Skanska USA’s Beth Heider knows green. As the 2012 chair of the U.S. Green Building Council and our senior vice president of green markets, Heider not only is one of the nation’s foremost green thinkers, but she knows how to translate LEED into smart business solutions.
In the midst of her preparations for Greenbuild 2013 this week in Philadelphia, we talked with Heider about LEED v4, a major and somewhat controversial update to this green building rating system. LEED v4 is being released at Greenbuild.
What excites you most about LEED v4?
So many things – where do I begin?
It’s important that LEED v4 is memorializing – through a new credit – the practice of integrating design and construction. I’m an architect by training, and I think the architecture and engineering communities have always sort of gotten this, as well as more enlightened builders like Skanska. Now with this credit, building teams have another reason to bring everybody to the table early on in the project. Doing this makes much more elegant solutions possible. I’ve always sensed that if you bring people together – either in-person or virtually – you can come up with solutions that are much greater than the sum of the participants.
The new building enclosure commissioning credit will bring to envelopes the same sort of rigor that is now applied in whole building commissioning. This will help ensure good design and construction, which is critical to building enclosures – water infiltration is the worst thing that can happen to a building. I love the notion that the U.S. Green Building Council is pulling the industry forward with this type of commissioning.
The new demand-response credit begins to connect buildings to the utility grid. This credit requires that buildings have controls to reduce energy costs by giving the utility the ability to curtail power in real time during peak-demand periods. This underscores that if you build a smart building, you’re going to be in a better position to avoid future risk. As a personal example, I just bought a new car to replace what I’ve been driving for the last 12 years (I like holding on to my cars!) The electronics in my new car are light years ahead of my old car. Buildings last much longer than an automotive life cycle, so the facility decisions we’re making now will sometimes last for generations.
The optional new whole-building lifecycle assessment credit begins to take a look at not only the use of energy and resources required to construct the building, but the long-term impact from the decisions we make today. The whole notion of life cycles has us looking at impacts we have traditionally externalized, such as the impact of carbon emissions on human health and on the environment.
Also, while LEED 2009 weighted points to encourage projects to do less harm, LEED v4 is aspirational in weighting and developing credits to encourage projects to do more good. This will help the building industry be both sustainable and restorative.
LEED v4’s focus on product transparency and outcomes has received much attention – what is your take on this?
This is a real sea change. These credits are asking project teams to assess their material selections and how those choices can impact human health. Optimizing material selections really is a necessary complement to raising the bar on energy performance and making sure that your exterior enclosure is tight. Because if you create a really tight, energy-efficient building and fill it full of noxious materials, you’ve created the perfect gas chamber. We need to understand materials so we can make better selections, and we need to challenge manufacturers as to what they use in making those materials. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. We don’t want to be creating the asbestos problem of the future.
Focusing on what goes into our buildings should help spur innovation and creativity. This is what happened when LEED first required low-VOC paints and adhesives: that helped change the market. Now, you can’t find a responsible paint manufacturer that doesn’t have a line of no- or low-VOC paints, and those paints are no more expensive than alternatives.
Suggested by students at the Bertschi School in Seattle (the West Coast’s first certified Living Building), a glass-covered interior runnel transports rainwater from the roof to a cistern, where it’s held until needed for exterior irrigation. The runnel, shown above in the foreground, is just one aspect of the building that helps educate students about sustainability.
Measuring, metering and performance are important aspects of this latest LEED system – what does this mean for building owners?
Together, these raise the bar on energy performance and water performance. LEED v4 focuses much more on building performance – not just what you say you’re going to do, but also to encourage the infrastructure to allow the building owner to deliver once he or she has the keys.
At Greenbuild this week, USGBC will be rolling out a new LEED dynamic plaque. This is a building dashboard that provides real-time feedback at a relatively high level as to how the facility is performing in five areas: water, energy, waste (recycling), transportation (how people get to work) and human experience (such as with air quality). The metrics will allow owners to compare not only their own performance year-over-year – to drive excellence in operations and maintenance – but also to compare across a portfolio of similar properties. This should drive competition for the best-performing buildings, and owners will begin to understand what defines good performance across a subset of assets.
Ultimately, there are three things that drive energy and water consumption: 1) how the building is designed; 2) how the building is operated and maintained; and 3) how occupants behave within the building. Behavior can be the most challenging piece. If you have a Prius building, operating it like a Maserati isn’t going to result in high energy efficiency.
At the Bertschi School Science Classroom greywater from sinks is used to irrigate a green wall, enabling all greywater to be treated inside the building. The plants provide an additional benefit – they help purify the indoor air.
Is the market ready for LEED v4?
USGBC is committed to constant improvement – that’s the whole notion of leading the market. What happens is that LEED raises the ceiling on green buildings, and then when building code officials decide the market is mature enough, they raise the floor by adopting elements of LEED into the codes. This is a really nice sort of pattern that continually raises the green bar.
LEED v4 was originally going to be released in 2012. But last year, USGBC – when I was chair – realized through discussions with stakeholders that those groups didn’t feel the market was ready for as much change as LEED v4 contains. Part of the reason was the building market was – and still is – somewhat soft. So USGBC decided to beta test Version 4 for a full year before introducing it at Greenbuild 2013. And USGBC is also allowing users to choose either LEED 2009 or LEED v4 until 2015, when LEED 2009 will be phased out.
This is the first time USGBC has had as long a beta test as this, and the first time two different LEED versions will overlap. They did this to continue leading the market, without losing the market – which USGBC thought was a possibility if we pushed too hard.
Why has there been so much controversy over LEED v4?
Every version of LEED has had a certain amount of controversy when it was released. But all of the versions of LEED leading up to Version 4 have contained relatively modest improvements. Here, with this latest version, USGBC is making more aggressive changes. LEED v4 is asking the market to do things that are a little bit demanding, and to identify optional credits with which the market isn’t familiar.
Two LEED opponents were very vocal with their objections. The timber industry made much noise because Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)-certified wood isn’t recognized by LEED, unlike Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-labeled wood. And then there was the chemical industry – in league with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – leading an initiative to effectively ban the future use of LEED in federal buildings through an amendment to the Shaheen-Portman Energy Efficiency Bill. That was because the chemical lobby felt the material transparency requirements might result in fewer chemicals used in buildings, thus dampening chemical sales. When the chemical industry maneuvering was brought to the attention of Mike McNally (Skanska USA’s president and CEO), I’m proud that he strongly came out against it. But both the chemical and timber industries were making so much noise over only a handful of potential credits.
What priority should be given to conservation vs. renewable energy?
Everything I know about green building points to this: When you’re looking to build higher and higher performing buildings, you really need to eat your conservation vegetables before you get to your photovoltaic or other cookies. You want to make sure your building is as tight as possible and is designed in a way that reduces the heating and cooling loads before you start making up the difference by more expensive solutions, such as adding photovoltaic panels. That’s even more true if you’re heading up the LEED mountain, if you will, to get to Platinum.