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USGBC to Offer Precedent-Setting LEED Interpretations, Along with CIRs

A process for precedent-setting rulings for project teams using the LEED rating system is under development at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The resulting “LEED Interpretations” process is to be unveiled in the Fall of 2010.
August 30, 2010

We'd been expecting something like this for a while—it's great to see that it's on the way.

LEED Interpretations will look a lot like the process for Credit Interpretation Rulings (CIRs) that was in place prior to July 2009, according to information given to me by Cara Mae Cirignano, a LEED specialist at USGBC. (As you probably know, LEED project teams use the CIR process to check on whether they can earn a LEED credit in specific circumstances that may not be anticipated by the LEED rating system.)

Previously, CIRs issued for one project could be found in a database and referenced for other projects. That CIR process was discontinued with the launch of LEED 2009, largely because USGBC handed off authority of the LEED certification process, including CIRs, to its sister nonprofit, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). GBCI in turn handed the CIR process to outside reviewers (a move it is in the process of reversing).

With the authority over CIRs now so far removed from management of the LEED rating system itself, USGBC didn’t trust that a ruling made for one project should automatically be available to others. While they can still get a project-specific CIR for a $220 fee, project teams have lamented the inability to apply those rulings to other projects—even their own.

Under the expected plan for LEED Interpretations, the current non-precedent-setting CIRs will continue. The interpretations will be layered on top, with the following features:

  • A LEED Interpretation may be related to a LEED prerequisite, credit, or a Minimum Program Requirement.
  • For a fee, a LEED project team will be able to request a precedent-setting LEED Interpretation.
  • USGBC staff and technical committees will review the LEED Interpretations.
  • The resulting LEED Interpretations will be offered by USGBC in a publicly available database.

Forthcoming announcements on fees and response times along with further details are expected.

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What do you think—does this meet your needs? What feedback would you give to USGBC on the idea?


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September 3, 2010 - 4:23 pm

I agree this is a step in the right direction, and can think of some refinements that might go further. Pardon my long response.

Two of the barriers to implementing LEED are uncertainty and confusion. The first increases risk, the second adds cost.

If a building owner cannot be certain early in the process that all MPRs and pre-requisites can be met, it can be risky to devote the extra time and effort pursuing LEED.

A project team can spend many hours determining credit feasibility or exact requirements when researching the "case law" of CIRs and consulting multiple documents located in different places - Rating System, Reference Guide, Quarterly Addenda, Minimum Program Requirements Supplemental Guidance, WEp1 Supplemental Guidance, Rating System Selection Policy, Application Guide for Multiple Buildings and Campuses, LEED Online Credit Forms, LEED Online Rating System Selector, the USGBC site, the GBCI site, ...and LEEDUser. A fair amount of the confusion that's evident on this forum comes from teams not being aware of all the critical information sources, finding conflicting information in different sources, or unclear language.

At the core of green building is the concept of integrated design: early collaboration by multiple stakeholders. Integrated design tries to break down the "silos" of different disciplines. Unfortunately, silos are a natural consequence of specialized fields that develop their own language, processes, and expertise to accomplish specific goals. It's hard to break through this and takes work.

The paradox of LEED is that while it encourages integrated design, some of its early systems created new obstacles to integration, new silos, by adding uncertainty and confusion. As they evolve, they get better, but changes that could reduce these obstacles further might include:

1. Early confirmation of meeting MPRs and pre-requisites. Design Phase review comes after Construction Documents are produced, which is probably too late to make a change if a pre-requisite is denied. Provide an optional "Pre-req Review" for teams that want preliminary confirmation that the project approach meets the requirements.

2. Early Review Assistance. Since CIR's were text only, allowed no drawings or attachments, and were not considered a confirmation of credit or pre-requisite acceptance, they haven't provided an opportunity for early, integrated collaboration between the project team and USGBC/ GBCI. In Portland, for a small fee, we have the option of obtaining similar early input from our city's Design Review Commission or Code officials that is thorough and complete. This has encouraged many integrated strategies that might not have otherwise been pursued because of uncertain acceptance.

3. Distinguish between the generic and the specific. In many CIRs, you can see both a clarification of a generic question and a more project-specific ruling. (Example of generic: mixed use building with 90% residential is considered residential; walk-off mats can be a combination of interior and exterior)
This generic guidance is indispensible - it goes beyond the Reference Guide language to clarify how credits are applied. The project-specific part of the ruling in response to a unique situation often doesn't apply to many other projects.

The "tortured responses" of past CIR Rulings that Dan describes above seems to come from a concern that the specific ruling will be applied generically to all cases. Rather than have teams choose and pay differently for project-specific CIRs and LEED interpretations, it would be great if the GBCI could help teams assess whether their question is generic, specific, or both. Specific questions could stay between the GBCI and the project team, and generic, precedent-setting questions could get bumped up to the USGBC TAG and become part of the public record.

4. One price for a question, whether it ends up being generic, specific, or contains both. Set the pricing to cover it all fairly. Though generic questions may cost more to answer by involving more staff and the TAG, they also benefit many more people by clarifying the rating system and reducing confusion for all. Let's not discourage people from submitting those questions by increasing their costs when all will benefit.

5. Define your terms. Teams can spend hours trying to clarify the credit intent when key words are not clearly defined. The 2009 Reference Guides and MPR Supplemental Guidance have made great improvements in this area, but there are still many key terms to define, and the definitions are spread between multiple documents.

6. Everything in one place. Let the Rating System and all its supplements, addenda, definitions, guidance, forms, spreadsheets, selectors, and policies all be linked and easily accessible from one location. They may all be online but could use better "wayfinding."

Ok. Enough for now.

August 31, 2010 - 1:24 pm

I think the previous CIR process (precedent setting) was key in the evolution of the current version of the LEED rating system and having them available in a public database was extremely useful for LEED teams. I got many answers to my project challenges through that CIR database. And we were also able to apply a specific ruling to all projects of similar type.
So I am really glad they are reintroducing the precedent setting concept of LEED interpretations and I surely hope to use it.
However, from the description above, it is unclear to me as to how this new 'layer' of LEED interpretation is different from the previous CIR process. What is the reason for having the non-precedent setting CIR as well as precedent setting LEED interpretations? What will make me choose to go with one or the other? I hope these questions are answered and the distinction between the two will be clarified as this process evolves.

September 2, 2010 - 3:28 pm

I agree with Dan - this does send a positive message. The CIR database may have been clumsy and frustrating to navigate but at least they didn't charge us to look through it. I'm having a difficult time in convincing some of my clients that LEED certification is worth the expense without having USGBC come up with one more thing to charge a fee for. I know it's a small fee in relation to the bigger picture, but it plays into the opinion that USGBC is out to make money and that is getting harder and harder to defend. It's no fun being the messenger!

If they could somehow tie the CIR database to LEED Online in a better way, so you could click on a button while you're already within a credit description and see what applies to that credit, that might be more useful.

I also like the idea of compiling them all into LEED addenda, but my concern is how often that would be issued. Sometimes you just need an answer quickly and having to wait for a monthly or quarterly addendum isn't going to help.

September 1, 2010 - 12:45 pm

I also have mixed feelings on the merits of this issue - on the one hand, the absence of precedent-setting CIRs has been fairly crippling to entities with large building portfolios who need to know that their approach to a problem will be reviewed consistently across multiple buildings. On the other hand, the analogy with requiring projects to be lawyerly in their interpretation of precedent-setting CIR 'case law' is spot-on, and that was really challenging. In addition, that challenge affected the way that CIRs were answered in the past as TAGs had to often draft tortured responses to protect against misinterpretation by other projects with slightly altered circumstances. But what I am particularly pleased about is the message this sends - the USGBC/GBCI showing added agility and flexibility in changing program offerings and approaches to improve effectiveness. I feel like this willingness to respond, adapt and experiment bodes very well for the continued success of LEED.

September 1, 2010 - 10:52 am

I had mixed feelings about the precedent setting process. While CIRs are very useful for unique circumstances, making them "precedent setting" sometimes created unnecessary challenges in the past. On a few projects, we had issues of having credits denied because of some CIR that was out there that either 1) we were unaware of (because of the bad user interface) or 2) wasn't appropriate for our project but USGBC wanted us to comply with the ruling anyways.

September 1, 2010 - 10:45 am

I agree with Brittany and Kim. The research of CIRs was tedious at best. LEED addenda should be compiled and published on a regular schedule within the LEED system update schedule.

September 1, 2010 - 10:09 am

I agree that "LEED Interpretations" need to be done through the addendum process. Consolidate the LEED information in one place - the LEED rating systems and reference guides.

September 1, 2010 - 10:01 am

We hated the CIR database. While it was helpful to find answers to our questions, there was no possible way for us to be beholden to every decision made that way. We became like lawyers having to know every precedent setting decision. We actually got a credit denied because of a CIR that we had searched for and couldn't find in their bad web interface. So, I like the option of paying for an interpretation, but any changes that must be implemented across the board, should come out in the errata/addenda. We should not be required to memorize a constantly changing database.

August 31, 2010 - 1:40 pm

Thanks, Tristan. I understand the quick-turnaround versus longer/costlier difference and it does make sense at some level. My concern is that the cost of paying twice - once for quick CIR and again for LEED interpretation may make people wary of pursuing both.
Anyways, I know that this is still being resolved and there are a number of variables to be considered, so we'll just have to wait and see what is eventually rolled out.

August 31, 2010 - 1:28 pm

The answers to your questions are up for debate right now as USGBC sorts out this process. However, my guess is that the precedent-setting interpretations will cost a bit more, and take a bit longer, so if you want a faster answer just for your project, you may prefer to continue with the existing CIRs.

I have heard one practitioner speculate that they might seek a quick CIR ruling on something, and if it's favorable and they want to use it on other projects, perhaps it would be worthwhile to get a LEED Interpretation for the same question.