Contractormag 9828 Green Planning2

The future of green building ratings

Oct. 16, 2017
Contractors remain dedicated to saving water and addressing looming water scarcities, but rating systems? Not so much. When can we expect to see major contractor organizations take the lead?

Green building rating systems began 25 years ago with some folks in the U.K. saying, “there must be a way to build better buildings, that have fewer adverse environmental impacts than our current approach, but how will we know if we don’t keep score?”

Out of this core question evolved first the U.K.’s BREEAM assessment system, currently used in more than 50 countries and, second, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system, now used to some degree in about 150 countries. Within a few years, many other countries adopted similar schemes. The figure below shows the winding path taken by rating systems since then.

But LEED in the U.S. basically “hit the wall” about five years ago and is struggling just to maintain a constant number of projects using the system, averaging about 3,000 projects per year since 2012. This sounds like a lot, but when compared to the total square footage of nonresidential space in the U.S., it’s about 0.5 percent per year (by area). If, as many of us agree, cutting carbon emissions from the built environment is critical to getting a handle on global warming and climate change, affecting 0.5 percent of the building area each year isn’t going to cut it.

About a year ago, LEED introduced version 4 of the rating system, the first mandatory update in seven years. Let’s see how the market has received the new version of LEED, based on the first half of 2017.

LEED project registrations plummet

LEED project use in the U.S. continue to decline, across all rating systems, based on my analysis of the LEED Project Database (this is a public database which anyone can access, if you want to do a deep dive into the numbers), for June 30, 2017.  Overall new project registrations fell 75 percent in the first half of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016.

LEED Project Registrations are the best indications of the intent to pursue LEED certification in the future. While there was certainly a rush to register projects in 2016, so that they could be evaluated under LEED 2009, the old system that is no longer available, most of that rush happened in the second half of 2016, to meet an October 31st deadline.

So it’s more than fair to look at the results for U.S. projects from the first half of 2016 and compare them with 2017. Remember that both 2016 and 2017 have had booming construction economies, so the new construction numbers are especially telling.

Here are the 2017 numbers, compared with the first half of 2016:

What do these numbers tell us? The four major rating systems in the United States only are the choice of 806 out of tens of thousands of new construction projects launched in the U.S. in the first half of 2017 and only 181 out of 5.6 million existing buildings.

Here’s a point I have made repeatedly to USGBC and GBCI. When your products are being widely ignored by the marketplace, isn’t it time to start rethinking your product offerings? And your entire “go to market” approach? Instead, all we get is more promotion for a data display platform with the jaw-breaking name of ARC Skoru, which can’t possibly compare with the many far-more-useful smart building platforms already on the market.

In light of this market failure, what should future green building certification programs look like? What should be their characteristics? Two years ago, I spent six months researching this issue and published my recommendations in my last book, Reinventing Green Building: Why Certification Systems Aren’t Working and What We Can Do About It (New Society Publishers, 2016).

Here are a few thoughts from that book, a call to action to change the existing system. I’d love to see how you, the practical people of the world, respond to these ideas.

A call to action

We need new ways to rate buildings for their climate and environmental impacts. As the leading green building organization and largest rating system in the US as well as the largest in the world, the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED have a special responsibility to engage in self-criticism and continuous improvement, which they have never done, under past or present leadership.

We need new ways to rate buildings for their climate and environmental impacts.

These concerns are not new, but they have taken on more urgency after the mandatory switch over to LEEDv4 in October 2016. With most project teams content in knowing how to navigate through LEED 2009, despite its costs and complexities, LEEDv4 has always appeared to me to be “a bug looking for a windshield.” It introduced more prerequisites and a number of confusing approaches to evaluating materials use.

LEED is being surpassed by new approaches like the WELL building standard, Jones Lang LaSalle’s “Green + Productive Workplace,” the new Fitwel and other systems, but none of these have the market cachet of LEED and only WELL and the JLL approach have any real money behind them to break through the clutter and confusion over building “eco labels” that we now face.

That LEED is broken is not news; Randy Udall and Auden Schendler first raised the issue in 2005 with a provocative article, “LEED is Broken – Let’s Fix It.”[i] At the time, many LEED advocates, including me, dismissed issues raised by this article as simply reflecting growing pains for the LEED system. At the time, LEED was barely five years old and just getting started on the road to dominating the U.S. market for commercial green building rating systems.

But their five main objections — LEED is too costly, project teams are too focused on gaining points and not on results that matter, LEED’s energy modeling is fiendishly difficult, LEED’s bureaucracy is crippling, and LEED’s advocates continually produce overblown benefit claims—remain drawbacks today.

Most experienced green building professionals would also agree that these same issues remain relevant in 2017. But there is a larger problem: Green building rating systems have diverged greatly from building owners’ and operators’ core concerns, as these systems are designed to meet the needs of green idealists more than those of most market participants.

Green building advocates must abandon the approach they have taken for the past 25 years: comprehensive and overly technical criteria, multiple elaborate rating systems, large and cumbersome bureaucracies, high costs, and inadequate focus on real long-term building performance. Instead, they need to embrace the technological revolution in semiconductors that has cut costs for communications by factors of not ten, not one hundred, but a thousand or more in the past 15 years.

Moore’s Law, first enunciated in 1965, says that computing power doubles every 18 months; over time, unit costs for computing have fallen in a similar fashion.[ii] Consider this: Every six years, it’s 16 times cheaper (and faster) to do the same task, every nine years 64 times cheaper! (Every 15 years, it’s 16 x 64, or 1,024 times cheaper!) With the advent of mobile communications, social networks, the Internet of Things, big data analytics, cloud computing, and global information systems, why should green building still be governed by concepts, systems and procedures developed in the 1990s “Dark Ages” of Internet 1.0?

My book’s central thesis is that it’s time for a serious debate about LEED’s (and other systems’) inadequacies in addressing a few key issues: combatting global climate change, addressing looming water scarcities, and reducing resource waste.

The corollary is that it’s time for green building leaders to develop a new model for certifying project design, construction and operations, one that is:

Smart: technology-savvy and mobile-accessible
Simple: so anyone can understand green building standards without specialized training and certification
Sustainable: both in focusing on absolute performance as the best means for addressing climate change, and in accelerating building design and management’s movement onto cloud-based platforms.

We don’t need to abandon concerns about urban design, healthy buildings, or better building materials — but they belong in a separate rating system or systems. In my view, if we want the building industry’s full attention and engagement, future green building rating systems should focus ONLY on five Key Performance Indicators:

  • Energy use
  • Total carbon emissions
  • Water use
  • Waste minimization
  • Ecological purchasing

Until we build most new buildings and retrofit most existing buildings according to dramatically higher standards for energy, carbon, water, waste generation and recycling, then in my view all other considerations are window dressing.

After all, Nature doesn’t care how much we reduce annual carbon emissions from unsustainably high levels. Nature only cares about absolute levels of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere, about excessive water use that damages natural ecosystems and about waste that doesn’t get recycled into something else.

Over the next 30 to 35 years, the imperative will be to get all buildings to net zero carbon emissions, including embodied carbon in building materials for new buildings and renovations. That’s a tall order and will take enormous focus to accomplish.

When your products are being widely ignored by the marketplace, isn’t it time to start rethinking your product offerings?

It turns out that a good part of the solution is already staring us in the face: the technological revolution that has given us the mobile Internet, social media and Big Data analytics. With this revolution, we can start with the building owner’s and building user’s concerns and work our way back toward creating a rating system (or systems) that enhances the user’s experience.

How to proceed? Here’s an example in one word: Uber. I know that Uber has had its PR and political problems lately, but it’s the genie that’s already out of the lamp and ready to do our bidding.

Just five years after it started, Uber’s 2015 financing round valued it at $50 billion. What did Uber do to create that kind of value? It took on a 100-year-old urban transportation system — taxicabs and buses — and created an easy-to-use smartphone app that revolutionized it, in the process challenging and upending a highly regulated, low-user-satisfaction industry.[iii] No one likes taxis or buses, but if you land at any airport or stand on any street corner in any large city, taxis are usually the only curb-to-door service available.

What don’t we like about taxis? They’re not always available when and where you want them; they’re hard to get during rush hour, rainstorms and at dinnertime when drivers go home; they are often dirty and uncomfortable; they are prone to occasional customer rip-offs; and they may not even accept credit cards for payment. The taxi business’ main beneficiaries are taxicab owners (not customers or even drivers), owners who have always made sure that their political contributions are well directed.

Uber started with the idea that a ride-for-hire service could address these issues, utilize surplus labor and vehicles, enhance customer experiences and be profitable for all concerned — by using the phone we already carry in our pockets. Brilliant! I’ve used Uber’s smartphone app many times: I can track where the driver is at all times; I know I’m going to get a clean and comfortable car with a driver who knows the town; and I’ve already paid the fare and tip when I step into the vehicle. I used it in Paris about a year ago and was amazed at the low cost and fast response times. In contrast with using local taxis, I never worried about getting ripped off.

Uber is so disruptive that it has encountered stiff opposition from everyone profiting from the current system, including “progressive” politicians who are in hock to taxicab owners for campaign contributions, but it will succeed because it’s focused on creating a superb user experience. By one account, more than two million New York City residents have already downloaded the Uber app![iv]

Green building certification is ripe for the same disruptive treatment, but it’s supremely unlikely that established organizations can or will upend their current revenue models to provide a far more user-friendly approach. It’s time for new organizations and fresh thinking in green building. It’s time to leave behind the current monastic, hair-shirt experience of LEED certification and create a fabulous user experience. In my view, it’s time for Reinventing Green Building!

Contractors are in the driver’s seat when it comes to new buildings and major renovations. When can we expect to see major contractor organizations combine with building owners and developers to create a system that everyone will WANT to use?

Jerry Yudelson PE, MS, MBA, LEED AP, widely acknowledged as the godfather of green building, is the Principal of Yudelson Associates ( A speaker, consultant and author who has written more than 20 books, Yudelson co-wrote the seminal book, “The Green Building Revolution,” back in 2007 that brought green building to the forefront.

[i], accessed April 26, 2015.
[ii], accessed April 26, 2015.
[iii], accessed August 2, 2015.
[iv], accessed August 3, 2015.

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