Fifteen years ago the United States Green Building Council coalesced into being and created a standard for rating the level of sustainability achieved by our additions to our built environment. We know the system today as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED. Over the years the system has attracted many followers but also its share of critics that point out the inevitable imperfections in the system when in reality, despite its flaws the system was and still is exactly what the movement needs.
Today LEED comes in a variety of flavors including Homes, Schools, Healthcare, Commercial Interiors, Core and Shell, Retail, Existing Buildings and of course New Construction. Why so many? The USGBC continues to realize that different building programs lend themselves to different ways to seek for efficiency and each rating system is loaded with options for how to achieve “Certification.” In fact, in this architect’s perspective, earning LEED Certification on a building is not that difficult–especially if you are building in an urban area.
The ease is one of the first points that brings the system under scrutiny from designers that claim that the resource becomes little more than a “checklist” to ease the way into a green building, ruling out the need for truly innovative approaches for how be smarter about how we live, work and play. By implementing bike storage with showers and changing facilities for potential commuters, one of twenty-six required points is already achieved in the New Construction guidelines–seemingly weighted just the same as designing a building that produces 10% less energy. While these qualms are not entirely untrue, they miss the point and the true beauty of the LEED system.
America still remains the proud (maybe not quite as proud as a year ago) host of a capitalist, free market economy that is driven largely by consumers. The gears move through the designing, marketing, sale and purchase of products and if you want Americans to buy things, more often than not you need to give them a product to purchase. By no means did the USGBC create green design in architecture. Architects have been searching for ways to improve efficiency, be mindful of materials and minimize waste for quite some time, but what LEED did to is turn green buildings into a product which in turn made it more accessible to the American public.
The plaque that hangs on the walls of green buildings gave consumers something to recognize, a brand to align to, a name to encapsulate products and processes that normally are reserved to the realms of architects and engineers. LEED brought the concept of green building into a wider discussion and made having a LEED Platinum building something publicly respected. It gives all levels of the government a painless option for setting a benchmark for new civic buildings. For a country that has such a long way to go to reach its potential of a sustainable reality, there are few other first steps that offered such results and found such success.
So it’s imperfect. Every system is. If every new building received even the most basic level of LEED certification the results would be tremendous. In fifteen years the USGBC has helped create over 31,000 certified buildings. And as for the green innovation-architects have to retain the onus for that one and we have examples to follow. There is no need to be constricted or limited by LEED (they have five innovation points in the checklist for a reason.) Let’s see our standards lift a bit more before we are quick to harp on that which helped us have standards at all.
UPDATE: LEED has grown a great deal over the years and has progressed to Version 4. As the system evolves it continues to improve.