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LEED v5 Preview #1: New Structure Hits All the Right Notes

Paris-aligned decarbonization and resilience are half the weight. Cross-credit integration and new prereqs weave in equity, biodiversity, and more.
Paula Melton
September 28, 2023

This is the first post in a series on LEED v5. Part Two provides an overview of the O+M draft. A later series will dive deeper on O+M. Part Three looks at energy and operational carbon in BD+C and ID+C. Part Four is about the proposed EQ approach.

LEED v5 could change everything. But will it?

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) soft-launched a radical structural overhaul to all the LEED rating systems at Greenbuild 2023 in Washington, D.C. The organization has also released a full draft of LEED v5 for Operations and Maintenance: Existing Buildings (O+M).

We’ll be sharing the highlights—and digging deep on the O+M draft—here on LEEDuser over the coming days as the organization unveils more details.

three goals of leed v5

The three core goals of v5

Image: USGBC

An invitation to criticize

LEED v5 right now isn’t a thing yet; it’s just concepts and drafts. But the philosophy behind it is clear, and USGBC is already bringing certain details into focus.

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Melissa Baker, senior vice president at USGBC, emphasized at the first rollout session that the organization must get critical feedback in order to move forward. “We need to get it right,” she said, encouraging the audience to “listen with an open mind, and think critically about where we are and where we need to go.”

She later added this request: “Try it. Test it. Break it so we can fix it.”

The cocktail: ½ climate action, ¼ quality of life, ¼ ecology

Determining credit weightings is always the first order of business with a LEED upgrade, and the proposed weightings make climate—both decarbonization and resilience—a full half of the rating system.

One quarter of the weight is on “quality of life,” which is a catch-all term for a variety of goals, encompassing social equity and health and well-being, including IAQ, passive survivability, and material health.

The final quarter, “ecology,” isn’t just about site and landscape, though those are the heavyweights here. As currently presented, it will intersect with ecotoxicity and other pollution associated with materials as well.

leed v5 credit weightings. one-half of credits are on climate. one-quarter are on quality of life. one-quarter are on ecology.

The proposed LEED v5 credit weightings

Image: USGBC

Integrative process meets credit integration

If it sounds like these three goals intersect and overlap in a dozen places, that’s because they do. And it’s by design.

Baker and three LEED Steering Committee chairs (past, present, and future) presented a matrix with the three core goals down the left side and five principles up top, with examples of how credits will fall into the 15 boxes. The five principles are:

  • Decarbonization
  • Resilience
  • Health and well-being
  • Equity
  • Ecosystems

leed v5 goal and principle matrix

The matrix of LEED v5's three core goals and five core principles

Image: USGBC
This matrix came out of conversations at the Steering Committee level along the lines of “if we only give equity two points, are we really being equitable?” explained Lance Davis, past chair the committee. They soon realized, he added, that “this is the wrong way to think about the credits. … What we’re working on should be integrative designs, so points should be an integrated system.”

Davis elaborated: “equity is flowing through multiple points. It’s not necessarily individual points on equity” but is instead incorporated into credits on water, resilience, indoor environmental quality, and elsewhere throughout the rating systems.

Finally, the prerequisites have been broken down into a continuum of actions project teams can take:

  • Readiness
  • Policies
  • Data reporting and management
  • Assessments
  • Minimum performance requirements

five prerequisite categories in leed v5: readiness, policies, data reporting and management, assessments, minimum performance requirements

The five prerequisite categories, with details filled in for LEED v5 O+M

Image: USGBC
This new structure works in service of encouraging integrative planning and processes among team members—whether it’s for existing buildings or new construction, explained Melissa Baker later in an interview. “We are building on that idea of an integrative process and bringing people to the table early,” she said. So for example, for building design and construction (BD+C), there are planned prerequisites for assessing both the whole-life carbon footprint and the resilience of a project, which will mean the prerequisistes are “much more purposeful” in encouraging what Baker called “an amped-up integrative process.”

What will this do the scorecard?

Knowing intuitively that all this intersection and integration with multiple overlays might look intimidating or even unmanageable, USGBC has worked on two different scorecard views for teams to use, depending on their goals, their audience, and what stage of the process they’re at. “It’s not just about the hows, not just the traditional credit categories,” said current Steering Committee chair Sarah Talkington. There’s also “the why … underscoring the importance of what we’re doing and why these things are so critical as we’re making decisions.”

One view shows the credits broken down by the three core goals—climate action, quality of life, and ecology.

the v5 credits broken down by the three core goals

The v5 O+M prereqs and credits broken down by core goals

Image: USGBC
The second shows a traditional view by credit category. (The speakers received some strong feedback about the need to number credits to make life easier for consultants, but it’s unclear whether this will happen.) 
v5 o+m broken down by credit categories

The LEED v5 O+M prereqs and credits broken down by traditional credit categories

Image: USGBC

Timing of rollout and sunsets

After a decade without a rating system ballot, USGBC is straining to develop LEED v5 on an tight timeline—although rapidity is all relative when it comes to a consensus standard. And there could be hiccups, as happened 12 years ago, when USGBC had to change the version name to LEED v4 instead of LEED 2012 because it wasn’t ready to ballot until 2013.

leed v5 development timeline

The development timeline for LEED v5 rating systems

Image: USGBC
Baker also made a commitment to five-year development cycles in the future, which she hoped would reassure those concerned that v5 version might not look as aggressive on decarbonization as some people might prefer (more on this in a forthcoming piece). This five-year cycle, she said, will align with Paris decarbonization targets. It was unclear whether LEED would align with other standards, such as the forthcoming building-sector guidance from the Science Based Targets initiative.

Asked about sunset dates in a later interview, Baker said the goal would be to align those with the five-year cycle such that adoption of the newer versions could happen more quickly than it may have in the past. At the same time, she added, there will likely be exceptions due to the realities of design and construction timelines.

Living up to the vision?

Time—and a possibly gnarly consensus process—will tell how successfully LEED v5 lives up to its promise. But the structural changes appear to be bringing together threads on integrative process, social equity, and dual-purpose climate action (both mitigation and adaptation).

Davis characterized the changes being proposed as the outcome of this newly articulated statement at the onset of development: “The vision of USGBC is that buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation.” He added, “That’s all life—not just North Americans, not just human beings, and within a generation.”

We’ll soon see whether LEED v5 can make that vision a reality.

Date updated: 
Thursday, September 28, 2023

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October 8, 2023 - 1:36 pm

Maybe there are individual streams within the whole that users could choose and still be players. If a project sponsor is an advocate for Resilience and Ecosystems but doesn't have a vision for Carbon and Equity should they be cursed?

I don't know about "cursed," but I don't think they merit LEED certification. (Some people might believe the latter—or at least the process of achieving it—is a curse, haha.)

I mentioned this elsewhere as well, but the USGBC portfolio accelerator seems to be the place where what you're suggesting will be operationalized. I'll be writing about it soon, but the basic premise is that USGBC/GBCI would offer direct support to portfolio owners of around their internally developed ESG and sustainability targets. GBCI would then offer third-party validation of their adherence to their own targets.

And it's already part of Arc that building owners can get "performance certificates" for meeting LEED criteria in a specific category without the others. I'm sure it does not come with the same prestige as holistic performance (as it shouldn't).


October 7, 2023 - 7:37 am

Paula, the point is well taken that predicting market response and the inertia of consensus based recalibration makes the way forward fraught with contradictions. The greatest good for the greatest number might better be served by building more on ramps than exits.

For intersectionality wonks, swallowing the whole elephant may be a welcome exercise. Maybe there are individual streams within the whole that users could choose and still be players. If a project sponsor is an advocate for Resilience and Ecosystems but doesn't have a vision for Carbon and Equity should they be cursed?

ILFI seemed to recognize early that forcing every opportunity into a rigid matrix generated less uptake compared to offering recognition for limited achievements as an enticement to stretch for more.

LEED's stretch incentive has been a different colored medal.

It has been suggested that v5 has to get it right. The market will provide an answer. 

October 6, 2023 - 11:38 am

Jim, I love your cosmic framing of this perpetual question! My approach is more of a utilitarian one (what will offer the greatest good for the greatest number), but I don't think either framing brings us any closer to really knowing the best decisions to make. We can't truly know which prerequisites will be non-starters for how many owners and developers, for example. And course corrections with a big, holistic standard take so much time!

Based on what you've written, it looks like I'm personally more in favor of advancing faster—but that's in part because development takes time, and by the time v5 is live and v4/v4.1 has been sunset, the world will already be a different place. So we have to think more of what might be acceptable in the medium term rather than the short term. Of course, that makes the impact of these efforts even harder to predict! Thoughts on that?

October 6, 2023 - 9:50 am

The Creator's prime directive to the human is to care for the Garden. The human fails to achieve that care by any metric. However, damage accumulated over the span of human application of science and technology is unlikely to be reversed by decades of emergency measures. LEED v5 as described abruptly requires that commitment. 

Fortunately, LEED is a voluntary regime project sponsors and their consultants can freely choose - or not. The public appears to be growing weary of continuous Climate Emergency proclamations. The proposed v5 quantum leap can have the result of shrinking the uptake of Garden Care effort by entities that might otherwise choose that path if the hurdles were more easily understood, universal and reachable.

There is always tension between advocates of dramatic reactions and incremental improvements. Aren't both approaches worthy of support and celebration? Can/should the next release provide multiple paths rather than a single narrowly conceived higher ground that roadblocks less adventurous travelers? Some proposed prerequisites will invite exits from the path sacrificing useful action that would otherwise accrue.

Balance wisdom and enthusiasm!