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Climate and Construction: Are LEED’s best days behind it?

John Bleasby
Climate and Construction: Are LEED’s best days behind it?

Although the term “sustainable development” can be traced to the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1993 that LEED first arrived on the desks of project owners and designers. For years, it stood almost alone as a leading edge certification program addressing sustainability in all its variations.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED certification can be achieved at one of four levels: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Points are awarded based on six “sustainable” attributes. The more points gained, the higher the level of certification. It’s a prescriptive approach that has gained wide acceptance.

However, the world is changing. Today’s construction industry is expected to address more than sustainability. Operational and embodied carbons and energy efficiency are priorities. It’s left LEED largely in catch-up mode.

In fact, a 2021 Carnegie Mellon University paper investigating federally owned buildings between 1990 and 2019 found LEED had no effect on average energy consumption. In fact, it concluded, “if energy efficiency is the primary goal, LEED certification may not be the most effective means to reach that goal.”

That’s because energy accounts for merely 30 per cent of only one of LEED’s six attributes, the study says. Since five of LEED’s other six attributes do not relate directly to energy use, it means a project can achieve a high level of LEED certification without any significant reduction in energy consumption.

Sustainability achievement standards are sought not only by occupants, but also by investors and municipal officials seeking recognizable labels reflecting their concerns for the world’s climate. As corporate ESG compliance receives increased attention across the construction industry, labels and certifications become increasingly important. In this respect LEED has been number one for many years.

In his investigation of LEED, published by Propmodo, Logan Nagel sets LEED alongside 13 other green or sustainability verifications currently offered in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. He concedes that commercial advantages are a big motivator by many seeking certifications labels.

“Alongside these pricing and value impacts, the other big selling point of most certifications lies in marketing. There is value in the recognition that certifications have, beyond the weight of their operating and value impacts alone.”

Despite total fees and soft costs estimated as high as $150,000 per project, it is suggested that potentially higher rents and enhanced property values more than justify LEED’s cost. As Nagel writes, “All things being equal, a certified property is more attractive than a non-certified one.”

Interpreting the relevance of any building certification standard to a specific project and then cross referencing its benefits with the needs of owners and occupants can be challenging. Furthermore, while each standard may have the best of intentions, without independent verification of any sustainability and energy efficiency claims made, the delivered value may be questionable.

This is putting the overall effectiveness of prescriptive standards versus performance-based standards under review. And despite four iterations since its inception, expansion into various types of certifications for specific project types, and its multiple levels of certification, LEED has always been, to this point at least, a prescriptive standard.

This may not be enough going forward. Investors, owners, operators and occupants are increasingly demanding verified building outcome performance and the measurable long-term cost benefits associated with any certification standard.

Perhaps due to its limited energy reduction guidance, LEED has inadvertently inspired the creation of several other building standards, many directly focussed on overall building performance.

Conceived by the US Department of Energy and the EPA, the Energy Star program rates buildings on a scale of 1 to 100. A Canadian version called EnerGuide, sponsored by NR Canada, focuses on residences. The Living Building Standard, BuiltGreen, WELL, Fitwell, BREEAM, Net Zero, Net Zero Ready and many more, are some of the reportedly 19 different energy-related, green building standards used in Canada today. It can be a confusing landscape of labels and certifications.

Next, a look at where leadership in building performance excellence might be headed.  

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Climate and Construction column ideas to

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