The U.S. Green Building Council, founded in 1993, developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which uses a holistic, multi-attribute approach.
U.S. Green Building Council celebrates 25 years of promoting environmentally sound design and construction.
You know your certification program is mainstream when a green building graces your country’s currency. When the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded in 1993, architects and engineers might not have imagined that conversations about greening their respective professions would blossom seven years later into a full-fledged building rating system.
“Architects and engineers had been looking at efficiency since the seventies, and how to have a better building,” said Melissa Baker, a senior vice-president with the USGBC.
Appealing initially to early adopters willing to participate in pilot projects, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) took a holistic, multi-attribute approach, Baker said. “We wanted to look at how to define a high-performance green building, which encompasses a number of different things, including occupant experience, indoor environmental quality, water savings, energy savings, siting, location, and materials.”
The federal government was one of the earliest participants in the U.S. “We got some early-days grant funding from the Department of Energy, got the rating system up and running, and over time released versions 1, 2, 2.1, 2.2, and then 3 and 4,” Baker said.
With version 4.1 (LEED v4.1) now in beta mode, LEED is recognized in 167 countries with more than 90,000 projects registered or certified. In many locales, the program is so entrenched it’s almost a given that an owner will register for at least some degree of recognition.
“In the D.C. area, for example, we see the LEED logo on almost any new building that’s constructed and on many existing buildings as well,” Baker said.
While LEED was initially limited to new constructions, demand from building owners and professionals, as well as environmental advocates, spurred the USGBC to create a category for existing buildings.
Look at the back of a U.S. $10 bill and you’ll spot a LEED-certified building. The U.S. Treasury Building, completed in 1869, earned LEED Gold in 2011 by increasing daylighting, installing advanced HVAC controls, auditing its waste, greening its procurement, enhancing metering for utilities, and decreasing consumption of electricity and potable water, even while adding workstations.
Indeed, LEED has grown through evolution. While initially focused on office buildings, the scope broadened to include schools, health care, residential, and other verticals. In 2009, the USGBC added key pieces like putting weightings behind the point distribution for the rating system. This more heavily supported actions providing a bigger impact.
One key factor in attaining certification that has gained momentum is building materials. LEED v4, released in 2013, raised the bar even higher in terms of credits for materials and performance.
Strengthened energy codes and strong interest in benchmarking and public disclosure have proven key drivers, as have renewable technology developments in areas such as solar.
Core to LEED’s evolution has been the ability to compare performance through Arc, a new online platform launched in 2016 by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), the certifying body for LEED. Arc lets proponents calculate performance and identify opportunities based on measuring energy, water, waste, transportation, and human experience metrics.
“Arc allows them to see their data in real time, use that score to benchmark against other buildings both locally and globally, and see how their buildings are performing,” Baker said. “Driving that performance, driving that data, and letting data do the talking is a key piece of 4.1.”
LEED has always recognized that buildings require high-performance materials to achieve efficiencies in energy and water consumption, recycled content, and localized sourcing. Now, credits can be earned for multiple attributes within particular materials, enhanced transparency of information about ingredients and carbon and energy footprints, and acknowledgement of impacts over an entire building life cycle.
“We’re touching more markets, we have more flexibility within the rating system, and we’re continuing to integrate performance by moving into the operations and maintenance side to track ongoing performance of buildings through data,” Baker said, pointing to developments introduced with LEED v4.1 that stand to further drive data-driven measurement of actual building performance.
“We’re using that data to provide an ongoing certification so that we know for sure buildings are performing as designed,” Baker said. “Rather than providing prescriptive strategies, we’re creating a rating system that’s more about outcomes and performance.”
Baker said the current beta testing is intended to ensure v4.1 is properly tweaked and reflects ongoing trends such as Net Zero without eclipsing current abilities of building owners and professionals. “If we move too fast or jump ahead, we’re not actually executing market transformation,” she explained. “We need the market to come with us and to continue to push.”
A key bridge between LEED and performance materials is another program, GreenCircle Certified. As Baker put it, LEED is a standard of standards and therefore references other complementary standards.
“GreenCircle is really looking at product life cycles,” Baker said. “In our materials and resources credit we reference a number of different bodies that provide product certification and validation of information. We reference ASHRAE standards for energy, for instance, and WaterSense that the Environmental Protection Agency has created for water fixtures. This allows us to be broader across those different categories.”
Tad Radzinski, certification officer with GreenCircle, described the organization as a third-party auditor and certifier. “If someone claims recycled content in their products, we would certify that. Or if someone needed a third-party-verified material ingredient report, we have a system for certifying which we’ve worked out with the U.S. Green Building Council.”
GreenCircle also examines operations claims such as zero waste to landfill. Radzinski said products meeting GreenCircle criteria are allowed to display the organization’s mark of certification, which, in turn, can be used to help qualify for LEED credits.
“There was a lot of coordination back and forth and development of the process to do it,” Radzinski said, adding that GreenCircle was born in 2009, in part from unhappy experiences a sister company, Sustainable Solutions, had with misleading product claims. Once, when Sustainable Solutions was sourcing office furniture, Radzinski noticed the product label included glue as an ingredient yet claimed 100 percent recycled content. The manufacturer later acknowledged the recycled content at only 72 percent. The second incident involved a flooring product the company was installing for a client whose green building was vying for LEED recognition.
“We installed it, and when we went to get the documentation the manufacturer came back to us and said, ‘Oh sorry, that product is not certified.’ We almost lost our Platinum certification. That prompted us to start thinking about this,” Radzinski said.
As manager of applied sustainability with BASF Construction Chemicals, David Green tracks performance materials and building certification programs. He singled out LEED v4, with its focus on product attributes based on life-cycle assessment, as a key development in increasing the transparency of environmental and human health information.
Data includes locale of manufacture, levels of recycled content and biomass ingredients, and overall impact on carbon footprint. “To improve transparency, we’re looking at full life-cycle aspects of products and how we quantify their overall environmental performance,” Green said.
BASF is actively involved in environmental product declaration (EPD) development to provide externally validated results for quantifying environmental impacts. “They’re similar to what a nutrition label would provide on a box of cereal,” Green said. “If an architect, designer, or contractor wants a specific baseline on the carbon footprint, for example, the EPD may provide that information.”
A similar approach for communicating the potential impacts on human health from installed products should also be considered. Green said product manufacturers can meet LEED v4 requirements by complying with the GreenCircle Certified program for manufacturer inventory reporting. He added that BASF evaluates 100 percent of ingredients, including impurities, in products such as Neopor and WALLTITE.
“We’re moving forward by providing transparent information on our product solutions and innovations to support the increasing needs in the construction industry,” Green said. “Transparent information based on scientific results is key to helping people make educated decisions for healthier, environmentally conscious buildings.”
With the USGBC celebrating 25 years, and 18 years of LEED, all eyes are on the future. USGBC’s Baker anticipates data continuing to hold sway. “We’ll keep evolving our rating system development process,” she said, pointing to Net Zero buildings, which produce as much clean energy as they consume. “Net Zero from a carbon perspective is much more accessible. I think that will really drive some of the choices that are made.”
The way buildings are certified, by achieving a specific number of LEED credits, is not expected to change in the near future. Still, Baker acknowledged interest in measuring a building’s actual efficiency to determine the level of certification. “We’re certainly trending in that direction and trying to do that through the benchmarking we’re offering,” Baker said. “There’s a real interest in refining information and making it easier to understand, so it’s obviously critical that we understand how a building is performing and that we keep pushing for more efficiency.”
At GreenCircle, Radzinski foresees further activity around transparency and disclosure. “A lot of companies are conducting life cycle assessments of their products and disclosing the environmental impacts through an environmental product declaration,” he said. “There’s also a large demand right now by many architecture and design firms to understand the chemicals in products. So we’re going to see a lot more demand for material ingredient reports.”
BASF’s Green said significant strides have been made voluntarily and, as certification
programs continue to evolve, a next step might lie in their ability to increase their influence on rules and regulations. “If LEED continues to push, and additional voluntary sustainable construction practices are accepted, and it leads to code changes, then we’re better for that.”
Might the ways materials are certified change going forward? “People have much more interest today in the products that are going into their buildings,” Green said. “The demand for greater transparency and better, more sustainable construction products is going to continue to grow.”
GreenCircle data online
Want to know if the ingredient or product you’re purchasing passes environmental muster? GreenCircle Certified maintains a database itemizing products for which it has provided independent, third-party verification.
“We have a lot of building products,” Certification Officer Tad Radzinski said, offering carpeting, door, and hardware products as examples. “We do a lot with plastics and plastic lumber.”
Green Circle’s database is online at
BASF’s LEED Platinum headquarters
BASF’s Florham Park, N.J. headquarters is LEED Platinum, and the company’s performance materials helped make that happen. Features such as low-flow water appliances, rainwater harvesting, daylighting, and waste diversion helped make the grade. Materials used also played a key role; more than 20 percent contained recycled content.
BASF’s pervious pavement materials help return rainwater to the aquifer, and Green Sense Concrete helps maximize cement replacement and reduce the building’s carbon footprint. BASF also used Basotect, a sound insulation product, and Neopor, which is found in insulation systems.
This article originally appeared in BASF Performance Materials’ online publication, Breakthrough (http://breakthroughpmat.com).