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Time for LEED V4: A Better Rating System

by Marc Mondor, AIA, LEED Faculty

Good brands must evolve. The USGBC’s LEED Rating System is the dominant global green building standard, with 1.6 million square feet of real estate certified every day and over 3.6 billion square feet already certified globally. LEED has been a large factor in today’s green building industry and charts a bold course towards future market transformation, no small feat in this very fast-moving industry.

The advent of LEED V4 has arguably been underway ever since LEED 2009 was launched, where every one of the various LEED certifications was simultaneously released as one rating system. A half-dozen public comment periods have taken place with thousands of comments submitted by USGBC members, then vetted and evaluated by technical groups, for eventual approval by membership. Concerns surfaced in this process, such as LEED certification being independent of actual building operation, or LEED not being nimble, or LEED not addressing human health, or LEED documentation being at times unnecessarily fussy. LEED V4 takes a big step to address these concerns.

LEED V4 was released at Greenbuild in 2013 in Philadelphia, but this release overlaps the ability to continue to register and use LEED 2009 (V3) on buildings until LEED V4 becomes mandatory in October 2016. It is important to not mistake this long overlap for lack of market demand, as the delay is due to the perceived necessity for the market, and manufacturers in particular, to catch up to LEED V4’s position.

Technology, market demand, the need for leadership and even other rating systems have been able to influence the definitive movement to this new version of LEED. Some changes are organic no-brainers, while others will require market acceptance, but all lead to a threshold for greater levels of sustainability. While intention and simulation are still important, the ongoing performance of the building plays a stronger role. The USGBC is doubling down on LEED at a time when leadership coupled with market adoption is absolutely critical.

Some of the new developments
in LEED V4

A new LEED credit seeks products with ingredients that have been mined, extracted or sourced in an environmentally and socially responsible way, such as reuse of salvaged products.

A new LEED credit seeks building materials with ingredients that have been mined, extracted or sourced in an environmentally and socially responsible way, such as reuse of salvaged products.

Metering of actual building performance.

The installation of water and energy meters for each building will be mandatory. This is an essential step in determining the actual performance of LEED projects, particularly in correlation to their simulated performance. Building owners will be able to better determine the validity of project assumptions and use this information for better and more active building management.

Rewarding the Integrated Design Process.

LEED V4 rewards teams that use the integrated design process, starting with a robust, facilitated sustainability goal-setting workshop at the project outset. Okay, maybe that’s wishful thinking, as the V4 credit threshold simply calls for a continuous cross-discipline exploration beginning in pre-design and pushing the Owners Project Requirements throughout the design phase. Yet we see substantial environmental goals achieved cost-effectively only when this process is rigorously engaged as a discrete phase. From our own experience, including Living Building Challenge projects, there is no substitute for this process. It should be noted that this credit was a prerequisite in early versions of LEED V4.

Envelope Commissioning.

One of the great innovations of LEED was the requirement of building systems commissioning as far back as 1998. The benefit of this process has been undeniable over the years, as it has focused on the installation and operation of HVAC systems, lighting controls, domestic hot water and renewables. We’ve seen ardent cynics become passionate advocates of commissioning. The commissioning of building envelopes has also emerged as a best practice, as building skins have enormous impact on building performance. LEED V4 offers two points for the incorporation of this process.

Indoor Environmental Quality.

Control of acoustics and the creation of quiet spaces has long been a hallmark of productive interiors. Borrowing from the LEED for Schools rating system, LEED V4 offers a credit for the creation of interiors that meet sound transmission and decibel thresholds for both prerequisite and credit achievement. Likewise, the quality of exterior views is noted, and biophilic views are rewarded.

Demand Response.

LEED V4 gives a credit for actively managing buildings for energy demand response, lessening stress on energy infrastructure during grid events. Along with better control over energy usage, this is an active strategy in the ongoing blurring of lines between building and community energy, as smart grids become more prevalent and effective.

New Market Sectors.

It has been a challenge from the beginning for LEED to be a one-size-fits-all rating system. LEED has evolved and released different versions for different buildings types. V4 offers certifications for new market sectors, such as data centers, warehouses and hospitality, among others. Nineteen versions of LEED are available in LEED V4. Likewise, international adoption of LEED is being integrated with local standards and interpretations.

Sourcing of Raw Materials.

The largest change in LEED V4 is in the approach to materials. Even while other LEED credits have evolved since 1998, this is the first fundamental change to the general structure of the Materials and Resources credits. Larger emphasis has been placed on building material life cycle, its creation, use and disposal. The emphasis is on “what,” rather than “how much.”

Building Performance as Documentation.

While we have yet to see the details worked out, the idea that substantiated building performance counts as LEED documentation is a new intention for parts of LEED V4. As with the Living Building Challenge, why document it when you can demonstrate it? The LEED Dynamic Plaque is intended to keep a live dashboard demonstrating building performance.

Emphasis on Healthy Materials.

This is the most controversial change within LEED V4. The necessity for Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations for materials is new for LEED and is set to drive the market as much as the necessity for recycled content and VOC information did ten years ago. This new direction will make more transparent the materials ingredients that affect human health. The Living Building Challenge has paved the way for this thinking in the US, with the Red List of materials that cannot be used. LEED V4 has identified for 35 materials of concern.

These changes have been carefully vetted and voted on by USGBC membership. There is a certain purity in allowing the USGBC membership as a non-profit trade group of practitioners dictate these terms, rather than letting industry groups alone do this. LEED V4 stands as an opportunity to show leadership in utilizing a rating system that moves the bar, and the entire industry, towards greater levels of sustainability. LEED V4 is not just new, it’s an improvement.