Numbers are important when it comes to green. Miles per gallon, tons of carbon dioxide, degrees of global warming. There is one set of numbers that has evolved into the go-to measuring stick for buildings: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED.
The acronym LEED gets tossed around a lot and, while most people have a general understanding of what it is, few know exactly how it works. So here's the break-down.
Simply stated, LEED is a suite of standards used to measure the sustainability of a structure. Since its inception in 1998, it has grown to include more than 14,000 projects around the world.
LEED measures the "green-ness" of a building in six categories:
· Sustainable sites
· Water efficiency
· Energy and atmosphere
· Materials and resources
· Indoor environmental quality
· Innovation and design process
A building is assigned points for criteria in each category -- for example, a project can earn one point for diverting construction waste (sustainable sites) and another for using green power (energy and atmosphere).
The numbers are tallied, and if a building scores 26 points, it is LEED-certified. There are three higher levels recognized: silver at 33 points, gold at 39 and platinum from 52 up to the maximum number achievable, 69. Certification is measured by a local chapter of the standard's governing body, the United States Green Building Council.
LEED has grown to include additional rating systems for homes, schools, health care facilities, retail, building operations and even neighborhoods – a system that is currently being pilot tested.
One of LEED's most prominent features is that it is continually under refinement through a transparent process. Technical criteria proposed by LEED committees are publicly reviewed by the more than 10,000 member organizations that belong to USGBC. "LEED evolves, that’s the beauty of it, it’s not stagnant,” says Charles Poat, the chairperson of the Detroit chapter of USGBC.
If you seek a pleasant example, look about you
Poat’s chapter has been busy of late. While most of Michigan’s green building activity has been in the western part of the state – for example, of the 62 LEED-certified residences in Michigan, all but 3 are west coast – things are finally changing.
"In Southeast Michigan, we’re stepping up," he says. “More and more people are becoming educated." Accordingly, one of the USGBC Detroit’s most popular regular activities is the facilitation of study groups for building professionals to become LEED-accredited.
Aptly enough, educational facilities have been leading the local LEED charge. Lawrence Technological University’s A. Alfred Taubman Student Center stands as a prominent and accessible example.
"It functions in not just doing good by doing good," says green building advocate Jacob Corvidae of Detroit’s WARM Training Center. "It’s doing good by spreading information about how and why it is important to do so – it grabs an important piece of the triple-bottom-line."
The building, which faces a sustainably-landscaped quadrangle, boasts a 10,000 square-foot green roof, geothermal heating, and utilizes wood such as bamboo – which can replenish itself in as quickly as six weeks. The roots of the sedum planted on the roof filter any rainwater that is not evaporated back into the atmosphere before running into the Rouge River. Some of the water, however, is captured in a cistern so that it can be used to flush the building’s toilets.
Other examples of LEED-certified facilities associated with centers of higher learning include Madonna University’s science and media building, the health and fitness center at Washtenaw Community College and University of Michigan School of Natural Resources’ Samuel T. Dana Building, a renovation that received a Gold rating.
Likewise, three new Detroit Public Schools – Cass Technical, Detroit Renaissance and the School for the Fine and Performing Arts – have all been certified. In September, at its Michigan Educational Facilities Conference, the American Association of Architects will focus specifically on Renaissance.
Affirmations in Ferndale is currently shooting for LEED Silver with its spanking-new community center on Nine Mile. Construction utilized as much of the existing storefront as it could and it features low-flush toilets and waterless urinals, among other innovations. (Check out this metromode video for a sneak peek.)
Schools and community centers are one thing. But big box? A parking garage?
In Allen Park, a former landfill has been transformed into a big box mega-center, but one with some surprising green cred. It has received a Phoenix Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency as an outstanding brownfield project, and sustainable construction materials and natural light were among the items that earned its stand-alone Meijer LEED Silver certification.
Over in Downtown Detroit, Blue Cross Blue Shield constructed a parking deck that became the first in the nation to be certified as LEED. Its green roof includes a walking track for employees and recycled steel and concrete were used in its construction.
What can be better & what’s next
LEED’s importance to the greening of the building industry cannot be overstated. "LEED has been obviously useful in various ways – wildly successful," says Corvidae. "It has transformed the building industry."
But that doesn’t mean it is perfect. Certification can prove expensive – too expensive for many small projects. And some critics charge that LEED doesn’t weigh strongly enough towards preservation and away from new construction. It has been the case that few rehabilitation projects seek LEED certification (one notable local exception being the Lithuanian Hall on W. Vernor in Detroit’s Mexicantown).
Despite his close involvement, Corvidae sees some merit in critique of the program. "It’s one tool, a very useful tool," he says. "But we need to make sure we don’t think everything is a nail just because we have a hammer."
Poat also can see both sides, but ultimately sees the need for one industry standard. "Anyone can do something green and be greener than they were," says Pout. "But the purpose of LEED is for the verification of the project. When somebody actually achieves LEED certification, it’s an accomplishment."
Poat also points out that many non-certified buildings with some green elements get buoyed by even the very existence of standards. "LEED is giving them a guide, a standard measure," he says. "Whether they follow that, or implement that, or certify that…it’s an intangible thing, a ghost guideline."
One improvement LEED is working towards is the creation of regional standards, which would weight certain criteria more heavily in certain geographies – like water usage reduction in Arizona and brownfield redevelopment in Michigan. "Whatever makes sense in that climactic, environmental region," he says.
LEED, while still transforming, has proven to fill an important need in this changing world – it is a carrot, not a stick, that has convinced an ever-growing group of industry professionals that doing good is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing. No knuckle-rapping necessary.
Kelli B. Kavanaugh is a regular contributor to metromode and Model D's development news editor. Her last feature for metromode was Q&A with Robert F Kennedy Jr.
BCBS parking structure - first parking structure in the country to be LEED certified - Detroit
polyethylene tubing connect 88 geothermal wells; heating the Taubman Student Center - Southfield
Taubman Student Center at Lawrence Tech - Southfield
BCBS parking structure - Detroit
Jacob Corvidae, relaxing on recycled cork flooring at WARM's Training Center - Detroit
Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is managing photographer for Metromode.