEED 2009 was released it was the only version possible to register a project in, whereas for the past year project teams have had the option of registering in 2009 or v4. Given the availability of a less stringent rating system that is more familiar, most owners and teams have, not surprisingly, opted for LEED 2009.
v4 has been plagued with difficulties and delays from the start, and has been the most controversial release of LEED to date – originally scheduled for release as LEED 2012, due to the unprecedented number of changes, it underwent additional balloting by USGBC membership, which delayed its introduction until the following year (hence the renaming to “v4”). The rating system, which has been available as an option for registration since October 2013, attempts to address many of the often criticized, long-standing shortcomings of LEED. As an example, providing the building occupants with a view to the outside has always been rewarded in the rating system, but it hasn’t mattered what that view is of, even though we know that for psychological well-being this is important. Similarly, a project team that makes an effort to use sustainable materials, but which falls slightly short of the individual credit thresholds for salvaged, rapidly renewable, local or recycled content set for those materials, did not earn any credit for their selection whatsoever. Until now. v4 speaks to the quality of views, and rewards the cumulative benefits of the many sustainable attributes of materials, rather than looking at those attributes in isolation. It also no longer rewards selection of products that are just local, those products must be environmentally preferable as well. In every regard, LEED v4 has been carefully considered and makes what I would regard as the “right” environmental choice. In doing so there is a cost to pay, and that cost is complexity. In order to meet its new environmental objectives, the changes to the rating system do not simplify the process, and while the rating system “got it right” in terms of environmental considerations, from the practitioner’s perspective, some of it’s new requirements are too complicated to be easily implemented. What many fail to realize however, is that often the new requirements simply add another option while maintaining what was already available in the rating system. Take Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is the Building life-cycle impact reduction credit. The previous “Building Reuse”, which this credit replaces, only allowed retrofitting of existing buildings to qualify for points. LCA is a tool for comparing the environmental impacts of products and buildings, and provides project teams with a method for earning points under this credit for a brand new building. LCA, while poorly understood and complicated, adds to the number of points available to new buildings, by providing a way for the project team to demonstrate the reduction in life-cycle impact through material selection.
LEED Isn’t Perfect
LEED is not, never has been, and never will be “perfect”. One of the changes to the calculations in v4 that I’m sure will draw criticism is to use the number of products, rather than the cost of materials to determine credit compliance. Cost had been used as a proxy for quantity, but (and this was one of the drawbacks of LEED) high-priced items disproportionately skewed the results. For example, high-end cabinetry counted for more than dimensional lumber, even though a project may have a much higher volume of dimensional lumber than cabinetry. The change in methodology from cost to products means that everyone should use the same definition of “product”, so the USGBC provided the following:
- A “product”… is defined by its function in the project. A product includes the physical components and services needed to serve the intended function… Here are a few scenarios.
- Products that arrive at the project site ready for installation:
- For wallboard, the gypsum, binder, and backing are all required for the product to function, so each ingredient does not count as a separate product.
- Products that arrive as an ingredient or component used in a site-assembled product:
- Concrete admixtures are considered separate products because each component (admixture, aggregate, and cement) serves a different function; each component is therefore a separate product.
Whereas the wallboard makes sense, the last time I checked, concrete couldn’t function as concrete without any one of its main ingredients, and a pile of aggregate on the job site certainly couldn’t function in the role of concrete. The USGBC goes on to say how chairs of different colours, or with or without arms are not separate products, but a desk chair and a side chair of the same product line are different products…. I’m not sure this change provides an improvement that is worth the effort.
Waste, is a Terrible Thing to Waste
On the other hand, for an example of what the USGBC got “right” in terms of both metrics and process, we can look to waste management. There are fundamentally two ways to address waste reduction, based on “Reduce Reuse Recycle”. You can convert construction “waste” to usable material by recycling and reuse, or you can reduce the amount of “waste” generated in the first place, or both. The three R’s are hierarchical, with “Reduce” being the environmentally preferential first step. Historically, LEED has rewarded the “Reuse” and “Recycle” portion of the R’s, and they continue to do so in v4, allowing project teams to measure the amount of waste that’s being diverted from landfill through recycling and reuse. They have now added a second path that allows the reduction in the total waste generated to earn the same credit, and (here’s the brilliance in the new system) additional credit as “exemplary performance” for projects that both reduce the waste generated and divert what waste they do produce from landfill, thereby exercising all of the R’s, and encouraging project teams to adopt the new metrics, while still giving them the option of using the older familiar ones.
What Does This Delay in the Release of v4 Mean?
While the market may not have been ready, especially for the materials section of the new rating system, the delay of Version 4 adoption has long term consequences. LEED is meant to represent the top 25% of buildings, in terms of performance. However, as its adoption is delayed, we have building codes whose performance requirements are overtaking those of LEED 2009 (v3). Already some plumbing codes (as an example, Ontario’s plumbing code as of January 1, 2015) are equivalent to, or better than the v3 indoor water reduction prerequisite, which is the minimum water performance required to certify (although the indoor water use prerequisite threshold remains the same for LEED v4, two additional water prerequisites have been added for outdoor water use, and water metering). A building certifying in the US in 2021 using LEED v3 will be measuring its energy performance against ASHRAE 90.1 2007, a standard that is less stringent and already outdated now. If nothing is done, instead of representing the top 25%, LEED certification may represent buildings that just meet code.
The most disturbing aspect of the delay is that it mirrors an attitude that appears to be taking hold in society, based on the acceptance that the supposed cost of climate change mitigation is publicly unacceptable and therefore politically unpalatable. We now speak of “adaptation”, which only detracts from the urgency of climate change mitigation. We have exceeded the 350 parts per million CO2 concentration in the atmosphere that was estimated to be “safe”, but this doesn’t change the fact that our best adaptation strategy is still to reduce CO2 emissions… drastically. LEED is a voluntary standard, put in place for the leaders in the industry, and v4 raises the baseline of what we consider a green building to be – we need to work with the new rating system now rather than waiting for a portion of the market to catch up. By the time they have caught up, it may be too late. In the game of climate change, even if we eventually “win” and manage to do the right thing in building construction, if it’s too slow, its the same as losing.
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