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LEED still reigns despite 'certification fatigue' among construction teams and their clients

COURTESY:  SCOTT | EDWARDS ARCHITECTURE - The Pumpkin Ridge Passive House, designed by Scott | Edwards Architecture, is a DOE Zero Energy Ready Home that is Earth Advantage Platinum certified and a Northwest ENERGY STAR super-efficient demonstration home.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was relatively unheard of a couple of decades ago, and architects and contractors were charged with educating clients about how they could use the system to build more eco-friendly projects. LEED went on to become the most widely used green building rating system in the world, providing a framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification evolved into a globally recognized system of sustainability achievement, according to LEED's website.

And yet, the term "certification fatigue" has emerged within the design and construction professions. While LEED is still the frontrunner in sustainability best practices, its certification status has given way to other, more specific eco-friendly construction initiatives and more practical cost considerations.

Sid Scott, founding partner at Scott | Edwards Architecture, has implemented LEED guidelines in many projects over the last 15 years and has guided numerous buildings through different green certification processes. He said that while LEED is still the gold standard that is most recognized, clients and their project teams are exploring different ways to look at sustainability.

"LEED is, in a check-listy kind of way, more holistic while others are more specific. It's become fairly mainstream to know about it and we still do sustainability charettes where we talk about goals for projects and we use the LEED checklist for that conversation. It's cool for the client because they may have an area they are more focused on," he said, noting, "They recognize that it costs money to do the (LEED) certification process and they would rather put the money into the project than, as they say, put a plaque on the wall."

Win silver

Dan Drinkward, vice president with Hoffman Construction, said that he sees the same dynamic from a general contractor's point of view.

"I think that LEED is, to some degree, a victim of its own success," he said. "Especially in the Pacific Northwest, virtually every project we build will be at least Silver certified so having certification doesn't have the meaning it once did."

COURTESY:  SCOTT | EDWARDS ARCHITECTURE - The Pumpkin Ridge Passive House was the 2015 Housing Innovation Award Winner from the U.S. Department of Energy and the 2014 Best Mainstream Green Home of the Year from GreenBuilder Media.

Drinkward noted that other certification initiatives are gaining increasing attention because of their specificity. Among them, the Well Building Standard focuses on how buildings impact occupants' health and wellness. The Living Building Challenge is a certification program for structures that produce more energy than they use and collect and treat all water onsite. Unlike LEED, the Living Building Challenge certification requires actual performance metrics demonstrated over 12 consecutive months rather than anticipated performance. Zero Energy Building certification from the International Living Future Institute is based on actual performance data and verifies that projects meet zero energy standards.

"Most clients have a pretty clear idea of what sustainability standards they want to meet. Different clients have different perspectives on whether they want to get certified or just meet certain sustainability goals," Drinkward said. "That's a huge change from 20 years ago when I was starting out in this business and we were working with clients or architects who had not done a LEED project and there was a lot of education that went into it. Most people know about it now and have an ingrained opinion about how to do it.

Overlapping certificates

ZGF Principal Chris Chatto, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, said his experience is that certification fatigue is a real occurrence, though not because owners don't want their projects to achieve the highest levels of performance.

"Owners and designers both want to set high performance targets, and certifications, while not a design tool, are a very useful way to align the perspectives and the actions of the design team, contractor and owner," he said. "Certifications help ensure that design aspirations and targets are manifested in the final constructed building."

However, Chatto noted, there is an increased scope of performance certifications and a growing number of certification systems that have overlapping, contradictory or slightly different criteria.

"This creates a complex and potentially confusing landscape for owners. The confusion is often compounded in projects that are targeting multiple systems, such as environmental performance, human health or resilience," he said. "Newly adopted jurisdictional environmental requirements, from CalGreen to even more specific strategies like green roofs and bird-safe structures, add yet another layer."

Chatto added that one of the reasons for the proliferation of other certification systems was the stagnation of LEED standards in 2009. After the 2009 release of LEED v3, there was a period of minimal upgrades that were no longer a challenge to achieve for projects. However, with the release of LEED v4, and new tweaks in the recent v4.1 update, LEED is once again the industry standard for sustainable innovation and performance.

LEED v4 rules

"Similar to earlier versions of LEED that regularized practices like commissioning and encouraged healthier materials, this new update rewards practices like envelope commissioning and whole building life-cycle analysis," he said. "The new standard encourages product manufacturers to provide transparency documentation and optimize their products through environmental and human health disclosure standards."

Melisse Kuhn, an associate at Scott Edwards Architecture and leader of its "Sustainamitee," said that LEED is still prominent in public projects because it shows taxpayers that their money is being used wisely in meeting eco-friendly benchmarks. At the same time, her firm and others in the design and construction fields are excited about programs such as the University of Oregon's Institute for Health in the Built Environment, which joins professionals in architecture, engineering, biology, medicine and chemistry in research about how healthy and sustainable spaces intersect and translate into design practice and the built environment.

"That's something that's really cutting edge that we've adopted and that we're bringing to our clients," Kuhn said, adding Scott Edwards Architecture was a founding partner in the burgeoning program.

Among the research done so far, a team involved in a senior living project explored how the probiotic effects of sunlight and daylight benefit residents compared to using toxic chemicals to clean rooms. Another research team looked at how ultraviolet lighting impacts residents' circadian rhythms.

"It's really inspired by curiosity and how we can build it better and still be responsible for the environment, and how we can use the environment to our advantage," Kuhn said.

Melody Finnemore is a contract writer who regularly contributes to the Business Tribune. She can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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