Incrementalism and LEED

Ten years ago, there was this fresh new kid on the block, one no one had seen before. Wildly different than the common way of thinking about designing and constructing buildings, this new concept was seen by supporters and critics as visionary, radical, market-changing, unnecessary, useless and industry defining. I’m guessing you won’t have to think too hard to realize I’m talking about the LEED rating system. A mere decade or so ago, LEED was introduced to a range of emotions and reactions on both sides. Indeed, while more commonly accepted today, the system still raises strong feelings, both for and against.

What’s odd is that this rating system — or what could even be called a reformed thought process — that was once heralded as a visionary new system for defining green buildings has come to be derided as not stringent enough, not pushing the envelope enough and certainly no longer visionary. This comes from some of the rating system’s most ardent early supporters.

That leads me to weigh the pros and cons of both arguments of the future evolution of LEED. I’ve lived neck deep in LEED and green buildings for the better part of the past decade. I’ve dealt with the industry learning curve, the certification frustrations and the perceived cost issues that seem to be brought up by everyone as soon as those four little letters are declared. But I’ve also basked in the glow of project teams hanging their plaques, never looking more satisfied; of communities rallying behind projects because the developer has made a true commitment toward making buildings and neighborhoods better; of talking to facility people who are amazed by how low the actual utility bills really are.

It’s a tough job being a visionary. Actually, being a visionary is easy. Being a successful visionary is something else. Let me explain. There are lots of visionaries. Lots! You’re probably one or are sitting next to one. But the biggest problem with many visionaries, at least the ones I see, is that they have no ability to implement. It’s easy to come up with a visionary idea (this building should run off of smiles and self-esteem!), but taking that vision and getting it done is something else altogether. Visionaries better have some dang good technical and detail-oriented people working with them, a never-ending passion and years of dedication; otherwise, that vision goes nowhere.

There is a continued push for LEED to become more stringent and rigorous in determining requirements for a project to gain certification. And the rating system has adapted, consistently, over the past 10 years. That’s the beauty of it. The energy component especially is much more rigorous than it was when it was based off of ASHRAE 90.1-1999. Can you make it tougher for the amount of bike racks and showers? Not really, but you see the improvements where it is really practical and really makes long-term differences, like energy, water and indoor air quality.So — what does that have to do with anything? Well, LEED was visionary 10 years ago. I think the greatest sign of success for something truly visionary is that it doesn’t seem all that out there anymore. In a decade, what was once a wild idea for green building certification has become the norm — elevating building design and construction to a level not usually seen. No, a building doesn’t have to be LEED certified to be green, but as I’ve often wrote about, a lot of those folks I’ve met who’ve told me they “already design/build buildings that would be LEED certified” usually produce projects that don’t measure up.

There are some new rating systems out there looking to push well beyond what LEED is currently prescribing — things like the Living Building Challenge. I certainly hope they succeed and in 10 years I’m writing about the success and market-transformation of those systems. But until then, I’ll leave this question to both the visionaries of great new things to come and the folks who don’t like the incremental improvements to the LEED rating system. Is it better to have one building completely off the grid (perhaps powered by smiles and self-esteem), or 5,000 buildings using 20-30 percent less energy? Visions are great and necessary — but so are things that are so successful they become common.