Building Blocks

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in 1998, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system has planners, builders and everyone in between going the extra mile in the name of green construction.

Today, office towers, hotels, schools and government centers far and wide tout access to public transit and reduced light pollution like past generations touted parking ramps and flood lamps. While the LEED standards are high, some say the process is too expensive and bureaucratic, or that it fails to address lifetime energy consumption. Here, two sustainable building buffs look at the issue from different angles.

Kevin Flynn
President, U.S. Green Building Council, Mississippi Headwaters Chapter

“I think the greatest benefit of using the certification system is being able to prove a claim about performance. It’s very easy to say, ‘I design buildings like this all the time. I don’t need to go through LEED. My building is already green.’ But it’s another thing to prove it.

Some people struggle to get their buildings LEED-certified because they aren’t really changing the way they design something. They are simply applying a checklist to something that’s business as usual. LEED should fundamentally change the way people start designing. And everybody on the design team … needs to share information so that [it’s] an interdisciplinary approach.

Achieving LEED certification at the most basic level shouldn’t cost more in terms of construction dollars. It’s when you get into gold and platinum—then you’re doing things that aren’t typical. You may be doing solar panels on the roof or geothermal systems … and that’s going to be an additional first cost. But if you’re already starting with quality construction, getting to the basic LEED certification shouldn’t cost you more than if you aren’t doing it.

Building codes are changing so much that I think they’re almost going to replace the need for LEED. From an energy point of view, as new national codes are developed and put in place, they are going to require essentially what LEED does now. So LEED is already changing the marketplace. It’s beginning to change policy and the lowest rung of achievement, the building code.

As LEED continues to grow, it will become even more effective. It’s not a perfect tool yet, but I think it’s the best one we have. It’s a really important step in changing the way all of us think about the built environment.”

John Carmody
Director, Center for Sustainable Research, University of Minnesota

“LEED is a good first step to get everybody engaged in doing a green building, but the next step is to make sure it ensures performance. Whether we’re using LEED or not, we have to go back and monitor what’s going on in buildings after they’ve been built. You can have a very well-designed, sustainable building, but if it’s operated poorly it will still use a lot of energy.

The U.S. Green Building Council chapter in Minnesota is very strong. I expect that will only grow, and I totally support that. I would just say, let’s do ‘LEED-plus.’ I think the future is going to focus on real performance metrics and outcomes, not just on best practices. LEED is evolving in that direction, but there will always be competitors. And it’s good that there’s not just one dominant system and that these higher standards will come in different ways.

One example is Sustainable Building 2030, which was passed by the Minnesota Legislature last year and is based on a national program called Architecture 2030. Essentially, it says we have to get to net-zero carbon or net-zero energy buildings by 2030. The beauty is that it’s performance-based. Our research center is leading a team to develop that program in Minnesota … and all state buildings will have to meet this new higher standard. Utility programs will be designed to provide incentives for these standards as well.

We are in such an important time in history, and we’re going to experience a great transformation. So we need to be very clear about what the real measurable performance targets are, and give people the tools and information they need to reach them. Then we need to track that performance and make it public. This way, everybody keeps learning from everybody else’s mistakes, because nobody has all the answers.”