New hardware and rating methods underpin the data-rich plaque USGBC is promoting for already-certified buildings, but insiders have questions.
October 15, 2014
For those who never felt that a static LEED plaque adequately captured the performance of a building in all its complexity, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has an answer: the LEED Dynamic Plaque. The flatscreen hardware, bolstered by a back end that crunches data, loads up occupancy surveys, and reports back to USGBC, is the result of years of work by USGBC staff on a tool that could engage buildings after their initial LEED certification, and orient all buildings toward measured performance.
Since LEEDuser initially reported on its development, the plaque has hit the streets, but it has also roiled a debate within USGBC committees and LEED insiders on whether it is up to the task. LEEDuser spoke with some critics of the LEED Dynamic Plaque and with Scot Horst, chief product officer at USGBC, to learn more.
Keeping LEED certifications up to date
Horst told LEEDuser that the plaque is “a platform for keeping a building’s LEED certification up to date.” At the same time, he says, it answers the question, “What are the core ways that all LEED buildings should perform in all parts of the world, at all times?” Essentially, the plaque should allow consistent measurement of performance, Horst says, “among all the LEED rating system types and versions, spanning version 1.0 to LEED v4; LEED for New Construction to Existing Buildings; and everything in between.”
Horst notes that while USGBC put two years into developing the design for the software platform, the hardware, and the program guidelines, the product available now to LEED projects is “version 1.0”; Horst says it will evolve.
A second path to recertification
According to Horst, the LEED Dynamic Plaque is a fresh take on the long-standing challenge of updating, or refreshing, certifications. This challenge applies both to the design and construction rating systems (such as LEED for New Construction) and to LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (LEED-EBOM).
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LEED recertification was introduced in 2012 as a process for LEED-EBOM projects to renew their LEED certifications, which officially expire after five years. The update path for the design and construction rating systems, which don’t expire, has always been LEED-EBOM.
However, USGBC’s efforts to plug LEED-NC certified projects into LEED-EBOM, including at one time offering free registration, have not gone well. Horst says that only 55 LEED-NC or LEED Core and Shell projects have gone on to get a LEED-EBOM plaque, out of roughly 23,000 LEED projects to date. “The market finds no value in doing another rating system with us after they’ve done one,” Horst acknowledges. The uptake of recertification for certified LEED-EBOM projects is stronger but also disappointing, with about 300 projects out of roughly 3,000 certified.
It’s “not enough to leave recertification to the existing buildings system,” argues Horst. USGBC’s LEED Steering Committee passed a resolution in 2009 calling for LEED to “become a recertification program,” according to Horst, and the LEED-EBOM program hasn’t filled that need. He says, “Unfortunately, the rate of recertification for LEED isn’t as high as it should be—especially considering building performance is a place where we could make a dramatic impact.”
Both of those updating paths—LEED-EBOM for LEED-NC projects, and recertification for LEED-EBOM projects—remain available, but now there is also another option in the LEED Dynamic Plaque. Building owners pay a monthly fee to use it, inputting data and seeing the plaque display a live LEED performance score—using the LEED certification levels of Certified up to Platinum, and annual recertification by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI).
What the plaque measures
According to Horst, the signature feature of the LEED Dynamic Plaque is that it measures performance. “We’re helping people at the building level focus on what really matters,” says Horst. He contrasts the way in which traditional LEED credits detail “strategies” for projects to implement, while the Dynamic Plaque measures “outcomes”—where we see what comes out on the other side.
The LEED Dynamic Plaque measures five performance areas: energy, water, waste, transportation and occupant satisfaction (or “human experience” in Plaque-speak).
LEEDuser asked Horst for a Dynamic Plaque manual akin to the LEED Reference Guide. He said, “The LEED performance score reflects an individual building’s performance at a given time—but the score is calibrated based on reference buildings. The algorithm is a software code that generates scores based on the reference set,” and Horst says that the code started generating scores mid-2014. According to Horst, “LEED committees define the score and the algorithm implements it. A white paper describing this process will be available after it is reviewed by LEED committees.” Horst shared with LEEDuser a “crosswalk” document that, in Horst’s words, “identifies the desired outcomes from each LEED credit in LEED EB O+M v4 and how these are measured in the LEED Dynamic Plaque.”
What the critics say
LEEDuser has heard from a number of LEED professionals who are critical of key components of the LEED Dynamic Plaque. We’ll paraphrase key arguments that we’ve heard, and how Horst and others at USGBC respond.
“We weren’t consulted.” The LEED Dynamic Plaque was developed outside of the LEED committee structure and public comment process, leaving some individuals and committees to ask why they weren’t consulted. In addition to noting that LEED committees have more recently been asked to review the plaque, Horst told LEEDuser that “the LEED Dynamic Plaque is not a rating system: rather, it is a tool that complements LEED certification” and allows owners to keep it updated over the years. He is matter-of-fact about the development process, noting “we created the product and now we’re putting it out.” Horst prizes the simplicity and outcome-based approach of the plaque and worries that it would have been weighed down by complications if done by committee (more on this below).
Competition with LEED for Existing Buildings. For LEED-EBOM proponents, an alternate recertification pathway is seen as potentially damaging to that program, and also raises questions of rigor (discussed next). But Horst says it’s simply reality that LEED-EBOM isn’t doing the job of recertification, and that another tool was needed. He emphasizes that some version of full, conventional LEED certification is a prerequisite for using the LEED Dynamic Plaque, and for existing buildings that certification remains LEED-EBOM.
Oversimplified? The Dynamic Plaque focuses on key performance indicators, but does not measure signature LEED strategies such as use of FSC-certified products, to name just one. In response, Horst notes that the Dynamic Plaque includes 10 “base points” that could include a point earned in the initial LEED certification such as for the FSC credit. More broadly Horst stands by the simplified approach asking LEEDuser, “If we create a recertification program that is so cumbersome that it deals with all of the issues that we really care about in an ongoing way but then no one uses it, are we having a bigger impact?” Noting again that buildings have to go through a full LEED process to get to the Dynamic Plaque, Horst says, “if you’ve certified your building you’ve come across the FSC credit.” Horst also notes the quickly evolving terrain of performance metrics in building products. LEED v4 articulates “a vision for how to build a performance connection with materials, but we aren’t there yet. That’s version 2.0 or 3.0 of this system.”
(Shiny) black box. Even critics of the Dynamic Plaque praise its looks, but they raise concerns that key scoring components, especially on energy, are not transparent and don’t use existing tools like Energy Star. Horst says that “we are creating a score that is based on LEED data and it needs to be global”—something that Energy Star isn’t. As far as the algorithm, he said, “There is a certain amount of proprietary stuff that we’re very happy to have someone look at confidentially but we’re not publishing all the source code.”
Enough data? The LEED Dynamic Plaque energy score is based on comparing a given LEED building with a reference set of buildings that share similar characteristics of climate, occupancy type, and other variables. Given how hard it has been for USGBC to share meaningful amounts and offer deep analysis of the energy data of LEED buildings, how well can we expect the Dynamic Plaque to do? Just fine, says Horst—unless you’re a grocery store. “We don’t need a lot of buildings” for the software to do its magic, but Horst says that USGBC is working to bring in more data points for building types that are underrepresented in its set, such as groceries and museums.
What will the market say?
Some critics of the LEED Dynamic Plaque are particularly concerned about its effect on the market. LEEDuser has spoken with LEED-EBOM consultants who aren’t keen on USGBC competing for access to their clientele, particularly paired with questions on rigor that they raise about the plaque. On the other hand, we’ve heard others say that real estate clients have shrugged at the plaque, seeing little value especially if it doesn’t tie into their building management systems.
Although few Dynamic Plaques have been deployed so far, Horst says that the response from commercial real estate companies has been one of strong interest, and that USGBC is working on a partnership with a major company that would incorporate the Dynamic Plaque into its building management dashboard.
Using a term coined by management consultant Clayton Christensen, Horst describes the LEED Dynamic Plaque as a disruptive technology, implying that it will shake up a marketplace that badly needs the shaking.
“One of the things I'm hearing is that this isn’t as robust as the recertification guidelines, but in fact what we’re seeing is that when people get into it, they have to make sure that things are working right,” says Horst. “They can’t just be in proximity to mass transit; they have to track carbon [emissions from people] coming to the building.” That’s where, in Horst’s view, even if the Dynamic Plaque automates some aspects of ongoing LEED certification, there will remain a need for LEED consultants and other professionals to help lagging buildings lift their performance, and pinpoint the strategies that truly deliver value to owners (for more on this, see my recent BuildingGreen article, Know Thy Client: 9 Un-Green Strategies for Delivering Better Buildings).
What do you think?
You’ve heard from me at LEEDuser on the LEED Dynamic Plaque providing background and paraphrasing Plaque debate in the LEED community, and you’ve heard from Scot Horst at USGBC. Time for you to weigh in on the LEED Dynamic Plaque: Do you have one? Do you want one? Do your clients want one? Will all of this ultimately clarify what LEED means to the broader market, or muddy the waters? Please post your comments below.
See my comment below for more on the partnership with Honeywell that I alluded to above. Also I saw Lauren Riggs today, who helped develop the Plaque at USGBC and is now with Google, and got her permission to state that they're her distinctive locks that are featured in the photo above. Nice to see you Lauren!
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