U.S. Green Building Council and LEED Rating System

U.S. Green Building Council LogoThe U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) founded by David Gottfried, Rick Fedrizzi, and Mike Italiano on April 6, 1993, is celebrating its 20th birthday.

The co-founders and original members envisioned bringing together experts from across the entire building industry to promote sustainable building via green building standards and a system for rating green buildings.

U.S. Green Building Council Mission

“To transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.”

U.S. Green Building Council Organization

The USGBC is a nonprofit organization whose programs and services include:

  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building program and rating system
  • LEED professional credentialing
  • Green building education, advocacy, and initiatives
  • Greenbuild International Conference and Expo

Companies and organizations pay membership fees to belong to the USGBC. Members include building owners, real estate developers, facility managers, architects, engineers, utility managers, contractors, product manufacturers, government agencies, and nonprofits.

Chapters enable individuals and members to participate in USGBC and green building at the local level.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)

Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank - Photo: Ed Massery
Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank – Photo: Ed Massery

The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building program was developed by a USGBC volunteer committee over a period of several years. In 1998, LEED version 1.0 was initiated and tested on 12 pilot projects located across the United States. LEED version 4.0 is currently in the works.

LEED Certification

The LEED rating system is used to evaluate the “greenness” of a project or building and achievement is recognized via LEED certification.

Projects or buildings must comply with minimum program requirements, meet prerequisites, and earn a minimum number of points in credit categories to achieve LEED certification at one of the following four levels:

  • Certified: 40-49 points
  • Silver: 50-59 points
  • Gold: 60-79 points
  • Platinum: 80+ points
LEED Credit Categories
UC Santa Barbara Bren Hall Roof with Solar Panels
UC Santa Barbara Bren Hall Roof with Solar Panels

The purpose of LEED credit categories is to define green building standards and performance criteria. Each category contains possible credits of varying points. Building and project owners determine which credits to pursue and how to achieve them. The main categories are listed below with a few examples of their purpose:

  1. Sustainable Sites – protect undeveloped land, reduce auto use, manage stormwater, restore habitat, and reduce light pollution
  2. Water Efficiency – reduce water needed for buildings and landscaping, reduce need for wastewater treatment
  3. Energy and Atmosphere – reduce energy use of buildings, use renewal energy, and reduce greenhouse gases
  4. Materials and Resources – reduce waste, use sustainable materials
  5. Indoor Environmental Quality – occupant comfort, health, and productivity
  6. Innovation in Design – going above and beyond credit requirements
  7. Regional Priority – extra credit for addressing regional issues
LEED Rating Systems
Philip Merrill Environmental Center - Photo: Robb Williamson
Philip Merrill Environmental Center – Photo: Robb Williamson

Since 2000, LEED rating systems have been revised and expanded for various project or building types and now include:

  • Core and Shell Development
  • New Construction and Major Renovations
  • Homes
  • Schools
  • Commercial Interiors
  • Retail
  • Neighborhood Development
  • Healthcare
  • Existing Building Operations and Maintenance

Photos from LEED Version 1.0 Pilot (shown above – top to bottom)

  • Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (LEED Silver certification)
  • University of California, Santa Barbara, Bren School of Environmental Science & Management (1st building to receive two LEED Platinum certifications, new construction, and existing building maintenance and operations)
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation Philip Merrill Environmental Center (1st building to receive LEED Platinum certification)

I am a fan of green building and the USGBC. In 2010, I earned a LEED Green Associate credential. It was through a series of continuing education webinars I learned about and fell in love with LEED for Neighborhood Development. There is a piece of previously developed derelict land in my town—if I only had a few million dollars…

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What is Green Building and Why is it Important?

London Olympic Park - Future Hackney Wick Business Center
London Olympic Park – Future Hackney Wick Business Center

Even if you are not an architect, contractor, developer, building owner, or realtor, chances are you have heard the term green building or sustainable building. You may even live or work in a green or high-performance building.

In this post, we will discuss what green building is and why it is important.

Since childhood, I have been fascinated by buildings—the way they look, how they are built and function, and especially their ability to positively impact how people live and work. When a former employer and client embarked on a green building program, I took the opportunity to learn as much as I could about green design and green building.

Why is Green Building Important?

Conventional buildings have a substantial impact on the health and wellbeing of people and the planet. They use resources, generate waste, and emit greenhouse gases throughout their life cycle which can be 50, 75, or more years. For example:

2011 Energy Consumption - Source: U.S. EIA
2011 Energy

According to the U.S. EIA, roughly 41% of total U.S. energy consumed in 2011 was used in buildings (about 40 quadrillion BTUs).

U.S. EPA 2010 statistics show commercial and residential economic sectors accounted for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions which include burning fossil fuels for heat, use of products containing greenhouse gases, and waste.

The U.S. EPA estimates landscape irrigation accounts for about 1/3 of all residential water use, more than 7 billion gallons per day.

What is Green Building?

Green building is not new. Humans been building with local materials such as mud, straw, wood, and stone, and using renewable energy from the sun, the wind, and water for thousands of years.

Today, green building is the practice of designing, constructing, and operating buildings to:

  • Minimize resource use
  • Reduce waste and negative environmental impacts
  • Maximize occupant health and productivity
  • Decrease life cycle costs

A green building:

  • Makes efficient use of land, materials, energy, and water
  • Generates minimal or no waste
  • Provides a healthy indoor environment for its occupants
  • Restores, improves, or enhances the natural environment

How is Green Building Different than Conventional Building?

A few of the differences between green or sustainable building and conventional building practices are described below.

Green Building Integrative Project Approach

In a conventional building, the people responsible for designing, constructing, and operating the building may not meet each other until well into the project, at the end, or never.

“…70% of the decisions associated with environmental impacts are made during the first 10% of the design process.”
— U.S. Green Building Council LEED Green Associate Study Guide

Green building uses an integrative project approach which brings people together at the front end to collaborate and share ideas that can enhance building performance and save money during construction and building operation.

Green Building Life Cycle Costs

Net Zero zHomes Issaquah, WA
Net Zero zHomes Issaquah, WA

Green building considers costs over the entire life of the building, whereas conventional building is often focused on initial design and construction costs.

For example, a residential home developer may scrimp on insulation to save money without considering how that impacts the energy costs of the future homeowners.

Green Building Operation

A key factor of high-performance green buildings is commissioning. This is the process of confirming the building operates as designed, resolving any issues, and training the people who will be operating the building.

Building operations personnel are the true heroes of green building. They are the ones responsible for monitoring, tweaking, fixing, and maintaining a building and its systems throughout the building’s life cycle.

Greening Existing Buildings

Green building is not just for new construction. Think of how many homes, office buildings, manufacturing plants, hotels, restaurants, and sports stadiums are a ready built. Green retrofitting, renovating, and remodeling of existing buildings is perhaps where we can get the most for our green dollar. Existing building green projects include:

  • Installing solar panels on the roof of a home
  • Replacing the lighting system in an office building with one that uses LEDs
  • Retrofitting factory plumbing fixtures with low-flow toilets, urinals, faucets, and showerheads

An American Icon Goes Green

The 102-story Empire State Building built in New York City in 1931 recently underwent a ground-breaking energy retrofit and renovation which included refurbishment of all 6,500 windows, a chiller plant retrofit, new building controls, and a web-based tenant energy management system.

Check out the video below entitled “Greening the Empire State Building”.


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