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The US Green Building Council: Transforming an Industry with LEED

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Green Buildings Focus
by Rick Fedrizzi & Jessica Sackett

The buildings in which we live, play, work, and learn have a profound impact on environmental and human health. In the United States alone, buildings account for:

  • 37% of all energy use, including 68% of all electricity use
  • 40% of raw materials consumption
  • 88% of potable water supplies
  • more than one-third of municipal solid waste streams
  • nearly 40% of CO2 emissions, the primary greenhouse gas associated with global climate change.

In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency classifies indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental health risks today. The concentration of air pollutants indoors can be two-to-five times greater than in the outside air. Some concentrations have been measured at more than 100 times greater. (Source: Building Momentum, report prepared for the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works by USGBC, http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/Resources/043003_hpgb_whitepaper.pdf)
Designing and building high performance "green" buildings - buildings that improve environmental, economic, health, and productivity performance - is thus critical to the future health of our planet and communities.


LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

Thirteen years ago, pockets of interest in green building had developed throughout the building industry, but the trend lacked momentum. The disparate facets of the industry had differing needs, ideas, and concerns about green building, and multiple and contradictory definitions of "green" abounded. Green washing - espousing sustainable practices without validating the claims - was rampant, and the market was reluctant to accept an idea that lacked objective, verifiable standards. Then, in 1993, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded to lead a national consensus on green building and to bring together the entire building industry to chart a path for market transformation. Today, more than 6,300 organizations belong to USGBC, representing the full spectrum of the building industry and actively participating in the development of the Council's programs and services.

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sackett_genzyme_2The Council's primary program is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a voluntary system for the design, construction, and ongoing maintenance of high performance green buildings. USGBC staff and volunteers began developing LEED in 1995, and the rating system was publicly launched in 2000. Today it is the nationally accepted benchmark for green buildings: over 500 projects have earned LEED certification and more than 5,000 projects, encompassing half-a-billion square feet of building space, are registered with the program. By August 2006, 85 cities and states nationwide and nine federal agencies required LEED for their public building projects. Third-party certification, such as that provided by USGBC, is critical to effecting market transformation. Any green building practice is better than none, but the aggregation of practices in the five key areas addressed by LEED - energy, water, indoor air quality, materials, and site - is what delivers truly high-performance buildings. Committing to certification and recognition of that commitment set the bar at a level high enough to carry real impact in terms of reduced energy and water consumption, reduced greenhouse gasses, and human health, wellness, and productivity. LEED certification ensures that a building was constructed as designed and will perform as expected.

The industry has embraced LEED in large part because of its open, consensus-based development process. Committees composed of USGBC members from every sector of the industry develop and continue to refine LEED, and all members and the general public have opportunities to provide feedback on changes and additions. Since LEED's initial launch, new rating systems have been developed to address the full spectrum of building types and lifecycle phases. LEED can be applied to new commercial construction, existing buildings operations and maintenance, commercial interiors renovations, core & shell development, residential homes, and neighborhood development. Specific programs also exist for schools, healthcare facilities, and retail construction.

USGBC's mission is market transformation, which requires market-based solutions. USGBC is focused not on making LEED a mandatory building requirement, but on educating the industry about why they should pursue LEED certification. Lasting change occurs when the industry both has the tools for change and is educated about why to change. Green building will become ubiquitous not when it is mandated, but when it becomes an ingrained value. USGBC does encourage those cities and states that require LEED at the "public" level, viewing them as "owners" who have made the decision to manage their building portfolios in an environmentally responsible way. Legislative actions such as accelerated issuance of permits and density bonuses, rather than mandates, have proven most effective for encouraging LEED in private development.

Both the public and private sector contain outstanding examples of green design and construction. The Lake View Terrace branch of the Los Angeles, California, public library, for example, earned LEED Platinum certification in June 2003. The building, owned by the City of Los Angeles, includes the library, a community room, an environmental display gallery, and an exterior courtyard. The building is more than 50 percent more efficient than required by US building code. More than 75 percent of the construction waste was reused or recycled instead of being sent to a landfill. Because the building is a vital part of the community, it incorporates many features that make it a healthy and comfortable space for the people who use it, including a high-quality ventilation system, and natural daylighting in more than 93 percent of the space. (Source: US Department of Energy's High Performance Buildings Database, http://leedcasestudies.usgbc.org/overview.cfm?ProjectID=289 )

sackett_genzyme_1The quality of the indoor environment was also a major consideration for the Genzyme Center, a LEED Platinum building located in Boston, Massachusetts. The Genzyme Center is the headquarters building for Genzyme, Inc., one of the world's leading biotechnology firms. The more than 900 employees who occupy the building have direct views of the outdoors, operable windows, 18 indoor gardens, and easily accessible outdoor patios. The building also uses 38 percent less electricity and 32 percent less water than a comparable building of conventional design. In addition, more than 93 percent of the construction waste was recycled or reused, and 23 percent of the building materials are made of recycled materials. Although initial construction costs were higher than for a conventional building, the energy and water savings will result in a significant return on the investment in green technologies. Genzyme also estimates that improved employee productivity resulting from the high-quality indoor environment could generate more than $1 million in savings each year. (Sources: US Department of Energy's High Performance Buildings Database, http://leedcasestudies.usgbc.org/overview.cfm?ProjectID=274 , and The Boston Globe, http://www.boston.com/news/globe/reprints/032604_genzymes_green_building/ )
As demonstrated by these examples and hundreds of other LEED certified projects, a high performance green building is achievable for any building type, from schools to hospitals to office buildings to homes. Greening the built environment is one of the most vital steps we can take to protect the health of people and our planet. With the LEED Rating System, USGBC can educate the industry and the public about the benefits of green building, and provide them with the tools to make green building a reality.


The author, Rick Fedrizzi, is founding chairman of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and was appointed president & CEO of USGBC in April 2004.
Jessica Sackett
is Manager of Publications & Executive at the US Green Building Council since 2003.


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