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GBCI Invites Direct Inquiries—But Do Your Homework First

“Winging it” on project-specific LEED credit questions is no longer advised with a new communications initiative.
March 26, 2013

In recent months, GBCI (the Green Building Certification Institute, which works closely with the U.S. Green Building Council to certify LEED buildings) has quietly updated its approach to communicating technical advice to LEED project teams. Teams that have tried the process report being very satisfied with the results, but the new policy is still not well known.

The new policy could be summed up in two quick points:

Taking the guesswork out of LEED

If you’ve done a LEED project or two, you’ve probably encountered a situation where figuring out how to apply the LEED requirements to your project circumstances is complicated. Or maybe the credit requirements don’t quite fit, but you have an alternative proposal that you think will meet the intent of the credit—if not the exact requirements—but you can’t be sure. What do you do?

In the past, the most common option has been to wing it—to do your best with the limited guidance available. In some cases, a credit interpretation ruling (CIR) might clearly be needed, but those cost money and time. The LEEDuser forum is a great place to turn for advice and clarification, but sometimes there is a limit to what a peer can tell you: the end result will rely on how GBCI—or more specifically, your LEED reviewer—sees the situation. That’s why a lot of projects have decided to simply submit the credit as best they can, make their case in a narrative, and see what happens.

That’s no longer recommended, Sarah Alexander, director of LEED certification at GBCI, told LEEDuser. Alexander says that GBCI would like to hear from project teams directly in these situations. In many cases, GBCI staff can provide guidance that will clarify the question without the need for a CIR—and they are working to do it faster—within a couple weeks, not a couple months. “If we believe the request warrants a project CIR, we will provide that feedback directly to the project team,” Alexander told LEEDuser.

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The right staff

LEED professionals can be forgiven if they feel a bit jaded about GBCI customer service. Response times and quality of feedback after the launch of LEED 2009 were panned. But since 2010, GBCI has beefed up the size and expertise of its in-house review team, growing it from seven to over 50, and brought on experienced licensed engineers, architects, and other design professionals. GBCI has also applied exacting quality controls to outside contractors doing reviews.

Furthermore, alongside the LEED review staff, GBCI has a customer service team currently comprising eleven, including engineers, architects, and other building professionals. This team is dedicated to helping LEED project teams get what they need from the certification process.

GBCI staff members with technical know-how aren’t the ones answering the phones, however, so that’s why email contact is recommended. In an email, you can detail your question, make a request to talk to a technical expert if desired, and specify what kind of outcome you are looking for from the call. As long as the request is reasonable, GBCI will set up the call.

Do your homework first

GBCI wants you to do your homework first, however. Given the many resources available to interpret and explain LEED credits, GBCI wants to focus the time of its technical staff where it can really make a difference. And even with GBCI’s quicker response times, you can get quicker answers to most questions by checking existing resources.

The following are a few places to check first with your questions before contacting GBCI.

  • The LEED credit language, as displayed on LEEDuser and in USGBC’s LEED credit library—or in the LEED Reference Guides.
  • Speaking of the LEED Reference Guides, they answer many common questions, especially when you also check the LEED addenda.
  • The Bird’s Eye View guidance in LEEDuser is there to break down each credit to its essentials, explaining many common questions. LEEDuser also recently introduced an FAQ section into our Bird’s Eye View pages—at the bottom of most Bird’s Eye View tabs for each of the LEED 2009 rating systems we cover.
  • The tens of thousands comments logged on LEEDuser’s forums are now easier than ever to search with the single-page view available at the bottom of every LEEDuser forum. And if you want another opinion before talking to GBCI, the LEEDuser community is there to help.
  • Search USGBC’s LEED Interpretations database for key precedents.

How about getting all that in one place?

One of the most common things we hear from the LEEDuser community is that keeping up with LEED 2009 is a challenge. We can relate to that. That’s why LEEDuser has worked for months to compile LEED 2009: The Missing Manual, which pulls FAQs, key addenda, key Interpretations, and other resources into one easy reference. Best of all, this is free to LEEDuser members, and nonmembers get it as a gift for joining LEEDuser.

The Missing Manual focuses on LEED-NC and thus provides a lot of useful advice for all BD&C systems. If you’re working on EBOM and need the same kind of help, we recommend the following:

Your survey responses

LEEDuser put out a survey a couple months ago asking our members what questions they were having with LEED 2009. Your hundreds of responses helped shape the FAQs and LEED Interpretations that we highlight in the Missing Manual. Thank you!

We also got direct feedback from GBCI on many of your questions, so please check the manual for answers on those knotty issues you’ve always wondered about.

What’s your experience?

Have you noticed a change in GBCI’s responsiveness for the better? Or have you had a different experience? Please post your thoughts below.

Add new comment

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April 10, 2013 - 4:55 pm

It's heartening to learn that GBCI is improving it's customer service and support. I strongly recommend that these two GBCI teams navigate a project through the process themselves. Nothing beats actual hands-on experience when one is trying to learn the glitches in any system.

April 4, 2013 - 7:57 am

Does this apply to projects outside continental USA ? And about Alternative Compliance Paths in particular ?

April 6, 2013 - 5:10 pm

That is great to know!! We just got a couple of answers out of GBCI that were really helpful. They provide us a tracking number in case we wanted to go back to the same case again or had further questions.

Before we used to solve stuff by talking to people who had already gone to a sucessful certification process but since all project are different sometimes it was still hard to figure out how to document or approach a credit.

CIR was always an option but because the time they take and also the cost we were unable to submit one (even being at US $300 which is nothing compared to what a project cost)

We are really happy to hear about this new iniciative, international project will flow better now.

April 4, 2013 - 8:10 am

Mike, this is a general approach to any communication you have that involves GBCI. So, that's a yes to your questions.

April 3, 2013 - 2:37 pm

This is great news-and it adds to the transparency of who GBCI is. It helps to know our colleagues will be answering some of the most challenging technical questions. In my "contact us" emails to GBCI, I have always prefaced the questions by stating in all caps: "Please forward to our review team / technical staff." If you don't do that, you get a reply using the infuriating and non-responsive "stock language." It does eventually get to the skilled experts and we've had good communication after that. Also, I must admit that I don't spend a lot of hours looking for a clear on-point answer to my question. I go to LEED User first and have found easily accessible answers. If I don't find them there, I go straight to the "contact us" page. My time is worth money also. I remember the excruciating days of trying to navigate LEED without LEED User--such a great support structure! You guys deserve the next President's Leadership Award.

April 3, 2013 - 12:08 pm

After reading the article above, I am not sure what is new here. It sounds like the GBCI is advising project teams to invest a multitude of extra hours reading LEED Interpretations, addenda, guidance documents, and tens of thousands of LEED User forum comments before they submit credits. This will result in easier less time consuming reviews for the GBCI, which is great for GBCI. It is also saying that users should register (pay) for LEED User so that they can get an ADDITIONAL guidance document (The Missing Manual) on top of the other very long list of documents to read.

The GBCI contact page has been around for at least a couple of years.

Please clarify what is new here and how this is helpful to users.

April 3, 2013 - 2:34 pm

Thanks Tristan. Response times have definitely been shorter recently than in 2009.

April 3, 2013 - 12:26 pm

Melissa, it should be clear that we at LEEDuser—not GBCI—are recommending LEEDuser and LEEDuser's Missing Manual as inexpensive resources that can make your life easier and response time quicker. GBCI responses will still take time, and the process with GBCI be more efficient if you do your research in advance, so it's our suggestion to use these resources.

Nor is anyone suggesting that you should read all of the tens of thousands of LEEDuser comments before you submit anything. Rather, if you have specific questions or things you're not clear on, check the forums. Most of the forums have a manageable number of comments to scan through, and we've consolidated FAQs in the BIrd's Eye View tabs. That's all pretty straightforward, right?

Regarding what's new, I think GBCI has clearly evolved its support structure since 2009, in ways discussed above. While the system isn't perfect, I think a lot of people have experienced a real difference in being able to reach out to GBCI and get a real response.

There wasn't a moment in time that we can point to as when this happened, and that's part of what I like about this story—rather than having USGBC and GBCI overpromise and underdeliver, they have been quietly changing things. I thought it was a good time to shine a light on this behind-the-scenes story.

April 3, 2013 - 12:07 pm

I was told by a colleague that if you have a particularly large or complicated project you could have a specific LEED Reviewer or LEED Support Team member (not sure which she meant) work with you throughout the project so you wouldn't have to re-explain the project each time you had a question. I have not been able to find anything about that. Is it true? If so, how can I get one?

April 3, 2013 - 2:02 pm

For as involved as this process is/can be ... a pre-application meeting or conference call with the actual reviewer would be great.

April 3, 2013 - 11:48 am

Wow, that's great! The ability to communicate and ask questions is a sensible feature to include for reasonable customer service.

In March, we received LEED review comments for a preliminary construction review. Our LEED consultant thought the reviewer was asking for information beyond the prerequisite requirement, so sent an email asking for review of the LEED reviewer's comments. Our LEED consultant was optimistic about receiving a response within a week or so.

Two weeks went by without a response, so we just went ahead and submitted our clarifications without waiting any longer.

April 8, 2013 - 9:37 am

Hi Julia - While we have made systematic and structural improvements to avoid these types of delays, we are not without our occasional oversights and sincerely apologize that you did not receive a more timely response. We have identified which inquiry was yours and will follow up with you offline immediately. Sincerely yours - Megan R/S

March 28, 2013 - 9:24 am

As Director of LEED Support for USGBC and GBCI, I also wanted to share that our improvements relative to customer service have recently earned us a Stevie Award for Customer Service, recognizing the hard work of our LEED Support Team: 11 architects, engineers, building scientists and sustainable development experts who assist project teams around the world implement LEED. Though transforming the real estate market may be challenging, we strive to make it fun, efficient and streamlined. We offer 150 years of project experience – including experience on over 100 LEED projects and 500 LEED Reviews – to help project teams navigate the technical complexities of LEED in order to build and operate the world’s most sustainable buildings. More info on the Stevie Award and our recent accomplishments can be viewed here: http://new.usgbc.org/articles/usgbc-receives-stevie-award-superior-custo...

August 11, 2014 - 9:07 am

Thank you for your comment! The Certification and Customer Experience Departments have been working together closely to refine the communication process. Our teams are primarily experienced former project team members who understand the importance of working to improve response times. We are dedicated to continuous improvement, and glad to hear that it is making a difference. We appreciate the energy and expertise that project teams invest in making sustainable places, and glad to be a part of that process.

August 8, 2014 - 4:26 pm

Your 'new' communications protocol, implemented last year has proven invaluable to our projects & we are very appreciative of the GBCI staff. Their customer service has been exemplary....especially after we have 'done our homework.' Our projects are not the typical office building, so the ability to have a conference call to understand the reviewer comments is critical & essential since a particular level of certification is mandated by our jurisdictions.
Sometimes if feels like a guessing game of 'what is it they are looking for specifically?'. Especially when you know you have met the credit intention & criteria but something is missing in the submittal that the reviewers want. Before the ability to get clarification, we usually guessed wrong and had to appeal, once we figured out what was at issue. And then again...it appears review teams react differently to the same data. It would be best if we were all on the same page from the get-go, since this process takes significantly more time & effort. However, it is working....and very well. The transparency we have been supplied certainly allows our team(s) to navigate the technical complexities of LEED reviews. Thank You & the GBCI customer service team !!!

March 27, 2013 - 9:32 am

This should result in a better LEED experience.

I also wonder who is answering these emails though and what the communication is between the person answering and the LEED reviewers. It'd be great for everyone to be on the same page. You'll notice that the emails have a disclaimer: "The text above represents a staff opinion of a particular issue, and does NOT set any precedent to be upheld during a LEED Certification Review"

Ideally, the less ambiguous language the better.Owners don't like to be told to invest in sustainable strategies to only "wait and see" if they get credit for it. The cost (to GBCI) of this extra customer service is worth absorbing so people have a positive LEED experience. A LEED review system with too much ambiguity/inconsistency is a bad thing for the brand/business.

The ability to get an email response regarding a LEED credit strategy, rather than having to hope for the best during the LEED review, is much welcomed. Thanks for making this change. My next suggestion would be to integrate the information all into one place. With digital editions it would be feasible to put ALL the information in the reference guide. That would be more user friendly than the current mosaic of materials: reference guides, LEED interpretations, addenda, guidance documents, LEEDuser etc.

July 9, 2014 - 10:59 pm

Hi Kathryn - Sorry for the delay. The disclaimer language will be updated: "The information above is not equivalent to a formal LEED Certification Review. Applications for LEED Certification will be thoroughly reviewed based on USGBC Member balloted and approved LEED Rating Systems."

May 29, 2013 - 4:03 pm

Any update on this disclaimer? Our clients aren't really comforted by answers that come with this disclaimer cited above :)

March 28, 2013 - 9:25 am

Thank you for your comment! To provide some better insight:

Our standard ‘Customer Service Group’ is comprised of those individuals that you might speak to on the phone if you call our 1-800 number. They answer thousands of emails and calls each month across the breadth of USGBC products and services. They do respond to some basic LEED and certification emails, but pass along anything technical, project review-related, or escalated to the LEED Support team for higher-level assistance.

Our LEED Support team consist of architects, engineers, and green building professionals who coordinate directly with individual LEED Reviewers, the Certification Team, and other staff Subject Matter Experts as necessary to fully answer project teams’ questions. We are careful to provide thoughtful advice in pre-review situations to help ensure the best possible outcome based on the information provided in the questions we receive.

We are currently updating our email-response disclaimer to better reflect this, as well as working on a fresh, new standard format that will offer more information about who is responding to your question, where the information came from, and better follow-up and feedback options – please stay tuned!

Lastly thanks for your thoughts on aggregating all LEED information in one place – we’ve shared it with the LEED Department.