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Equity, Health, and Other Highlights from the Future of LEED

With v4.1 almost ready for ballot, what comes next?
Paula Melton
November 11, 2020

LEED v4.1 is still in beta. LEED v4 isn’t going anywhere soon. The sunset date for LEED 2009 even got delayed because of the pandemic. For those mired in the details of one of these currently used rating systems, it might seem premature to start thinking about what’s next.

But at Greenbuild Virtual this year, the future of LEED is very much on the table (see “USGBC: You Have Five Years to Go Net Positive”). I just spoke with Melissa Baker, senior vice president, technical core, at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) about the future of v4.1 and what we can expect from LEED in the long term. Here’s what I learned.

The current state of v4.1

Version 4.1, introduced for operations and maintenance (O+M) projects in 2018 and building design and construction (BD+C) and interior design and construction (ID+C) in 2019, continues to be in a bit of flux right now, but changes are starting to slow down.

Of the November 2020 addenda release, Baker explained, “I think of it as enhancements more than anything. We’re not trying to make significant changes.” For example, Walk Score is now a compliance path in Surrounding Density and Diverse Uses, and a planned bicycle network for Bicycle Facilities can now be three years in the future instead of one year.

These kinds of changes are designed to make the credits “achievable and understandable,” according to Baker.

Remember that you can upgrade to any v4.1 credit for a v4 credit in a v4 project. And there’s no limit to the number of substitutions you can make. “We’re seeing a big uptake in version 4 based on project teams being able to substitute those 4.1 credits,” Baker said. Because of that, a sunset date for v4 is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

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Balloting v4.1

Delayed because of COVID-19, the v4.1 ballot version will likely be available in quarter one of 2021, Baker said.

Because USGBC has been collecting and responding to feedback throughout the beta process, the public comment period is likely to take less time than the comment period for v4—which spanned years.

v5?

Through its call for proposals issued in 2018, USGBC has been getting “a lot of good conversation and feedback” about what LEED ought to look like next, Baker said.

In addition to energy and carbon, the organization is also thinking about what transportation, siting, and holistic health and wellness would look like in a new version of LEED. “What does ventilation need to look like or daylighting need to look like?” in order to ensure healthy spaces—especially in light of the current pandemic and the increased risk of new pathogens having similar effects.

And equity is going to be a big part of the conversation too, Baker added. One of the big questions, she said, is whether we need to “change the rating system’s structure” to incorporate elements like equity—perhaps even adding a new category.

Speaking of equity …

USGBC is making changes large and small to address its equity gaps. For example, said Baker, the Integrative Process credit now requires teams not only to think about energy and water early in design but also to choose either equity or health and wellness as a third topic.

One of the bigger changes is an overhaul of credit intent statements. For example, the Construction Waste Management credit will now include information about how reducing the need for new landfills reduces risks to fenceline communities—those in marginalized groups who have to live near these landfills.

In addition, USGBC is trying to rapidly turn around equity-related pilot credits, including a forthcoming one on gender-neutral bathrooms.

Existing buildings

“The O+M market is a critical path for us,” Baker noted. Without connecting the goals of new construction with the real-world performance required by the O+M (and now LEED Zero) rating system, LEED will never achieve its goals.

But O+M projects, as you might expect, have been rare this year due to the pandemic. With buildings largely unoccupied, it’s hard to do a meaningful waste audit, for example. Still, “we are working with project teams to get certified if they want to,” Baker told me.

On the upside, she said, “recertification has done even better than I anticipated.” It’s getting “strong use,” with 1,100 projects on the books, including some BD+C projects.

With changes made in v4, it’s much harder for a low-performing building to participate in LEED O+M. Baker said maybe it’s time for a change since when lower-performing projects improve, these improvements are “dramatic.” One step USGBC has already taken—in addition to making Arc free for all—is adding performance certificates to the Arc platform, giving project teams recognition for high performance in a single category.

“I’ll have more to say in a couple of months about what O+M is going to look like going forward,” Baker said.

Date updated: 
Wednesday, November 11, 2020

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