As the U.S. Green Building Council readies the fourth iteration of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system and a host of updates to the program, some insiders say the market for green building certifications is primed for new competition.
While the USGBC hopes to address increased technological processes and new market sectors as well as streamline its services, industry professionals believe LEED could see some push back from a grassroots level.
“I think 2013 could be the year we see whether or not the USGBC will continue its dominance or we’ll start to see people’s eyes glazing over,” said David Bell, sustainability coordinator and senior mechanical engineer at Progressive AE in Grand Rapids. “I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but there is certainly room in the marketplace for other flavors. Really, it’s all about what is important to building owners.”
While Bell does recognize the marketable value of having a third-party certification evaluate a building’s sustainability and efficiency measures, it’s the design and engineering companies that have to step up and help coach clients in a more tailored way about the benefits of the program.
A comprehensive approach means that clients must go beyond picking out the most efficient light fixtures or installing low-flow toilets — in essence, the low-hanging fruit, Bell said.
“Certainly, there are some base fundamentals that are all pretty attainable,” Bell said. “However, it’s important to look at what makes the most sense from a life cycle perspective, and that changes depending on the functions of each different business.”
On the national level, movements like the Living Buildings Challenge and NetZero are two examples of really aggressive practices being pushed in some regions. Both are expected to challenge the ubiquity of LEED or even Energy Star certifications, as well as call out their strategy and marketplace advantage, sources said.
With the conversation about green building practices getting ever more complex, Kris Ford, project manager for Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. and chair of the West Michigan Chapter of the USGBC, maintains LEED still sets the bar for companies’ initial forays into sustainable building design and practices.
With the “Version Four” LEED rating system slated for beta testing through November 2013, Ford said reducing the amount of paperwork and simplifying the reporting process are just small steps in an overall effort to improve the standards, which were last updated in 2009.
“Version four is going to be more robust,” Ford said. “Between June and November, there will be a number of educational programs to introduce people to the changes.”
In collaboration with the USGBC’s Detroit chapter, the West Michigan branch is also hosting a second Green Schools Conference in Lansing in June. The conference is meant to explore how future schools will operate and how sustainable design is implemented within them.
The West Michigan area is a leader in sustainable building at the educational and institutional level, Ford said. Getting more of the commercial sector to follow is a continued challenge, he added.
One expected change under the next LEED iteration is accommodating more information sharing on buildings’ energy usage and the development of better cloud-based data management systems for building metrics, according to some industry watchers. Some experts also forecast the increased usage of solar power systems.
“Energy costs — rising or falling — always affect project design decisions,” said Brian Swem, architect at Lott3Metz Architecture and president of the American Institute of Architects Grand Rapids. “As costs do rise, we’re looking to incorporate more passive house and zero energy building concepts into our standard design practice. Regardless, the holy grail of the ‘off the grid’ building remains out of reach for the general marketplace.”
With a lot of uncertainty and volatility surrounding electricity prices, Bell said the use of solar power is factoring into the long-term cost equations for some of Progressive AE’s customers.
“We’re seeing great pricing for solar, and with electric rates rising, some people are saying we’re already at grid parity,” he said. “Depending on how you do the math, it’s either here now or it’s coming soon.”
The USGBC has set the groundwork for sustainable building practices, but there are more aggressive voices saying that LEED is just the tip of the iceberg in green design, Bell said.
“LEED has changed how we’re building buildings in a positive way and it remains a great place to start, but many real world building applications don’t fit well in the LEED program and ultimately don’t serve the needs of our clients,” Swem said. “LEED will be with us for many years. It is a measuring system that is accepted by both the public and private sectors. It may be used less over the years but it’s going to around for a long time.”
In the development of new buildings, developers used to concern themselves with only the up-front costs of the projects, Bell said. However, as more studies start to show that sustainable buildings sell and lease for higher dollar amounts, savvy developers are looking at the costs of sustainable buildings from a much more long term perspective, he said.
“LEED helped established this language that wasn’t there before,” Bell said. “LEED is great, but the blinders are off now for people.”