USA Today Story on LEED was Frank but Misleading

After an hour with Tom Frank I knew that his Special Report in USA Today last week would probably not be consistent with my view of the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system and its impact on the performance of buildings and developments in North America and worldwide. What I didn’t know was that even though we didn’t discuss it, he would argue many of the points I had argued early in the creation of the LEED system: it doesn’t do enough to require energy efficiency and high performance design, and it’s possible to game the system. He also seems concerned that LEED was created by people within the industry who stand to benefit from the use of the system.

I lost the argument that architects, scientists and environmentalists should create a more comprehensive, high performance system--for good reason. The genius of the LEED system is that it was created by a diverse group of volunteers from all sectors of the industry and that it was adopted by consensus. The goal was not perfection but transformation of an industry that has historically been reluctant to change. Transformation is taking place precisely because it was created by consensus among diverse industry stakeholders/users and because it was designed to be achievable.

The LEED system was designed to educate and to evolve, which it has done and will continue to do. (Version 4 is now in review.) I was struck by the fact that Mr. Frank raised some valid points but rather than clarify and contribute to the industry discourse, he chose to focus on a few failures among the earliest LEED tools and projects; he refused to recognize the positive evolution in the current portfolio of tools and systems or the impressive changes in building performance across the aggregate of all buildings certified to date. The article also makes much of the fact that LEED ignores the reality that buildings rarely perform as designed, but it fails to mention that LEED’s requirement for commissioning was a significant leap in the direction of closing that gap by requiring verification of performance prior to certification.

The Living Building Challenge, created by USGBC volunteers and managed by the Cascadia Chapter of USGBC, was conspicuous by its absence from this report. The Living Building Challenge grew out of the LEED system, and it attempts to push the industry into that next level of design, performance and environmental responsibility; Living Building certification requires a rigorous set of design criteria followed by a third party audit of a full year of building operation to prove that performance goals are met.

REGEN, another emerging tool currently in development by the USGBC and a core group of contributors, is being designed to shift the focus of community, development and building from merely sustainable to “regenerative,” meaning that its goal is to improve the vitality of the natural systems that support our wellbeing by the co-evolution of the whole system.

In simplified terms, many say that LEED is focused on “doing less harm,” the Living Building Challenge focuses on “doing no harm,” and REGEN’s emphasis is on “doing good” and yielding positive, regenerative, whole system improvements.

Many of the materials, products, systems and services that were in use when USGBC was formed have been rendered obsolete by USGBC and LEED. The result is that thousands of buildings and developments are more efficient, healthier for the occupants and the environment, and they cost less to operate. Smart businesses, institutions and governments are using LEED with remarkable results, and often their employees are the volunteer members of USGBC who continue the evolution of this transformative portfolio of tools.

USGBC and thousands of volunteers are to be congratulated. They have created tools that are being used or replicated on every continent, proving what very few thought was possible--that significant, positive industry-wide changes can be accomplished in just two decades. This success makes it possible to imagine transforming our thinking and our culture by raising our goals to increase human capacity and the vitality and resilience of all life. The tools to accomplish this will need to be open source, more comprehensive, elegant and economical than the current LEED tools. This conversation is already underway but limited to a small leadership group at this point. Is it possible that USA Today has launched a national dialogue of discovery with this report and accelerated the future we, and our children want?

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