“Green building” and “integrated project delivery” are two of the most popular terms in the skilled trades today. And it’s by no coincidence, says Melissa Baker, senior vice president of the U.S. Green Building Council. From the ground up, mechanical contractors have an “important perspective” in the green building process that helps drive LEED ratings. 

“LEED encourages an integrative design approach, which requires getting different stakeholders and diverse perspectives at the table together to align on sustainability goals,” Baker says. “When everyone is on the same page from the beginning you can really streamline the building process and avoid added costs.”

Lower costs are the linchpin of sustainable construction. “Ensuring that these shared goals are met as the project is constructed and equipment installed is a critical way to ensure the building will operate efficiently and meet the project performance goals,” Baker explains. Here, she shares how green building is driving a leaner more sustainable construction industry.

 

In what year would you say buildings with LEED ratings have exponentially increased? To what do you attribute that increase? 

In November 2019, the U.S. Green Building Council hit an exciting LEED milestone — more than 100,000 projects globally. It’s been incredible to see the adoption of LEED, not only in the US, but around the world.

Today, there are projects in more than 176 countries and territories and all 50 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia. The rating system has truly become a global standard for green building and is defining how we design, construct and operate high-performing, sustainable spaces that support people, the planet and the economy.

Today, builders, architects, owners and investors really understand the value green building brings to their business as well as the community. From energy and water efficiency to better indoor air quality and reduced emissions, green buildings are a proven method for reducing a company’s environmental impact, saving on operating costs and delivering a space that enhances people’s own health and well-being.

Before LEED existed there really wasn’t a way to tell if a building was actually green. LEED provided that framework and now we have developers telling us they wouldn’t even consider a new commercial development that isn’t LEED certified. Across the industry it’s become a leadership standard and it’s been an incredible journey watching it evolve. 

 

Currently, would you say buildings with LEED ratings are treated as the exception but not the rule? When do you anticipate that LEED ratings will become the rule for all communities? 

I think for anyone looking to build green LEED is the standard. The market recognizes that the rating system offers best practices and strategies for delivering high-performing buildings and spaces. LEED has become popular in part because it’s flexible and can be applied to virtually any building type.

From hospitals and schools to apartments, offices, retail and more, there is no shortage of examples of how the rating system can be used to demonstrate sustainability. LEED is intended to be a leadership standard and has continuously evolved to raise the bar so that as an industry we’re not standing still. We continue to move forward.

At the same time, we recognize the huge opportunity that lies in moving others to take an action especially in existing buildings. Collectively even a small reduction by the existing buildings across the country would represent major utility savings, lower emissions and higher performance.

For this to become the rule rather than the exception, project teams need an accessible way to see how their building is doing and find opportunities for improvement. LEED provides existing buildings a simple way to measure and show improvement and for those that are not ready for certification, we introduced a free platform called Arc that lets any project report and monitor their sustainability performance. Performance is critical and one of the only ways that buildings can manage their impact. Arc also makes it simple to submit for LEED certification too when a project is ready.  

 

What region currently has the most LEED-rated buildings and what do you think is the cause of that regional growth? For example, is it laws fueling the growth of LEED rated buildings in these areas or harsh climates? 

The U.S. is by far the largest market for LEED and this past January we published the Top 10 States for LEED Green Building. The list ranks states based on the number of LEED-certified square feet per person and last year Colorado came in at the top spot for the first time since 2011.

One notable part of this list is Washington, D.C., which isn’t officially given a ranking considering it’s not a state. Year-over-year it records the most gross square feet per person and a lot of that has to do with its progressive green building policy that requires private new construction and public buildings to be LEED-certified.

There is a lot that can drive green building regionally and policy certainly plays an important role in that. Today, 25 U.S. states use LEED to advance their goals and there are more than 300 local governments leveraging the rating system in policies. This kind of leadership helps ensure that jurisdictions are leading by example and helping green building become the norm.

Regionally, how have you seen the LEED rating system change the way buildings operate?

A hallmark of LEED has always been continuous improvement. The development of the rating system starts with the green building market. Through our USGBC members, communities, LEED users, stakeholders and past and future projects, we learn what’s needed, as well as what needs to evolve in order to have the largest impact.

A couple years ago we published an overview of the development of the rating system and how that process works. It’s helped our community better understand how LEED is maintained and updated as the world’s premier green building rating system. Right now, we’re particularly focused on performance and that’s reflected through the latest update, LEED v4.1. It’s all about metrics and through Arc project teams can track energy, carbon, water, waste, transportation-related emissions, as well as the building occupant’s experience.

This focus on data is helpful in not only transitioning LEED into a true performance standard, but it also helps managers and owners who oversee an entire portfolio ensure their building is operating as it was intended to. It keeps teams accountable.

When LEED was first introduced it focused on new construction and over the years expanded to include existing buildings, multifamily and single-family homes, neighborhoods and now cities and communities. At the building level, you’re really helping managers become more resource efficient, which is not only about conserving resources, but also saving operating costs. Research has shown that LEED buildings have reported $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings, $715.3 million in maintenance savings and $54.2 in waste savings. The business case is significant and so is the environmental one.

A study that looked at the impact of 22 buildings owned by the U.S. General Services Administration showed 34% lower carbon emissions, 25% less energy consumed, 11% less water consumed, and 80 million tons of waste diverted. These are tangible results that show tenants, investors and other stakeholders how a space is contributing to creating a healthier, more sustainable community.

LEED v4.1 is a fairly new rating focused on “Living Standard.” What fueled the creating of this new system? 

Our goal in developing LEED v4.1, was to have a rating system that was responsive to the relevant issues of today that also challenged the market to keep improving and included accessible ways to do so. Similar to how our rating system has evolved in the past, it really started with us listening to feedback from our community.

We got some really great insights that helped us make additional updates to ensure the rating system remained flexible while continuing to push the market. We focused more on performance data and for the first time, introduced a carbon metric, which was significant and something the market’s been asking for. We’re also now allowing project teams to substitute credits so we can continue to get feedback and raise the bar.

So, for instance, projects that might be pursuing certification under LEED v4 can substitute credits from v4.1 into their process. It’s been a great success and so far, more than 6,900 credits have been substituted, which tells us there’s a lot of interest in the latest updates.

Our Living Standard initiative was introduced at Greenbuild in 2018 and is part of helping us communicate the role and impact of LEED and green building across communities. Our research through this initiative found that even after 20 years of LEED, most people associate green buildings with energy efficiency, resource conservation and cost savings and do not make the connection that buildings also impact their health and well-being.

Through the power of storytelling, Living Standard is helping everyone understand the value a LEED-certified building has by making visible the tangible, positive outcomes that green buildings can have on quality of life — both at the individual and community level. Stories and insights are available at livingstandard.org, and we invite any project to submit and be part of the initiative. 

 

Where does the U.S. stand in comparison with other countries when it comes to building efficiency? Are we prioritizing efficiency more? Or do we have a long way to go when compared to other countries?

In the U.S. we are seeing greater emphasis on efficiency and ensuring that the project is a using resources responsibly. There is also an interest in moving toward net zero, which is why we introduced the LEED Zero certification. It’s a complement to the traditional LEED process and is an opportunity for certified projects to verify net zero performances for energy, water, waste, or carbon. A Colgate-Palmolive facility in New Jersey is currently the only project to achieve all four LEED Zero certifications.

The U.S. has an opportunity to lead and share technology and innovations with the rest of the world as we achieve higher performance in our buildings. We hope in the near future we’re able to recognize more projects for achieving this level of leadership.

 

Going into 2020, what are USGBC’s main goals and initiatives?

With everything that’s happened so far this year, we’ll definitely be looking at ways to support the building and construction industry as much as possible. From the perspective of LEED, this year we’re continuing to work with the industry to adopt LEED v4.1 and get more buildings tracking their performance using Arc. Outside of our current public health crisis, the world continues to face staggering environmental challenges due to climate change.

The building industry must be part of the solution and its contribution requires more aggressive action and commitment to green building practices that not only reduce harm but cause no harm. It’s why at Greenbuild in 2019 we launched LEED Positive, a vision that will guide future development of the rating system and help buildings become a vehicle for environmental restoration and repair.

We believe the future of LEED is regenerative and as we look ahead, we’ll be working on a roadmap for how we get there.


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