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LEED v5 Preview #2: What’s New with Existing Building O+M

Existing buildings are “where it matters most,” said USGBC CEO Peter Templeton at Greenbuild 2023. So they rolled out the v5 O+M draft first.
Paula Melton
October 3, 2023

This is the second post in a series on LEED v5. Part One provides an overview of the philosophy and underlying structure of all the LEED v5 rating systems. Part Three looks at energy and operational carbon in BD+C and ID+C. Part Four is about the proposed building design and construction EQ approach.

Greening existing buildings is our highest and most urgent priority. This is especially true when it comes to decarbonization, but there are other social and environmental reasons as well.

We’ve known this for a long time! But it was still astonishing to hear Peter Templeton, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) CEO, proudly tell an audience of thousands at Greenbuild that USGBC is rolling out the first LEED v5 draft for the projects “where it matters most: the existing building segment.”

Write that down. It happened on September 27, 2023, in Washington, D.C., and there’s no going back.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be thoroughly reviewing and analyzing the O+M draft. But for today, I’m building on our first overall LEED v5 preview with a bird’s-eye view of the biggest O+M changes.

Caveat: right now, v5 O+M is only a draft. USGBC is informally collecting feedback and inviting pilot partners to test the system before releasing a revised version for formal public comment. 

Structural and Process-Related Changes in O+M

USGBC has put forward some interesting ideas designed to make the O+M rating system more stringent in some ways and more flexible in others.

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Plan —> act —> perform

Under v4.1, which famously switched almost everything into Arc, “the performance focus was really good, but it was maybe too limited to a snapshot,” said O+M Consensus committee member Barry Abramson during the Greenbuild session on O+M. “There was not a pathway to how can buildings improve.”

The draft attempts to solve this by structuring prereqs and credits into three sequential categories: plan, act, and perform. Although similar to the O+M structure in the past—where many policies are required, but performance is optional—v5 attempts to embed continuous improvement as an element of certification.

“It’s very clear on how to make it happen, not just what you need to do,” continued Abramson. “We really wanted people to start planning in a realistic way and actually set the project up to be successful after planning.” 

Cross-cutting prerequisites

This shows up at the very top of the draft, where there are three uncategorized prerequisites requiring gap analysis and creation of baselines:

  • Assessment for Climate Resilience
  • Social Impact Assessment
  • Operational Carbon Projection

That last one is “probably one of the major moves we’re making,” said Laurie Kerr, principal climate advisor at USGBC, in an interview. The prerequisite—which will have a BD+C analogue, she noted—requires a “business-as-usual projection.” Alluding to how rapidly utilities are replacing fossil fuels with renewables in the power sector, Kerr said project teams will be able to “see how far the decarbonization of the grid is going to take them and what the gap is going to be by 2050.” 

Kerr believes this new requirement will be “broadening carbon literacy” in the building sector, where codes and rating systems have historically relied on energy cost metrics or energy use intensity instead of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Cross-cutting credits

After these required assessments, teams can collect points for taking the next step: planning. Here are the two uncategorized credits currently on offer:

  • Operational Planning and Response for Resilience
  • Equity within Operations and Maintenance Staff

Innovation and (not just regional) priority

Perhaps the biggest structural change appears in a credit category called Project Priorities and Innovation, which sets a precedent for the other rating systems yet to be drafted. Project teams can draw from several subcategories, including a free-form one called “Innovative Strategies.” 

Saying that innovation “has been a little bit too prescriptive” in the past, LEED Steering Committee chair Sarah Talkington explained the new philosophy behind this category during a Greenbuild session. “We’re aiming for flexibility and nimbleness,” she said, by creating “a point library worth anywhere from 10 to 20 points.”

In the O+M draft, the innovation subcategories are:

  • Regional and Local Priorities
  • Project Type Priorities
  • Exemplary Focus
  • Pilot Credits
  • Innovative Strategies

More Options for More Buildings

To meet our climate targets, Templeton noted at Greenbuild’s Wednesday keynote, we must cut existing building emissions in half by 2030. So to push in that direction, O+M takes “revolutionary steps forward,” he said, on “operational and embodied carbon, long-range decarbonization planning, and improved disaster preparedness” as well as other social and environmental impacts.

But LEED has always tried to thread a performance needle, particularly in O+M: what is the lowest level of performance that should be acceptable, and how can LEED help projects keep getting better over time?

A much lower energy performance threshold (with a twist)

LEED v4 controversially required an Energy Star score of 75 (meaning the 25th percentile among buildings of the same type) as the entry ticket to O+M certification. This led to the creation of the BIT Building program, which is designed to help “brown” real estate get greener and is as much a process tool as it is a certification. (Disclosure: BuildingGreen developed a now defunct website called BITuser, modeled after LEEDuser, through a contract with Southface. Southface has since replaced it with a multifunctional portal.)

So imagine my surprise during the Greenbuild session on O+M when this happened:

  • The person who runs BIT, Stephen Ward, was on the panel.
  • The panel announced an Energy Star threshold of 60.

That’s lower than v2009! But there is an important twist here: projects cannot earn energy points until they hit 69 (the only v2009 threshold).

Still, not everyone on the panel was on board with this—including, notably, Ward himself—so it’s definitely a moving target as the rating system develops further.

Say goodbye to Arc’s black box

USGBC also appears to be keeping the Arc platform but clarifying how the scoring and benchmarking work within it.

“We had to address transparency,” explained Barry Abramson at the O+M session. “There was a lot of black-box stuff going on in 4.1; no one could really understand where those scores come from.” He asserted, “I think we met that challenge. Nothing is hidden; everything’s out there. You can calculate everything. There are no secret formulas.”

Equity and Justice in Operations and Maintenance

The v5 O+M draft draws out some social equity activities that were already incentivized in early versions and also adds some new considerations—including equity prerequisites.

Who is this for, anyway?

Panelists in the O+M session emphasized that the new draft is meant for the people who do the actual work: facility managers. These folks are often caught between top-down proclamations (e.g., “Your facility must achieve LEED Gold”) and the dynamic and often challenging realities of existing buildings, their systems, and their occupants.

“You can have policies up and down the wazoo,” joked Stephen Ward, but “if no one cares, people do what they want.” That’s not a great position to put a person in, so the consensus committee tried to design tools to meet facility managers’ needs while also requiring a certain level of collaboration.

During Q&A for the overall LEED v5 session, an audience member even suggested creating a new AP credential for facility managers, and USGBC officials seemed interested in exploring that idea.

“We’re really getting a much better understanding, if you’re operating a building in a sustainable way, how is it affecting everybody upstream and downstream,” Ward said.

New equity requirements and options

And that includes not just the people we have traditionally thought of as residents, occupants, “FTEs,” or visitors but also the facility managers, the custodial crew, and any contractors who come in periodically to manage pests, take up the carpet, snake the drain, or repaint the wall.

The Social Impact Assessment prerequisite requires teams to complete the LEED Social Equity Checklist. Other equity-related activities and intentions cut across the rating system, but the Green Cleaning Policy prerequisite has a laser focus on protecting the people who clean and sanitize our spaces.

Several credits also address equity directly:

  • Equity within Operations and Maintenance Staff
  • Green Cleaning
  • Integrated Pest Management

USGBC has also identified various equity impacts of other prereqs and credits, listing several with a secondary focus on equity—like Site Management Policy and Materials Management Policy. Various others have a primary or secondary environmental purpose but carry equity co-benefits that minimize impacts in communities, like Heat-Island Reduction.

Adapting to Climate Change 

And Heat-Island Reduction also intersects with resilience, which in turn overlaps with energy efficiency, other site choices, and multiple IEQ credits.

New resilience requirements and options

The Assessment for Climate Resilience prerequisite and Operational Planning and Response for Resilience credit have clear benefits for adapting to climate change, but other requirements and options intersect as well. Two other prerequisites explicitly linked with resilience in the draft are Occupant Needs Assessment and Minimum Energy Performance. 

Regional and typology priorities will also play into preparedness needs, explained Alicia Silva, another consensus committee member, arguing that the resilience options a building team needs to focus on are “totally related to where you are in the world and where is your project.” In her home country of Mexico, for example, earthquake resilience plays a big role, and legislation is just starting to catch up. In other places, she said, especially when it comes to climate hazards, “We need to go beyond what the legislation is requiring” because “it’s shifting everywhere.” 

Will It Pan Out?

Skimming through the v5 O+M draft, things didn’t look as different as I expected at first glance. But with LEED, the minuscule details of the rating system—along with how the reference guide elaborates on those details and the reviewers interpret them—always seem to be where the action is.

“Resilience and equity, the really important things we wanted in the system, are embedded in a lot of different places,” said Silva. “This is a holistic approach that LEED has. What we really want is to shift the focus on what is important.”

With such a large network of overlaps and intersections, it will be interesting to see how “credit intent” comes into play during reviews.

Date updated: 
Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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October 24, 2023 - 3:27 pm

totally agree, Marcus!   It's frustrating to see the "design" rating system easier and easier to achieve with owners/operators not even thinking about operations.

October 8, 2023 - 1:28 pm

Since Peter is formerly a C2C guy, you'd think this would have occurred to them along the way somewhere! There was mention of all O+M projects getting access to decarbonization planning software at regristration. (I thought it might be Carbonsight, but no one used a name or mentioned whether they'd be integrating an already developed tool.)

October 7, 2023 - 8:28 pm

I would really love to see a year over year improvement requirement for recertification, especially since LEED O+M requires annual reporting in Arc. I think this, in combination with the the required long-term comparison to business as usual, could really start to move the needle.

October 6, 2023 - 9:50 am

I definitely heard mention of connecting BD+C with O+M, but there were no details that I have heard so far. I think that's possibly the biggest problem LEED has yet to solve. Maybe there is timidity about it because owners might be reluctant to sign on for continuing recertification, so they might just reject BD+C out of hand? But this is no time for timidity. And with building performance standards becoming more prevelant, owners are going to be held accountable for at least the energy part anyway. Maybe that will break the dam.

Regarding the lower Energy Star threshold, it's an interesting approach. But personally I think interoperability between LEED and BIT might be a better path? If they could get it to catch on, anyway.

There's also the portfolio accelerator, which I'm going to cover on the BG site soon. That's a whole new animal that is very explicitly not LEED. Intriguing approach to scaling operational performance outside the traditional O+M rating system.

October 5, 2023 - 5:26 pm

I have not read or heard about all of the changes in v5 but I have advocated for a long time that LEED is not whole until BD+C projects have to also certify under O+M. Fragmentation does not represent the reality that what we need is continuous improvement of our building stock over time, not just rewards for one-time snapshots. Here's hoping v5 gets us there.

October 5, 2023 - 5:22 pm

Still no entry path for significant energy performance is disappointing to hear. Lowering the bar to entry should focus on encouraging the poor performers to significantly improve not just lowering the bar for the top performers.