It has been 20 years since the U.S. Green Building Council introduced its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. With the world facing a climate emergency, the evolving standards help new and existing buildings keep their carbon footprints low.
With thousands of scientists declaring the planet in a climate emergency last year, helping the environment has never been more relevant. One group at the forefront of reducing its industry’s environmental footprint is the U.S. Green Building Council, which this year marks 20 years since publicly introducing its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building standards.
As the planet faces new challenges, the LEED standards can help, said Melissa Baker, USGBC’s senior vice president of LEED technical core.
“From the beginning, climate change was an area of focus,” Baker said. “Buildings are one of the most significant contributors to climate change. When you think about the energy to power the buildings—the gas used to heat the building and the energy to access the buildings, with people driving to and from—buildings have a huge impact, which gives us tremendous opportunity.”
That opportunity to improve the world is what drove the formation of USGBC in 1993, with the group gathering the best minds to help create green building standards. USGBC created a LEED pilot in 1998 and launched it publicly two years later.
The original LEED standards began as a guidepost and evolved into the rating system USGBC uses today. While the original standards had new construction in mind, LEED now recognizes that improving the environmental impact of existing buildings is also essential.
“We have a rating system that is for new construction of buildings and then a rating system that is more focused on the operations of existing buildings,” Baker said. “Existing buildings is really the place for the most opportunity. Existing buildings are using a lot of energy, and even a small improvement would have a significant impact.”
Over the years, LEED has improved by focusing on environmental impact, rather than just ticking boxes for using certain materials. “We now say, ‘Show that you’ve used less energy,’” Baker said. “It’s moved to be more performance-based over time, with the goal of really allowing flexibility in the choices but proving that you’ve met those goals.”
Baker offered some real-world examples. “Sometimes it’s a matter of how you operate the building,” she said. “Could you give people individual task lights, so they don’t have to turn on the main light all the time? Could you have smart plugs that shut off when someone leaves their office? [These changes] can have a huge impact on the overall carbon footprint or other environmental impacts.”
And while LEED standards were initially focused on green buildings, USGBC now offers LEED certification for cities. Rating points are assigned for things like public parks and green spaces, walkability, and, of course green building policy and incentives.
Since LEED is regularly updated and vetted by experts, USGBC relies on its members to serve on technical committees and to approve new LEED standards. “You can’t have staff expertise in every little piece of what we touch,” Baker said. “We draw from the expertise of our membership, where people volunteer, helping us be connected to the cutting-edge part of what’s happening in the world.”