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USGBC: Restore Confidence in v4 in Four Simple Steps

USGBC claims that the LEED 2009 extension wasn’t intended to delay market adoption of LEED v4; giving users a risk-free way to try v4 can make that work.
Nadav Malin
November 18, 2014

Image: USGBC

When USGBC announced in late October 2014 (see LEED 2009 Registration Extended to October 2016) that LEED version 2009 would continue to be available for an additional 16 months—to October 2016—on top of its already unprecedented 15-month phase-out period, I was not a happy camper.

Okay, I can see what USGBC was going for: LEED v4 can push the envelope all it likes, but if it leaves the market behind it won’t have much impact anyway. By slowing down the transition USGBC is trying to bring more of the building industry along, believing that small changes on a massive scale will ultimately have more impact than big changes adopted by a select few.

The Message Matters

The announcement, however, was unfortunate. It focused on the idea that the market “isn’t ready” for LEED v4, which hardly sounds like a leadership position. If we wait until the market is ready, what are we transforming?

The press release also cited an informal poll administered at the LEED Certification Work Zone during Greenbuild, in which 61% of respondents said that they were either “not ready” or “unsure” if they are ready. To me, that result looks like a green light to charge ahead with v4: 39% say they are ready, and we still have eight months to the deadline!

USGBC also cited the slow market adoption of v4 as an indication that eliminating v2009 would be premature. The comparison offered—that there are fewer than 400 v4 registered projects one year after its launch, compared with 5,000 v2009 projects at that point in its cycle—is clearly spurious, however. For most of its first year v2009 was the only option; the prior version was phased out after the first four months.

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Finally, while the announcement had a big focus on keeping international users happy, there has been no mention of what specific aspects of v4 are causing international users heartburn. I would think those users would be happy about the forthcoming Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish translations of LEED, and the increased support for certification coming from USGBC’s Bureau Veritas partnership (see Onsite Verification Part of LEED’s Global Vision).

Behind on energy

In the U.S., Canada, and most of Europe LEED 2009 is yesterday’s news, and no longer feels like a leadership standard. Much of its content, in fact, is straight out of LEED 2.0, which was introduced in 2000. Chasing recycled content in building materials was never much fun, but now we know that there are better ways to find preferable products.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the level of energy efficiency that earns several points in LEED 2009 won’t even meet energy code in some states, where the energy benchmark has shifted from the 2007 version of ASHRAE Standard 90.1—the version on which LEED 2009 is based—to the 2010 version and soon to the 2013 version. With the newly announced extension many projects will still be achieving LEED 2009 certification in 2020, by which time Standard 90.1 will have evolved through three more cycles.

Given the excitement in the U.S. market about net-zero energy buildings—at least for certain building types—LEED’s energy efficiency metric is far from a leadership stance.

Is v4 really harder?

One irony in this whole debate is that v4 includes many improvements that actually make it easier to use than LEED 2009. Early adopters of LEED v4 with whom I’ve talked, from Texas to Eastern Europe, are finding many things that work better in v4. Even some of the new materials credits are turning out to be quite doable, and easier to manage, than the old ones, now that environmental and health product declarations are showing up in droves.

That, coupled with a greatly improved LEED Online platform, make for a better user experience, and it’s a shame so many LEED projects won’t enjoy those improvements.

LEED 2009 Extension, or v4 Delay?

USGBC staff argue that they’re not delaying the implementation of v4: it’s still available to those who choose to use it. They’re just keeping v2009 available for those who aren’t ready. The problem with that argument is that most owners want predictable results and the highest certification level they can achieve—differences between versions are lost on the marketing teams that want to leverage the LEED brand to lease up more quickly. Until v4 becomes mandatory, v2009 will be the path of least resistance to a LEED Gold plaque… or will it?

Restore the Power of v4 in Four Simple Steps

There is another shoe that has yet to drop in this saga, and that’s the matter of incentives that USGBC can introduce to nudge more projects in the direction of v4.

Here are four steps USGBC can take now that would go a long way towards rectifying the situation, without losing (much of) that important international market:

  1. Update the energy benchmark in LEED 2009 to v4 levels. There is precedent for raising the bar on energy between versions, as USGBC did when it mandated a minimum of two energy points in 2007 in response to concerns that LEED was falling behind energy codes prior to the launch of 2009.
  2. Eliminate both registration and certification fees for anyone who signs up for v4 now, and reinstate those fees incrementally between now and October 2016. Restoring 15% of the fee each quarter will give a lot of “act now to save!” marketing opportunities. If reduced revenue is a concern, add a premium to the v2009 fees to make up the difference.
  3. Encourage people to give v4 a try and stand behind its promise by allowing anyone who registers for v4 now to “downgrade” at any time to v2009 if they’re not happy with the v4 experience (while paying the difference in fees, of course).
  4. USGBC claims that market leaders will want to differentiate themselves by going with v4, but hasn’t offered any support for that differentiation. Celebrate those leaders: how about a prominent “newsfeed” on the home page featuring every v4 certification as it crosses the finish line, with kudos to the owners and project teams?

The lengthy LEED 2009 extension and the poorly considered communication about the change have left many with the impression that USGBC has gotten cold feet and is backing off from v4 entirely. It will take bold incentives like these—and ongoing robust support for the v4 rating systems—to prove that USGBC still stands behind v4 and is committed to market transformation.

What do you think? What other items would you put on this list?


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December 18, 2014 - 3:39 pm

Nadav, as usual, a well-thought out article making excellent points. My frustration is that this "waffling" sends a bad message to the ultimate users of the LEED program, who are the building owners and managers (our clients). These folks are looking for long-term stability and predictability in codes, laws, regulations, and yes, LEED. Much like the government enacting legislation that creates a budget for 3 months, only to need to do it again in another 3 months, putting the LEED program out there and then saying essentially "never mind" does not create stability and predictability. If our clients' job is to manage and minimize risk, this change is not helping them to do that.

November 25, 2014 - 1:26 pm

I echo your feelings Nadav. The sudden unilateral move based on an informal survey (and surely other informal data sources) was a big shocker for us. I think I'm surprised that they pushed it back so far. When California Title 24 compliance was postponed, it was only pushed back 6 months and the industry rose to the occasion. I think if the materials credit concerns were that great then they could have found an interim solution to that credit category alone without delaying the whole program.

LEED V3 (I much prefer this nomenclature to 2009) has quickly become the status quo (well almost, there are always laggards) which is great but it's certainly time to raise the bar. It was supposed to be LEED 2012 and now it's going to be LEED 2016! LEED V4 includes welcome changes on water and integrative process, energy metering, energy efficiency and IEQ among other categories that are long overdue. I agree that at a minimum the standard should move EAp2/c1 baselines to 90.1-2010 for V3 (or raise the minimum percent improvement if that's too big of a legal headache).

November 25, 2014 - 10:31 am

Dear LEED Users,

One of the things I’ve discovered since co-founding USGBC 21 years ago is that it would have been a lot easier if we had aimed for either end of Rogers’ bell curve of adoption, instead of trying to occupy the big middle. I’ve been reminded of that yet again as a few of the innovators and early adopters in our movement have voiced disapproval of the extension of the registration deadline for LEED 2009, while others in the community have breathed a sigh of relief that they had a little more time. Let’s be clear: I’m grateful that we have what is by every measure a new version of LEED that resets the bar, and we’ve got 450 projects that have signed on to lead the charge.

Clearly some of our deep green innovators were ready to make “the giant leap for mankind,” and I’m proud of the fact that we got something of substance into the market for them to use so they could model the behavior the rest of the market will eventually embrace. That’s how it works – leaders have to get out there, take some risks, help work out the kinks, and in general pave the way for the biggest slice of the market, that bulge at the top of the bell curve that is usually referred to as the early majority or late majority. And make no mistake, this top slice of the bell curve is where market transformation really happens.

But I absolutely have no regrets that we decided to extend LEED 2009’s availability. Especially in the international market, to pull the plug on this version of the rating system, just as its getting real uptake, would bring to a screeching halt all the market transformation work we’ve done to date. And that’s something the planet can’t afford. But at the same time we didn’t pull LEED v4 from the market for another day. We said, “If you’re ready, GO FOR IT.” And if you want to stick with v2009 but you also want to put your toe in the v4 water, we have a way for you to do that, too.

The LEED Steering Committee has approved a series of v4 credits that you can use on a LEED 2009 project, and they are working on more. It is just one way that we are overlapping the systems to allow for a better transition from one system to the next. Another thing LSC is looking at is re-balloting and updating referenced energy standards in LEED 2009, including ASHRAE 90.1. This allows us to faithfully follow our process, and there is precedent to updating standards such as we did with LEED for Homes. And if you need any help at all in trying out these new credits, we have people-- really smart, really talented people who can serve as your LEED Coach, be your proven providers, provide you with outstanding technical customer service, and even offer you their perspective as a GBCI reviewer. There’s no shortage of folks who can help, and no shortage of resources you can use, from webinars and videos to presentations you can use with your clients.

Another thing we should all be excited about is LEED v4 for Existing Buildings. What a great way to insure your project’s ongoing performance. It’s far better and stronger than v2009, and it’s tied directly into the new LEED Dynamic Plaque, a game-changing tool that complements LEED by measuring a building's ongoing performance in five categories: Energy, Water, Waste, Transportation and Human Experience. While LEED offers green building strategies in the form of credits, the LEED Dynamic Plaque continuously measures the outcomes of those strategies and delivers a comprehensive performance score. This can be used to benchmark buildings against their historical performance or against other green buildings across the world.

Something else of significant note is our new Supply Chain Optimization Working Group. By broadening industry engagement, we have raised the profile of materials in our work. This group will elevate the conversation -- significantly so in the international market -- and provide the appropriate platform to educate people and help them understand the nuances of the optional Materials and Resources credits and their implementation. Our partner industries are excited, and hundreds of EPDs are already being pushed in the marketplace.

And while one thing we have in abundance is the desire to put everyone in a green building within this generation, we also have programs that make that aspiration actionable. Ultimately we want at least one LEED building in every country on earth, so last year we launched the LEED Earth campaign – because there were still 100 or so countries where there wasn’t a LEED building. Since then we’ve reduced that number of countries by 15, and we’re still going, in part I think because we’ve offered free certification to the first LEED project in every country. I like this idea a lot because few things are more motivating than knowing something is possible.

To that end, I want to let everyone know that we’ll give free certification to the first LEEDv4 Platinum projects that complete certification in each of the rating systems of new construction, existing buildings and core and shell, no matter where in the world they are. In addition to this we are doing a few other things: We’re removing cost to upgrade. If you are currently registered in LEED 2009, and you want to upgrade to LEED v4, we’ll waive the $100 upgrade fee. We’re providing greater visibility for leaders. Even while we were in beta, we were shining the spotlight on LEED v4 projects, and this will continue as we recognize projects not just on USGBC.org, but in various trade publications and partner websites. All LEED v4 project teams will receive a specialized press kit that can help them share their experiences and stories. We’re harnessing the info power of LEED Online. When you enter LEED Online to register a project, there will be educational videos that you will view before deciding which rating system to use. These will address potential concerns by project type (e.g. cost, prerequisite requirements, and materials), highlight LEED v4 resources such as the LEED Coach and free call with reviewers, and outline credit substitution options from LEED v4 to LEED 2009. We’re linking LEED v4 to usgbc.org. The USGBC.org website will soon link directly to the LEED v4 website.

The USGBC.org and LEED v4 websites highlight existing resources and tools available to LEED v4 project teams, including:

  • LEED v4 User’s Guide.
  • LEED v4 substitutions in LEED 2009 projects.
  • Translations in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic, and Chinese of LEED v4 reference guides and accreditation exams.
  • LEED v4 web-based reference guide modules.

We’re introducing LEED v4 road trips. Coming in 2015 will be half-day, town hall style sessions, presented in conjunction with USGBC chapters. In advance of each event, attendees will have the opportunity to submit questions they would like to have addressed during the session. Attendees will fill out surveys both before and after the events that will provide USGBC with a more concrete picture of the market climate.

Ancillary to the rating systems is the support structure that surrounds them. From Education @usgbc to our recent Greenbuild in New Orleans and our already-in-the-works Monumental Green in Washington, D.C. in 2015, we look to advance high performance building every way we can. Informa, who just agreed to purchase the Hanley Wood unit that now owns Greenbuild, will help us put much stronger weight against our international Greenbuild plans and give us much deeper influence in areas where buildings intersect with the nearly 300 industries they represent across their 277 global events.

At the end of the day, market transformation is the singular goal, and real leadership is in the art form of getting as many people to the majority as possible. That means enabling the innovators and early adopters, but it also means encouraging those in the early and late majority to make the leap. USGBC has, and always will, work to do both. It won’t be fast enough for some, and it will be too fast for others, but it’s in the majority middle that real success will be found.


November 25, 2014 - 2:51 pm

Nadav, I agree...now where do I send the invoice for the first TWO LEED EB Version 4 Platinums????? Both my clients would like to see their money back as they are THE market leaders.

November 25, 2014 - 2:05 pm

Thank you, Rick--I really appreciate this comprehensive approach to keeping the momentum moving with LEED v4. And the idea of free certification for the first v4 Platinum projects should get some people fired up!

November 24, 2014 - 10:03 pm

With all the delay now built in to go LEED v4 it will be a large time lag until LEED v4 is really the standard. To bad the USGBC retreated until Oct 2016 they should have done what Cortez did, he gave only one choice, to follow him?

February 1519: Cortés scuttled his own fleet off the coast of Veracruz in order to eliminate the possibility of retreat.

November 21, 2014 - 1:44 am

Nadav, I agree with all your ideas. Plus the option of reversing their decision to extend. It will still be challenging to convince clients to move to LEEDv4 if they are just doing LEED because its a requirement. The material credits are optional anyway so I was surprised that the material product availability was one of the big reasons for the extension You can just avoid those credits until there are more materials available in the marketplace that meet EPDs and HPDs.

November 20, 2014 - 9:48 am

Great job of summarizing the situation and wonderful ideas Nadav.

My take is that the primary rationale for the delay is due to international uptake of LEED. It is the growth area for the USGBC and there are legitimate concerns that v4 would be getting too far ahead of some of these markets.

Green building markets throughout the world are obviously not the same. Trying to create a single system that creates market transformation in every market is folly. In doing so you inevitably end up with a significant compromise. The single system can't be too far ahead of the markets that are the furthest behind. So the single system ends up being at or in some cases behind the markets that are the farthest ahead. That seems to be where we are now. v4 is too far ahead of the markets that are the farthest behind and LEED 2009 is falling behind the markets that are the farthest ahead.

When you think about a global LEED it makes sense to have two systems running in parallel. One that addresses transformation in more advanced markets and one that creates appropriate transformation in less advanced markets. What does not make sense is to curtail the transformation that is needed in the more advanced markets so that the less advanced markets can catch up.

I think that the easy solution would have been to stick to the original date for the transition to v4 in the US, Canada and much of Europe and extend 2009 for the rest of the world. This enables market transformation more appropriate to the local situation.

November 20, 2014 - 9:42 am

I am still figuring out if I feel disappointed or relieved by the announcement- or both. I have been campaigning for the change to v4 for almost a year, and now I see that this effort has virtually been postponed. But I reckon that it was a wise move from the international perspective. I have participated in projects in three different Latin American countries, one in United Arab Emirates and one in France. In several locations, we still have to explain what an energy model is, dual-flush is a novelty, let alone rainwater harvesting, and we struggle to reconcile both ASHRAE's 90.1 & 62.1 with local legislation. So when the question about market transformation is posed, we should be aware that market has a very wide range of maturity among different countries. In that aspect, I feel the USGBC decision was right, and will help adopt v4 in the long term.

November 20, 2014 - 9:53 am

Why can't we do both? Continue to transform the markets that are more mature and continue to transform the markets that are less mature. Extend 2009 for most international projects but keep the original v4 date for the US and Canada (and maybe parts of Europe?).

November 19, 2014 - 4:08 pm

Completely agree with your assessment, Nadav!

Also, at this time, I think promoting v4 should be prioritized over the promotion of the LDP. While product development is great and all, it's fragmenting the push on LEED v4.

November 19, 2014 - 2:13 pm

Thanks Nadav for infusing some positive energy with concrete incentives in an attempt to recover from the fallout of the v4 delay.

I would like to add manufacturers as significant stakeholders to your 'Celebrate your Leaders' incentive #4. Several of the new v4 Material credits are entirely dependent upon product manufacturers taking the plunge financially and their willingness to step into a new level of transparency. Those leaders have been left feeling rather abandoned and could use some acknowledgement in an effort to regain confidence.

November 19, 2014 - 11:40 am

I was surprised as well with the announcment. The LEED V3 projects we are doing are way to easy and it is time for some more challenging targets specifically for the energy. LEEDV3 is using ASHRAE 2007 references ... that was 8 years ago and ASHRAE 2013 is out now. So I like the idea to use the V4 credit for energy. Or build in some incentive to do so. I Provide online training which is of course V4. I have lots of students now preparing for the LEED AP V4 exam wondering how they are going to deal with V3, something they have never studied... Also, maybe there could be an incentive related to the amoung of V4 credits you include in a V3 project.

November 19, 2014 - 11:34 am

Typically LEED Online is not really "client-ready" until about version 3 of the forms. (The reality is that some v2009 LEED Online forms are in version 6 right now because the first 5 versions had issues.) It is difficult to encourage a client to take a bold step towards being more sustainable when the tools are not in good shape yet.

The extra time will give USGBC/GBCI a chance to get tools (and the reference guide) into good shape for when they have a higher volume of submissions through the program in 2016.

I'm not sure if it's actually the industry holding up the process - although they are the obvious easy scapegoat. :) Putting out an updated version of LEED at the scale the USGBC does it is no tiny feat - so it makes sense things are more delayed on their end than they anticipated. Best of luck to all working on it!

November 19, 2014 - 11:33 am

I was frankly stunned at the announcement that this would be pushed off based on market feedback. As the communication connection for a state authority that handles on average 6 billion plus dollars in construction at any given time, I would have figured I would have heard about concerns. Government work is certainly risk averse, but we have been working to learn and get up to speed with LEEDv4. I can say we are not ready yet, but we are prepping, and plan to be ready!

In addition, our Chapter focused on educating our state about LEEDv4, and we've built some momentum in doing this. The message has been that the USGBC is proud of being just ahead of the market, to ensure we continue our imperative forward momentum. We've also continually stated that the tools are improving, and v4 is very usable. Speaking for the Chapter, I suggest USGBC's pulling back on full launch has undermined our leadership.

I respect your suggestions, Nadav. You don't launch a change and then back off when people say "really, wow, I'm not ready". No one is ever ready for change without being pushed a bit, or supported a lot. That's fact for everything from driving laws to the shape of a keyboard to LEED rating systems!

You should find the tools to entice, inspire and properly educate about the possibilities. Let's do that. USGBC, how can we help launch v4 well???

November 19, 2014 - 11:31 am

Yes, Nadav! yes. although, the incentives you linked to in your comment here are… well.. meh…

But, love your four ideas! Let's go!

November 19, 2014 - 9:49 am

USGBC just posted a story with some incentives for going to v4. Good start, but I hope that there is more in the pipeline! 

Also, just wanted to capture here the announcement elsewhere on LEEDuser that the sunset date for v2009 rating systems will NOT change with the extension. So the last day projects registered under v2009 can submit for certification remains June 30, 2021. That should also help move more projects into the v4 sphere.

November 18, 2014 - 12:00 pm

Nadav, you nailed it here. Four great ideas. Now let's make it happen.

November 19, 2014 - 4:23 pm

Nadav, great summary of what a lot of people are thinking and saying. And, constructive suggestions. I would like to add a suggestion - good education programs are needed to help people with the transition and to "get ready." This includes overviews of the changes from LEED 2009 to v4 and specific tutorials on individual credits. And, everything in between.