Sustainability is the watchword of our times, and for more than two decades, the LEED certification has been leading the charge in making buildings cleaner, safer and greener. In fact, the USGBC framework has been working with both residential and commercial projects to help users to implement design, construction, interior and operational changes which have significant financial, health and environmental benefits.
But what exactly is LEED certification? And why is it important that we continue to implement its measures both newbuilds and historical buildings? Here, we look at exactly what LEED is and how the environmental, economic, and health benefits are changing what we expect from our homes, places of work, and institutional buildings.
What is LEED?
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized green building rating system, providing a framework for healthy, sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective buildings. The first iteration was launched back in 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and it has since grown to be the most widely used green building rating system in the world. LEED certification now covers nearly all building and project types, from new designs and construction to interior fit-outs and maintenance upgrades. Certification itself is usually broken down into five main categories:
1) Building Design and Construction
LEED for Building Design and Construction (LEED BD+C) is a framework for new construction or major renovations, allowing you to implement every green feature possible from the ground up, maximizing the efficiency and sustainability of your entire project.
2) Operations and Maintenance
LEED O+M is the system in place for existing buildings that are looking to improve their efficiency, sustainability and carbon footprint through operations, whether they are undergoing improvements or little to no construction at all.
3) Interior Design and Construction
Shortened to LEED ID+C, this option is for complete interior fit-outs and is geared towards teams that may not have control over the entire project but want to develop sustainable indoor spaces. LEED ID+C is focused on commercial properties rather than residential and includes applications in Retail and Hospitality.
LEED Homes includes, as the name would suggest, single family homes, multi-family low-rises (up to three stories) and multi-family mid-rises (four to six stories). The system focusses on clean air, natural light and safe building materials to improve comfort and reduce energy and water consumption.
5) Neighborhood Development
LEED ND is used for new land development or redevelopment projects, which can contain either residential or non-residential buildings, or a mix. This framework can be implemented at any stage of the project, from planning to construction.
Beyond these standard categories, there are some other applications such as LEED for Cities and Communities, which can be used to measure and manage the water consumption, energy use, waste, transportation and human experience of a city or sub-section of a city. However, the core of LEED is buildings, so let’s take a look at how certification is applied.
When a LEED project is registered, buildings or homes are awarded points (up to 110) for green building strategies and the level of sustainability achieved. Depending on the number of points, projects are certified in the following categories:
60 – 79 points
50 – 59 points
40 – 49 points
Regardless of which certificate a project is given, working towards sustainability goals and increasing LEED points has significant benefits, but what are they and why are they important?
Why is LEED Certification Important?
Getting LEED certified offers substantial benefits for building owners and operators, the people using the buildings, and the community and world at large. The most obvious of these benefits can be broken down into three main parts: Economic, Environmental, and Health.
LEED comes at a cost, but the returns seem to outweigh it heavily. When leasing buildings, those with a LEED certificate command the highest rents with lease-up rates being up to 20% above average. What’s more, the vacancy rates for green buildings are an estimated 4% lower than their non-green counterparts.
Additionally, there are direct savings from making buildings more energy-, water- and waste- efficient. According to estimates from between 2015 and 2018, LEED-certified buildings saved a collective $1.2 billion in energy, $149.5 million in water, $715.3 million in maintenance, and $54.2 million in waste costs. Additionally, according to research for the United States Department of Energy, the aggregate operational costs are 19% lower for sustainably designed buildings.
At the core of the LEED initiative is environmental protection, and so it is no surprise that the aforementioned research also found that sustainably designed buildings had “carbon dioxide equivalent emissions… 34% lower than typical buildings” as well as energy consumption that was 25% better than the baseline of the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) and water usage that was 11% below the baseline.
When speaking to those who occupied the buildings, the researchers also found that “the emissions from identified transportation modes [resulted] in 29% lower average carbon dioxide equivalent emissions when compared to the average commute.” Showing that it isn’t just the building itself, but the people within it that have an overall lower environmental impact.
There are also considerable health benefits associated with LEED certified buildings due to them offering cleaner air, more access to natural light, an environment free from harmful chemicals, and a reduction in overall pollution. In the commercial sector, this can lead to higher recruitment and retention rates and increased employee productivity. This is in part thanks to shifting attitudes, with individuals now expecting their employers to share their environmental and social views. Additionally, greener buildings can reduce absenteeism, respiratory allergies, as well as depression and stress. This is thanks to practical issues such as air circulation as well as the introduction of elements such as living walls, large windows, and shared rooms which can boost mental health.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification is the standard that should be aimed for. With such significant financial, health and environmental benefits for building owners and users, it is a framework that all should aspire towards. Reducing waste, pollution, and health problems are essential for the continuation of many businesses, and sustainable buildings through the LEED framework can help achieve this.