What Is LEED Certification?

In March of 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) announced the creation of a new ratings system - The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED ratings are used to certify buildings (both commercial and residential) that meet certain environmental metrics like reduced CO2 emissions and water usage, and improved overall energy efficiency. LEED certifications have become the gold standard for environmentally friendly construction.

Much more than just an assessment of the final product, LEED measures nine different categories of sustainability: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, materials & resources, indoor environment quality, locations & linkages, awareness & education, innovation in design, and regional priority.

Building on previously used land earns points in both the Sustainable Sites and Locations & Linkages categories. In addition, points can be earned for limiting impact to the ecosystem, reducing pollution and soil erosion, and controlling storm water runoff. Appliances that save water and electricity can earn both Water Efficiency and Energy & Atmosphere points. Recycling, waste reduction and sustainable production processes are encouraged in the Materials & Resources category.

Some people are surprised to learn that points in the Awareness & Education category are not earned for raising general awareness about LEED and green building. Instead, builders earn points for educating building tenants and managers on how to maximize the "green features" of the building. The Innovation in Design category awards points for unique design features and technologies that exceed even LEED's high standards. And finally, developments earn points for addressing Regional Priorities determined by U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) regional councils.

In general, the LEED certification has been well-received, and highly sought after. Not only is there prestige associated with being LEED certified, but developers and builders have learned that promoting environmentally friendly and sustainable building standards is good for business.

However, over the years, complaints have arisen regarding the ease with which certifications can be obtained, and the fact that there's no follow-up. Now, the U.S. Green Building Council is proposing changes aimed at addressing those issues.

The primary criticism leveled at the LEED certification is that it's a one-off process. Builders and developers can include systems that allow them to check things off a list, but they never have to actually use those systems. In addition, points are awarded, but not deducted. For example, up to ten points can be earned in new construction buildings that reduce overall water usage by 50 percent, but there's no penalty if the building doesn't participate in a recycling program or if the builder installs a used, inefficient, air conditioning system. As a result, there's no real incentive for including a comprehensive environmental plan in new construction.

Taking these criticisms into account, USGBC has announced that a new ratings system - LEED 2012 - will be rolled out this fall. The new system will require LEED-certified buildings to make information available regarding their environmental best practices, in the hopes of encouraging transparency and data sharing. It will also require buildings to undergo a re-certification process every five years.

Though the new system will be released in November, USGBC members will have a chance to vote on the system next summer, giving time for members to implement the new system and determine what - if any - adjustments need to be made.

If nothing else, LEED certification raises awareness about the overwhelming need to start thinking long-term about the environmental impacts of development and construction practices. As USGBC continues improving its certification process, it provides a beneficial blueprint for environmentally sustainable building.

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