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Is Easier Really Better for LEED 4.1?

Lots of credits are more achievable under v4.1, but should we celebrate? What about the environmental impact?
Nadav Malin
November 12, 2019

After we announced the v4.1 “Should I Upgrade?” content on LEEDuser (scroll down for an example here), we got challenged by Nick Semon of Re:Vision Architecture in Philadelphia:

I utilize LEEDuser on a daily basis. It’s an important part of my professional work. While I continue to appreciate the thoughtful analysis of all of the LEED credits that the site provides, I’m concerned about [the] framing of your LEED v4.1 credit assessments. The “Should I Upgrade?” section of each credit does a good job of hitting the important compliance aspects of each credit, but it does so with the assumption that easier is necessarily better. Credits with lower thresholds are gleefully marked “Yes!” for upgrades, while more stringent upgrades have strong cautions against them. This underlying assumption that “easier is better” might make for a better-looking LEED scorecard, but does it lead to a better building?

What I hope to see from LEEDuser are more questions like “Does this make a difference?” The Heat Island Reduction credit may be more stringent, but does it have quantifiable benefits? Should we still be encouraging our clients to pursue the new path because it makes the project a responsible local citizen? I don’t know, but I sure would like to.

Perhaps this more measured approach can be taken for v4.1 credits that don’t yet have the full LEEDuser assessment completed. I’m curious to know, for example, how much the integration of carbon emissions into the energy reduction requirements impacts a building’s performance. Will it move the needle on a building’s contribution to climate change? Or will it be “more difficult” for project teams, so we should just ignore it until it’s mandatory?

I hope LEEDuser will continue to help us build projects that are LEED certified and high performance—the two may not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

“Point” well taken

Nick is right, of course. We’ve long advocated that project teams not get caught up in point-chasing, and instead use LEED strategically, to keep people on track with measures are actually helping improve the project, and lower its footprint. Ideally, LEED project teams will pursue the credits that support the best possible project outcomes, even if they aren’t always the easiest options. With the current v4/v4.1 scenario, you get to select which set of requirements you have to meet, so why not choose the ones that align best with your project goals?

Maybe LEED v4 broke too much new ground

That sounds great, but for most owners (and their consultants and contractors) LEED v4 introduced so much uncertainty and confusion that they are at risk of walking away from LEED entirely. They want more confidence that they can achieve their targeted certification level, and they’re unhappy about having to settle for LEED Silver with the same level of performance that would have gotten them to Gold in LEED 2009.

Abandoning LEED would be okay if the projects were on track to achieve high performance outcomes anyway. But all too often, abandoning LEED means jettisoning the enforcement mechanism that keeps sustainability outcomes in place through the perils of so-called “value engineering” and schedule crunches.

Still worth doing

In that environment, our priority was to highlight the easy wins in v4.1 and reassure teams that LEED is still worth doing. If the thresholds have gotten too low to be challenging, they still have the option of exceeding them for exemplary performance points, or just because they can. They can also opt to pursue additional credits that they might have ignored in the past because they have the bandwidth to figure them out.

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The reality is that LEED v4 has a number of credits that are simply unworkable—because thresholds are unrealistic (for example: 50% of products with better than average EPDs) or because the infrastructure to supply the required documentation doesn’t exist in the market (like corporate sustainability reports that document raw materials extraction). LEED 4.1 made the necessary changes to make credits like these achievable.

Rethinking our approach

So yes, we did celebrate the credits that became easier to achieve in v4.1, because in most cases the changes removed barriers that were not about making the projects better. But we should have taken a more considered look at the impact of those changes. Here’s an example that’s already heading in that direction.

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November 15, 2019 - 8:35 am

Thanks for the comment  Nick Semon and to LEEDuser for the thoughtful response. This is a great discussion topic and one I have surprising often.  I really believe LEED's success is how it has shaped the market and influenced manufacturing spheres through small (obtainable) incremental changes.  The switch to BPDOs especially has had an extremely challenging effect on our LEED projects as we reteach our contractors and subs on submitting materials - I do definitely welcome easier in this case!  It has been really interesting to see how the industry continues to adapt to these changes as we push architecture to be ever more responsible and responsive to sustainability.