Green Building: Beyond the Environment, Operational Savings

USGBC’s Senior Vice President Melissa Baker details the evolution of the U.S. Green Building Council’s certification system and how it helps create better spaces for people.
Melissa Baker, Senior Vice President for Technical Core, USGBC. Image courtesy of USGBC

Following the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) recent release of its Top 10 States for LEED Green Building ranking, Commercial Property Executive reached out to Senior Vice President for Technical Core Melissa Baker to discuss numbers and facts. Despite a reported decrease in the number of LEED-certified projects in 2019, she believes that with the updates for LEED v4.1, the organization has “actually provided more opportunities for more types of projects to get engaged,” which, in the near future, will boost the number of projects pursuing the LEED certification.

What is the total number of LEED-certified projects in the U.S.? How many square feet do they amount to?

Baker: In the U.S., there are more than 35,400 LEED-certified projects representing more than 6.4 billion gross square feet of space. Since the first certified project in 2000, LEED has become the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It’s a symbol of excellence. For builders, designers, property owners and managers, and investors looking to become more sustainable, LEED has been the roadmap for getting there. It has set the standard and continued to raise the bar as technologies and practices have evolved. Heading into a new decade, we’re excited about the potential to bring green building to even more communities across the U.S. and around the world. 

READ ALSO: Top 10 States for LEED Certification 2019

What about worldwide? Which countries are most committed to USGBC’s green building rating system?

Baker: Globally, there are more than 48,600 LEED-certified projects and today, LEED can be found in 178 countries and territories. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for green building and LEED around the world with countries like Canada, China and India driving that international adoption.

Countries across Latin America including Brazil and Mexico have shown a lot of growth. Globally, LEED has been an economic development tool assisting governments, companies and communities in shifting development practices to become more sustainable and resilient, while also creating spaces that support people’s health and well-being.

What sector/property type is the most committed to green building certification? 

Baker: Commercial offices continue to lead when it comes to certification, particularly new construction. LEED is applicable to virtually every building type. Our updates to the rating system have focused on making green building more accessible to more types of projects. As we were developing the updates for LEED v4.1, we wanted to consider ways we could push projects to go further and encourage those who may not have considered certification in the past to take the first step.

We do want to see more adoption among the existing buildings sector. The existing buildings sector offers a big opportunity to combat climate risk by reducing operational emissions and prioritize spaces that are more efficient and better for the people inside.

As building owners, investors and managers think about investments and upgrades to their properties, we want them to use LEED as the framework for decision making. If we’re serious about wanting to decarbonize our buildings and reduce emissions, it’s going to require every building to be all-in, and certification is verification of that work.

According to USGBC data, the number of LEED-certified projects dropped in 2019 from the total number of 2018. Tell us about the reasons behind this decrease.

Baker: There are a lot of factors that impact certification numbers. It can be impacted simply by project timelines, whether or not we introduce rating system updates and general industry performance and activity. With the latest version of the rating system, LEED v4.1, we’ve actually provided more opportunities for more types of projects to get engaged, so we expect to see the number of projects pursuing certification grow.

We’ve also introduced additional opportunities to verify performance. For instance, LEED Zero is a chance to recognize zero-net performance in energy, carbon, water and waste.

Which segment of projects leads in the pursuit of LEED certification, older ones that are being revamped or new developments?

Baker: New construction is definitely where we see the greatest adoption of LEED, including interior spaces. Not every company or team has control over the entire building, but they’re committed to making their spaces more sustainable. Our LEED for Interior Design and Construction rating system gives those teams the opportunity. But we can’t underscore enough how important it is for more existing buildings to certify. 

After more than two decades with LEED and other benchmarks, what are the most valuable lessons learned about green building?

Baker: Transitioning LEED to a performance-based rating system with the help of the Arc performance platform is the future of green building. I think companies and teams are really taking a hard look at how much data and technology is now playing a role in design, construction and operations. That’s why LEED has evolved to focus on performance, because in order to reach sustainability goals and create spaces that are better for people we need to be benchmarking, tracking and monitoring a variety of factors. LEED v4.1 uses Arc to do just that.

Projects have the ability to address and monitor energy, water, waste, transportation, occupant satisfaction and indoor environmental quality. From there they can see how decisions change performance. Data doesn’t lie and it’s a crucial part of encouraging better decision making.

How has the LEED rating system changed throughout the years? What are the main highlights of the latest version released in April 2019?

Baker: Since April 2019, the full suite of LEED v4.1 rating systems have been available and include pathways for new construction, interior spaces, existing buildings, cities, communities and residential properties. The response has been really positive, and the industry seems receptive to the updates. We’re currently allowing project teams using another version, like LEED v4, to substitute credits from LEED v4.1 and already there have been more than 5,900 credit substitutions. That tells us we’re moving in the right direction.

One change in the rating system we’re really excited about is that, for the first time, LEED has a carbon metric. It’s something the industry has been asking for and we knew was needed, so it’s exciting to see that out in the market.

How long do you think it will take for green building methods to replace traditional construction?

Baker: Industries can be slow to change. I think green building practices are being used by many already. The challenge is, without certification, it’s hard to verify those efforts and see how they measure up to the latest standards. It is why third-party certification is so important when you’re trying to drive change across an entire industry.

Change is exciting, but it can also be hard, which is why you also need the support of government—at every level. By incentivizing certification and green building practices you can help create demand and support innovation, which can fuel growth.

Globally, green building is expected to continue growing through 2021 and public and private sector leadership is critical to maintaining that momentum. From iconic buildings like the Willis Tower to hospitals and K-12 schools, it takes partnerships across sectors and at all levels to support the kind of change we want to see. USGBC believes that better buildings equal better lives. Green buildings are how we get there, and LEED is the tool to help make that a reality. 

What green building development trends are you seeing at the national level?

Baker: There’s been a lot of conversation around embodied carbon. The industry is really digging in to understand how to address this through design, construction and operations. In LEED, we’re doing that by encouraging teams to look at the whole building life cycle. In LEED v4.1, we’re trying to incentivize more teams to attempt whole-building life cycle assessment. That’s an area we’re really interested in getting feedback on, because it’s got so much potential for addressing embodied carbon.

READ ALSO: Challenge Accepted: Building for a Sustainable Future

The benefits of green building are often associated with the environment or operational savings, but buildings are ultimately about people, which is why LEED has also always focused on encouraging green building strategies to enhance human health. The Indoor Environmental Quality credit category is focused on decisions that support people by considering strategies related to ventilation, daylighting, air quality and more. Spaces that prioritize our personal health can improve our comfort, well-being and productivity.

Another area that’s emerging as a trend across the industry is resilience. Investors are making decisions based on climate change and communities are facing increased risks as a result of a changing climate. Green building enhances resilience through practices such as durable materials, thoughtful site selection, rainwater collection, demand response, onsite renewable generation, energy efficiency and more. Ensuring that we’re able to prepare for, adapt to, withstand and recover from climate-related risks requires us to be committed to green building and LEED provides the framework for getting us there.