The LEED rating system from the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Building Council has risen as one of the most well-known of the rating systems. However, the rating has not been without its criticisms. With LEED 2009, set for full release in January, USGBC seeks to address some of those criticisms and refocus the program to encourage designers and builders to innovate and put their emphasis on areas that will create the most positive impact in the battle against human-influenced climate change. Recently, eco-structure had the opportunity to speak to Scot Horst, president of Horst Inc., Kutztown, Pa., and chair of USGBC’s LEED Steering Committee. He is one of the drivers behind the updates to LEED and shared some of his thoughts about the future of the rating system and where the industry is headed.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATUS OF LEED 2009?
SH: It will soon be out for membership ballot. If the membership votes positively, we’ll be announcing and showing it at Greenbuild, then rolling it out for use in January 2009.
ARE THERE ANY MAJOR CHANGES?
In a sense, 2009 is a transition year because we’ve made structural changes that put us on a streamlined path of continuous improvement. For example, we’ve changed the weighting of the credit structure. In the past, we were not intentionally weighting LEED, which meant we were unintentionally weighting it. What we’ve done is to adjust the points to reflect things we feel are important. Structurally, we’ve made LEED a system of 100 base points. Because we have those 100 base points, we can apply weightings more easily. We’re putting a lot of points in building operations and transportation. That means it’s going to change what happens in meetings because LEED users are going to have to focus on those areas if they want to get higher levels of certification. In the past it wasn’t that way. What happens under the current rating system is that you can focus on a lot of materials and indoor environmental quality and get to a point where you might be satisfied with yourself. With LEED 2009, it’s clear you have to focus on other things if you want to get that Silver, Gold or Platinum, especially. It’s a subtle change because the rating system doesn’t look that different, but by weighting it, we’re really putting attention to where we feel teams need to focus.
DOES THE ENERGY ELEMENT OF LEED 2009 HAVE A FOLLOW-UP COMPONENT, OR IS IT BASED ON MODELING?
That’s a very timely question because we’re currently working on how to integrate some decisions that already have been made about this issue into the rating system. One of those decisions is the idea of asking project teams to commit to giving two years of performance data on the building. That will somehow be integrated into LEED 2009. We’re really talking about how to take that to another level in the next update and changing the whole concept of how we certify so we wouldn’t be certifying just design and construction. To become a LEED building you’d have to become a LEED building for life, in a sense. You’d have to recertify continually. That is currently what happens in the LEED for Existing Buildings rating system. The idea is that, in the next round of LEED, we would be connecting the New Construction rating system with the Existing Building rating system. That’s not happening yet with LEED 2009, but I think this performance issue is something we all know needs to happen—making sure buildings are really doing what we say or think they’re going to do. We need to make sure the buildings are part of contributing to a better world, rather than being a big part of the problem.
DOES LEED 2009 DEAL WITH LOCAL ISSUES?
Yes. Essentially, we have the 100 base points, and on top of that we have six innovation and design points and four regional points. Local USGBC chapters choose the most important issues for the regions they represent. For example, if I’m in the middle of a city and the city has a combined sewage system, the local chapter might say that important points for that area are related to green roofs and other storm-water-management issues. It could pick the storm-water-management credit and the heat-island credit, and project teams would get extra points for doing those things. This would provide an incentive to focus on strategies for dealing with storm-water-management issues. Regional points are basically a way to give incentives to project teams to deal with local issues by giving them more points for doing those things in specific areas of the country.
DOES LEED 2009 GO ACROSS THE DIFFERENT BUILDING TYPES? In a sense, we’ve got the beginnings of a basic spectrum of the built environment. The structural changes we’ve done with LEED 2009 allow us to develop more ideas and address specific building types more easily. This makes the way we develop LEED in the future easier. Essentially, what we currently call rating systems are really just collections of credits. We’ve created a virtual bookshelf of all the credits we currently have. When we want to address a new building type, we can pull from what we currently have on the bookshelf and create new credits on top of those. It’s a subtle difference from what we do now, but it has large ramifications for how we develop LEED and how LEED can continue to address specific building types and locations in the future. We know the types of things a building should be doing and how to give project teams incentives to be better. Eventually we want to be able to have a specific set of credits that are pulled from the bookshelf for every specific development or building type and location. Whether you’re building a clinic in Maine or a hospital in Houston, we want to more specifically address the issues you’re facing.
HORST INC. RUNS THE MERRICKVILLE, ONTARIO, CANADA-BASED ATHENA SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS INSTITUTE IN THE U.S. (ATHENA CREATED THE ECOCALCULATOR, A LIFE-CYCLE ASSESSMENT TOOL FOR ASSEMBLIES.) IS THERE AN LCA COMPONENT TO LEED 2009?
As an initial step, we’re going to pilot an LCA credit in LEED 2009. It’s going to be an alternative compliance; the current materials credits aren’t going away, but if a project wants to do LCA, pilot it and give us feedback on what’s working and not working about this idea, there are certain materials credits they won’t use and will use LCA credit instead. We’re hoping this will be an important first step in developing a new approach to materials. I believe materials are the most complex issue in green building and we’re currently dealing with it by focusing on single attributes; we really need to help people think holistically about how to approach materials.
HOW FAR ALONG IS LCA DEVELOPMENT?
Because LCA basically is a scientific methodology for holistic thinking, any step in that direction is a huge improvement. It’s important to get people thinking that way because they start realizing it’s not just about products pulled off the shelf; it’s all the impacts that happened before and all things that will happen after. It’s also understanding there are trade-offs that always occur and designers need to know how to balance those trade-offs. It’s a paradigm shift because specifiers now tend to say, “make it easy for me; give me green,” and it just doesn’t work that way.
LCA as a science is still in its infancy. As a nation, we don’t really support the idea of trying to find out real information about what’s happening with materials. The Japanese put many millions of dollars annually into collecting data on their materials. The Dutch and Swiss do, as well. We put almost nothing into this idea, and information about our materials is important. I am convinced that it is the only way beyond the confusion that we currently have.
WHERE DOES THE MATERIAL INFORMATION COME FROM?
One thing we’ve been involved with in our work with Athena has been the Life-cycle Assessment Inventory Database Project. It’s a program of the [Golden, Colo.-based] National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is a public library of generic data on all product types. Data comes in from associations or from other sources. It gets reviewed and put into modular form so if someone is going to do a study on a material type, they’re all starting with the same generic data. None of this really is a full answer, but it is a step forward in trying to understand the complexities of what’s going on in nature and what we’re doing to it when we extract, manufacture, use and finish our use with materials. The details of LCA methodology are so complex it’s easy to get lost, but from my perspective it’s important that project teams start thinking this way. They need to know they’re making trade-offs and understand what those trade-offs are instead of just saying, “we have good materials, green materials and bad materials.”
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE PROGRESS THAT HAS BEEN MADE?
If LEED were just a consciousness-raising program, it already would be completely successful because you can’t go into any meeting that’s related to buildings in any part of the country and not hear the term. But that wasn’t our goal; it’s just a side benefit. Relative to whether we really transform the market and get people building in a completely different way, we haven’t even scratched the surface. What I think we have done is help create the core of a new architectural movement, and that’s what fascinates me. If you look back on movements, like Bauhaus or Modernism, the key is that a group of people make contributions and set the direction and, over time, completely shift what architecture means.
This is a very unique movement because it includes aspects of social movements, as well. It’s really exciting because we haven’t seen anything like it in architecture since after World War II. That means we can really be involved in a core shift in how we build and grow. What’s been humbling to me, having been involved in the green world for some time, is that there’s always more. There’s always better understanding and a better way to do things. There’s no silver bullet. It’s really about engaging in a way of thinking and, for me, that’s as simple as caring about being on this planet. That’s universal. You can come to that level of awareness and concern from anywhere, then get on board and start changing the way you do things. The reason I’m so interested and involved with USGBC and LEED is that it’s an effective tool for helping people get to the point when they’re using LEED and thinking differently than they were before.
KNOWING THE CHALLENGES WE FACE, DO YOU FEEL OPTIMISTIC? ARE WE UP TO THE TASK?
I don’t think that way. You don’t have to look very far back in history to see that the world has always been ending. I was in grade school in the 1960s learning how to hide under my desk. My neighbors had bomb shelters. That’s not to say that nuclear annihilation wasn’t a threat or isn’t a threat, and that’s not to say that climate change isn’t a major threat. I believe they’re all major threats, but the way I choose to live is with the knowledge that I can be extremely involved in helping people change the way they do their work and what they believe in. That’s all I can do. It’s about learning to be part of a natural system and for me that means finding my part of that system. I’m part of something in the overall flow of things. So I feel really good when I wake up in the morning. I don’t feel bad, thinking, “If I don’t do this, I’m going to die!” I think, I know what I can do and I know it is making a difference. I love the T.S. Eliot poem “Four Quartets." In it, he says “And what there is to conquer by strength or submission, has already been discovered once or twice or several times by those whom we cannot hope to emulate … . For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business .”