Beyond LEED

Beyond LEED

Since the first LEED plaques were rolled out in 2000, more than 56,000 commercial projects worldwide have received the coveted environmental certification, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Generally acknowledged as the world’s foremost seal of approval for sustainable design, the ranking system has grown to encompass all kinds of projects, from interiors to neighborhood development, retrofits to new construction, skyscrapers to student centers.

In 14 years, LEED has gone from fringe to mainstream. Derek Hoeferlin, an assistant professor at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, recalled a rude reminder of how proficiency in the system has become so common as to be expected. He remembered celebrating at a cocktail party after getting his architectural license. “I was talking to someone about getting licensed and they asked me, ‘Well, how can you be an architect and not be LEED certified?’” said Hoeferlin. “I’ve always kind of had an issue with all these extra certifications.”


Hundreds of cities and dozens of states now require LEED certification for most public buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council, which runs LEED, has certified some 3 billion square feet of real estate around the world. But LEED has come under fire in recent years. Critics say it is too expensive, and that it forces designers to check off boxes instead of pursuing overall strategies that may actually result in better building performance. A 2008 study by the New Buildings Institute, commissioned by the U.S. Green Building Council, looked at 121 new construction projects and found that more than half of them did not qualify for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star labels.

It is a problem acknowledged by the U.S. Green Building Council. “I don’t think a tool can be everything to all people,” said Scot Horst, USGBC’s vice president overseeing LEED. “I see LEED as an extremely functional and well-designed tool for incentivizing the market to do better work. I don’t see it as a vision. The reason it’s so functional is partially because there’s so many people that know about it, taking real action. And it’s not easy. Personally I think that’s good enough.”

Recently USGBC introduced an Energy Star-like system for existing buildings, where owners and operators have to be recertified every five years. To date, 1.15 billion square feet of built space is certified under this new rating system (LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, or EBOM)—more than any of the other LEED rating systems. They are also installing new “dynamic plaques” that measure building performance in real time.

Design professionals say there is still a place for LEED, especially in light of steps USGBC is taking to update the system. But the rise of alternative metrics, such as the industry-run Green Globes and the more stringent Living Building Challenge, underscores a growing sense of LEED fatigue among some practitioners who see more room for growth in aggressive energy code changes, big data, and a return to basic ecological principles too often shirked by projects chasing LEED points.


In Guangzhou, China, designers at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill are turning 35 square kilometers of former industrial land into a “new sustainable city” for 740,000 residents. Their Baietan master plan is one of many large projects testing LEED’s limits. “There isn’t density everywhere in that project, so how do you prove you need the walk score everywhere? Certain things happen when you scale up. You start getting into the nuances of these systems,” said SOM sustainability specialist Arathi Gowda. “It’s a strange, new kind of design. I do think it’s to LEED’s credit, they’re seeing that trend and adapting.”


Master planning is making a comeback, with projects from coast to coast reconciling ambitious development with ecological economies of scale. In Asia, mega-developments defy categorization. Baietan’s ecosystem-scale thinking does not mesh easily with LEED’s checklist.

Closer to home, SOM is nearly 10 years into planning the 600-acre Lakeside development on the site of a former U.S. Steel plant in Chicago. With developer McCaffery Interests, the firm is looking at recycling wastewater through the porous slag infill, and even generating and distributing its own energy through a localized power grid. Lakeside would be a proving ground for sustainable design infrastructure that its architects hope will be standard fare for future generations.

Today, though, it would require its own building code. Net-metering for energy use, recycling wastewater, and even selling energy back to the grid would necessitate a kind of public-private utility that has little precedent in the U.S. “It’s not all figured out, but it is very hopeful that we’re saying, ‘Lakeside is going to have its own building code,’ and everyone at the table is saying yes, it has to,” said Gowda. “All of the big cities are very interested in having this kind of development. If you talk to them in the right way, intelligently, the doors are opening much more rapidly than they were ten years ago.”

That’s partially because of LEED, she added. After all, Lakeside was named a pilot project for LEED’s Neighborhood Development Certification. But it is largely due to changes in energy codes at the municipal, national, and international levels. Since 1975, the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standard has ratcheted up energy use standards nearly 60 percent, with half of that code tightening in just the last six years.

LEED’s latest version sets the baseline at 10 percent more efficient than ASHRAE’s 2010 standards. “Because this is becoming codified, in many jurisdictions around the world you can’t pull a permit without at minimum meeting these standards, and we are seeing more areas around the world ramp up the aggressiveness of their energy codes,” said Gowda. That’s driving SOM to explore other aspects of sustainable design—their environmental design practice is focused on Smart Cities and Embodied Energy, among other things—rather than LEED’s traditional strong suit of energy and water conservation.

Building Performance Anxiety

Two months before architects at Westlake Reed Leskosky had their final interview on a major government project, their client, the General Services Administration, publicly announced its intention to become the nation’s first net-zero agency. That put pressure on the firm to step beyond basic LEED guidelines. “People say they’re never going to get there,” said engineer Roger Chang, principal and director of sustainability at Westlake Reed Leskosky. “And in some ways, they’re never going to get there, for some buildings. But if you set the bar any lower, it gives you an excuse not to try hard.”

At the Wayne Aspinall Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, which is also LEED-Platinum, Chang and his colleagues cut energy consumption with extra insulation, installed a 132-kilowatt solar panel system, and added 32 geothermal wells 475 feet deep.

The government remains one of USGBC’s best clients. The General Service Administration has required basic LEED certification since 2003 and LEED-Gold since 2010. Last year it put its first net-zero facility on the National Register. Aspinall was also one of AIA’s top 10 green buildings last year.

Once they are built, buildings do not use energy—tenants do. Westlake Reed Leskosky needed Aspinall’s employees, mostly federal agencies, to cooperate. Chang said their firm helped the GSA set goals for energy use within each of the building’s offices. Many of them, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Internal Revenue Service, were gung-ho about energy conservation. Others were not. In a building as efficient as Aspinall, a handful of people could use as much electricity as the rest of the tenants combined. That experience illustrates an important lesson for energy-efficient building: office culture matters.

Making sure a green building performs like its designers envisioned is often easier said than done. Building managers are not just the guys who get yelled at when the tenants are too hot or too cold—they are often the people with the most intimate knowledge of how a building actually works in the real world. “People spend too much money on the front end for new buildings, and forget you need to maintain the building for 50 years,” said Chang. The average commercial building wastes roughly 30 percent of the energy it consumes, according to Energy Star. In a process engineers call “energy creep,” high-performance buildings actually slip more easily into inefficiency than simpler, lower-tech structures. “I’d rather design something that’s a little bit less efficient but simpler to operate, than something that’s really complicated,” said Chang.

Data-Driven Design

One thing that might bridge that gap is a kind of holy grail for building managers, engineers and architects alike: robust building performance data. Software could play a bigger role in transmitting information about building use in real-time. Conventional HVAC equipment and other hardware is approaching a plateau when it comes to energy efficiency improvements. But companies like Retroficiency that conduct “virtual energy audits” remotely via software are just beginning to take off.

A similar trend is underway in the design studio. “The ideal for me is to be in some virtual design environment, and every time I make a move or a tweak, to have updated real-time energy and in parallel with that cost information, to really be able to analyze what you’re doing,” said Brian Dolan, a designer at Clayco’s Forum Studio.

Tools like Autodesk’s Green Building Studio come close, he said, but lack detail. A few years ago, web-based sustainability analysis tool Sefeira got the attention of Dolan and other designers for its pared down user interface and detailed real-time feedback. The company recently revamped its plugin for Revit.

It’s not just detail that matters, Dolan said, but ease of use. In a design process constrained by time, money, and manpower, sustainability can fall by the wayside unless clients are actively involved. “It makes the whole argument easier if you can say, ‘yes you’re going to save energy and it’s going to save you this much money,’” said Dolan, who also coordinates Chicago’s Living Building Challenge efforts. That conversation happens early at Clayco, he added, where designers work side by side with construction management and development teams.

Promising energy savings is one thing, but critics say LEED and other sustainable design regimes focus on energy and water conservation at the expense of metrics that might be fuzzier, but no less important. How do you quantify a tenant’s emotional response, or the psychological benefits of access to daylight and green space? “Those things have always been more rules of thumb, and they’re typically first on the chopping block because there’s not a good way to quantify that return on investment,” said Dolan.

The non-profit Earth Economics and environmental consultants Terrapin Bright Green have each tried to do just that. Earth Economics summarized their approach in a 2011 report, assessing the value of “ecosystem services,” like carbon sequestration and water retention, as well as costs avoided and benefits to productivity that result from design more attuned to natural systems. In Terrapin Bright Green’s 2012 study, “The Economics of Biophilia,” the authors concluded that the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry could save $93 million each year simply by increasing views from hospital beds to nature, since patients would require less time in the hospital to recover from major surgeries.

Such alternative accounting is fundamentally different from the current thinking on sustainable design, according to biomimicry guru Janine Benyus. “What would it take for this city to function as elegantly as this forest?” Benyus asked during a conference hosted earlier this year by Esri, the geographic information systems company. It is not making buildings look like nature, she said, “It’s asking how does nature function and then trying to emulate that function and performance.”

Getting Creative

This summer HOK expects to break ground on the William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center, an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The original building was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. HOK designers set ambitious sustainable design goals, aiming to restore some stability to Foundation Enfant Jesus—the charity that operated the original orphanage and children’s center.

HOK’s Thomas Knittel said their goal to be net-zero was not borne of eco-altruism—it was a necessity. With little infrastructure to work with, the designers looked to self-sustaining systems in nature. “When you get into highly evolved systems, they’re distributed, heterogenous, decentralized. Resilient systems are rugged and tough. They have this ability through the degree of redundancy and decentralization,” said Knittel. Multiple composting systems reduce the waste that needs to be trucked off-site. Wind and solar power systems feed into battery systems. A bamboo-cladding system works with a sound concrete structural system, suggesting the form and function of a small forest while bracing the building against future storms and earthquakes.

“The process allows us to get to the core principle in nature and identify the design principle to come up with the solution. Sometimes that’s just the things you have at hand,” said Knittel. “To me it creates almost a new form of creativity, where we get out of our normal every day way that we approach projects, and there’s a real value in that.” Following biomimicry concepts led HOK to a design that is expected to meet the Delos Living Well Building Standard, as well as LEED Platinum. USGBC has been involved since the start, hoping to show that sustainable design is not just for rich clients and countries.

To Scot Horst, USGBC’s vice president overseeing LEED, that has always been the value of a program with such broad market appeal. “We’re changing the construction industry in Brazil. Just as it’s really getting established, we’re having a huge impact on what it means to build a really quality building there, or in Asia,” said Horst.

Only a handful of buildings worldwide have met Living Building Challenge standards to date.

Except in rare cases like Project Haiti with HOK, LEED’s strength is incremental change, said Horst. “I wish that LEED provided more of an understood vision of where we can go,” he said, “but instead I think what it really provides is a roadmap for where we can go right now, what’s really doable.”