LEED-EB Revisions aimed at Boosting Certifications

To breathe new life into its LEED for existing buildings program, the USGBC is making the application process more user-friendly.
August 11, 2010

With existing structures comprising about 99% of the nation's building stock, LEED for existing buildings (LEED-EB) arguably should be the U.S. Green Building Council's top LEED category, one that could have a much bigger environmental impact than LEED for new construction (LEED-NC). With its focus on sustainable maintenance practices and on improving performance throughout a building's life cycle, LEED-EB is packed with potential that hasn't been realized since its provisions were finalized in October 2004.

As of last May, of the 824 LEED-certified projects, only 46 (5.6%) had earned LEED-EB certification. With such minimal reach, the program's positive environmental benefits have been scant. “Everyone has been a little surprised about how long LEED for existing buildings has taken to sink into the marketplace,” says Michael Arny, president of Leonardo Academy, a Madison, Wis., think tank and consultancy and chair of the USGBC's LEED-EB committee from 2001-2005.

USGBC officials, aware they may have a dud on their hands, recently acknowledged that one of the biggest problems is the LEED-EB application process—it's too costly and cumbersome, discouraging many from seeking certification. As a result, officials are preparing LEED-EB's first major revisions, which are scheduled for release this fall.

“In a nutshell, we will make the process more user-friendly by reducing the documentation and reporting burden,” says Doug Gatlin, director of USGBC's LEED-EB program. The revisions, slated to be released for public review last month, include an overhaul of many credit requirements to focus more on outcomes and reduce paperwork.

For example, under current rules, to earn credits for green commuting, an owner has to record the number of bike racks on site, the amount of car pools used by tenants, and the location's proximity to various forms of public transportation. The revised commuting credit would require one statistic only—the ratio of single-vehicle commuters to those who use alternate transportation.

The revisions should reduce the need for owners to hire consultants to help navigate certification requirements, which has been the biggest expense for many firms attempting to use the LEED-EB process, Gatlin says. In many cases, consultants spend the bulk of their time filling out paperwork, so reduced documentation should lead to reduced consultant hours and costs, Gatlin says. The USGBC has also waived LEED-EB registration fees for owners of buildings that have previously attained LEED-NC certification.

While a more user-friendly application process is expected to boost interest, Gatlin points out that even without those changes yet in place, there are tangible signs that LEED-EB is gaining momentum. At the end of 2006, fewer than 300 properties were LEED-EB-registered. As of late May 2007, that number had more than doubled. In addition, monthly orders for LEED-EB guides have swelled from about 100 last year to 300 in 2007.

The USGBC's extensive education and outreach effort targeting building owners and facility managers is beginning to catch on, according to Arny. That approach was necessary because much of the early attention in LEED, especially LEED-NC, has been focused on architects, engineers, and contractors, not building owners and property managers.

Also helping to grow the program is the fact that many best practices earning LEED-EB credits can be easily replicated across a building management firm's entire portfolio. In LEED-NC, for example, credit requirements are specific to individual properties. But with LEED-EB, once a company earns credits for sustainable cleaning, purchasing, and recycling methods on one building, it can quickly roll out those programs throughout its portfolio. This year's LEED-EB overhaul will also make it possible to award certification to multiple properties at one time.

On another front, recent increased media attention devoted to green design and building has boosted public consciousness of LEED-NC, a development that could spill over to LEED-EB. “LEED for new construction has made the jump from the trade press to the general press,” Arny says. “In the last three months, particularly, the frequency of articles on energy use and emissions has increased dramatically.”

LEED officials say, however, that the new EB revisions will make the biggest difference in boosting participation. Once applicants become familiar with the process, it becomes easier to manage and more useful, Arny says. “They find that it's just a format for good facility management,” he says.

 
Green Globes program competes with LEED-EB
In December 2006, the Green Building Initiative (GBI) launched its pilot program Green Globes for Continual Improvement of Existing Buildings (CIEB), a green assessment methodology and rating system that competes with LEED-EB. This system features a Web-based management tool that GBI officials say is more user-friendly and streamlined than the current LEED-EB documentation process.

“One person can oversee the generation of reports,” says Vicki Worden, VP of commercial programs and product development at GBI. “You don't have to hire a consultant.”

Green Globes, which also has a rating system for new construction, was developed by Canadian federal agencies and public utilities, along with partners in the United Kingdom. The U.S. version is largely based on that system.

GBI is offering the CIEB Web tool free for the first 100 buildings to register for certification. Obtaining certification requires hiring a third-party verifier, but the cost structure for that process also has not been finalized.

The pilot program is meant to assess usability and the effectiveness of the metrics used for certification, but having already been tested in Canada and the U.K., the program has a solid foundation.

“We're very confident that what we've established in the U.S. will move forward without many changes,” Worden says. As of June 1, about 40 buildings had begun the CIEB assessment process. Feedback from users thus far has been positive, she says.

“If you focus on energy issues, there has been little to no change in consumption per sf over the last 25 years,” Worden says. Both GBI, with Green Globes CIEB, and the U.S. Green Building Council, with LEED-EB, hope to help change that.