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LEED O+M v5 Will Target Poor Performers, Not Just Overachievers

The shift in existing building decarbonization under LEED v5 could be a complete 180 from what happened in v4.
Paula Melton
November 7, 2022

frozen street lights and an all glass building
Public domain. License: Public domain.
I’m just home from Greenbuild 2022 in San Francisco. I’ve never felt such a palpable sense of urgency—some might say rising panic—at Greenbuild regarding the scale of the challenges before us as an industry when it comes to decarbonization, social justice, and climate adaptation.

LEED v5 is out to make up for lost time (oh, so much lost time) in that regard, and nowhere is that more evident than in changes taking shape for existing buildings.

O+M: no longer just for the 25%

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) first launched LEED for Existing Buildings (abbreviated EBOM or O+M) in 2004. This rating system has always required certified buildings to meet a minimum Energy Star score or other performance benchmark to even participate. In v4, that minimum ratcheted up, controversially, to 75—meaning that, by definition, only a quarter of buildings could get a plaque. (Energy Star gives percentile scores, so a 75 means you perform better than 75% of other buildings of the same type in the underlying database.)

Through its for-profit affiliate, Arc Skoru, USGBC has worked to address the other three-quarters of buildings by offering free access to its Arc tool for anyone and a program involving “category certificates” as an onramp to LEED. But that effort isn’t enough to scale existing building decarbonization

To do that, USGBC has realized, LEED needs to start talking to more owners and offering certification pathways for more buildings. How might that work?

LEED v5 is just beginning

The short answer is that we don’t know yet. USGBC will be convening three big new working groups—one on social equity, one on resilience, and one on existing buildings—starting early in 2023. Those groups will help make new aspirations more concrete before handing the nitty gritty off to the LEED Steering Committee and technical advisory groups. 

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But we do have a model that might guide working group members: BIT Building.

Created in the wake of LEED v4’s Energy Star update and now managed by the Southface Energy Institute, BIT is designed to improve the performance of all existing buildings. (Disclosure: BuildingGreen worked with BIT to create the BITuser website.) Its list of best practices includes metrics for energy, water, waste, IAQ, refrigerant management, green cleaning, and other topics. The system has no minimum performance baseline for any of the best practices, instead rewarding projects for data tracking and performance improvements.

“They have broken down that point of entry in a good way,” said Melissa Baker, senior vice president for technical core at USGBC, acknowledging the work BIT is doing to encourage “improvement over time” and “continuous engagement.”

Where ESG comes in

At the same time, Baker clarified that LEED is about leadership. “It does have to be tied to performance,” she said. “We can’t just suddenly certify a bunch of low-scoring buildings.”

Balancing early engagement with performance requirements will likely be a big part of the new working group’s conversation, but at least the goal is fairly clear: portfolio-scale improvement.

Baker said USGBC is working with the concept of “a decarbonization roadmap at the asset level” designed to operationalize commitments being made at the organizational scale through environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs.

“Commitments are being made, and people need to know how to meet them,” Baker pointed out. USGBC would like to help folks whose CEOs, for example, committed to science-based carbon targets without thinking through the implications for the building portfolio. “We would really like to shift our point of engagement and help buildings be ready” for that—and for owners to use unprecedented funding sources like the Inflation Reduction Act to invest in decarbonization, she said.

Date updated: 
Monday, November 7, 2022

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November 8, 2022 - 4:25 pm

Yes, way too much lost time here. It's my understanding that under v5, there is some mechanism under consideration for "continuous certification" for BD+C/ID+C projects.

November 8, 2022 - 3:36 pm

I was agruing for a path to EBOM certification relative to significant energy improvement more than 10 years ago. It seems rather obvious that we need to bring the bottom up as well as recognizing the top performers if we are going to address the climate impacts of buildings. The next obvious step is to directly connect LEED BD+C/ID+C with EBOM so that continued LEED certification is tied to actual performance not strictly based on predictions.