Last week, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) released LEED 2009, the latest version of its LEED green building rating system for commercial and institutional buildings. LEED 2009 is one of the major components of LEED v3, which offers improvements to the overall system and also includes a smarter, easier-to-use online tool for managing the registration and certification process as well as a new building certification model administered by the Green Building Certification Institute.

LEED 2009 (which does not affect LEED for Home and LEED for Neighborhood Development) offers several noteworthy enhancements for multifamily developers:

  • Harmonization: Credits and prerequisites for the commercial and institutional rating systems have been consolidated and aligned for consistency purposes. Additionally, the reference guides have been consolidated into three books that address buildings by type and phase: Green Building Design & Construction for rating systems that address new buildings; Green Interior Design & Construction for systems that address interior spaces; and Green Building Operations & Maintenance for systems that address the operations and maintenance of existing buildings.

  • Credit Weightings: Credits now have different weightings depending on their ability to impact different environmental and human health concerns. For instance, installing a bike rack no longer gives you the same number of credits as installing solar panels.

  • Regional Credits: The addition of bonus regional credits to encourage developers to address specific local environmental priorities in the design, construction, and operations of buildings. A project can be awarded as many as four extra points, one point each for achieving up to four of the six regional priority points.

Of these updates, current users of the LEED system are especially pleased to see the addition of regional credits, according to a USGBC poll. “Users have always asked for credits or some way to address regional issues specifically,” says Ashley Katz, USGBC’s communications manager. “We’ve always wanted to incorporate regional aspects into LEED, and this is our first step in that direction.”
The reweighting of credits is another hot ticket item. Scott Lewis, CEO of Brightworks, a Portland, Ore.-based sustainability consulting firm, says this is the most significant and noteworthy change for LEED 2009. “The credit weighting is based on EPA TRACI calculations and gives more weight to energy efficiency, renewables, and site selection.”

The updated rating system, however, isn’t perfect, users say. “The changes made are great systematic improvements to the certification process and the framework. However, they make little progress in the evolution of the standard,” Lewis says. “The system is more sophisticated in how it allocates points to projects based on local factors and the relative weight of their accomplishments, but the thresholds for certification are no harder, and many of the lessons from the current version have been neglected.”

For instance, under LEED 2009, the system of Credit Interpretation Requests (formal rulings where project teams can ask USGBC if a project can get credit for a specific strategy) has been revamped. Under the previous system, the rulings were published for public review and apply to all subsequent projects.  Under the new system, however, rulings are not published and only apply to the project in question. “In other words, they no longer serve as precedent for future projects,” Lewis explains. “This diminishes the predictability for project teams of whether they can get credit for a specific strategy, even if they got credit for it on the previous project. This is utterly irrational.”

Tom Paladino, president of Seattle-based green consulting firm Paladino and Co., has a couple suggestions as well, though he prefaces his comments by saying that the enhancements made are generally positive, aimed at correcting or improving discrete issues. For his part, Paladino suggests creating a much larger gap between the Gold and Platinum certification levels—or to establish a certification level that goes beyond Platinum.

“As the market takes up LEED, the nature of the industry is to buy up or marginally improve through evolutionary improvement,” he says. “That is a good thing for the bulge of the bell curve, but it leaves behind the pointy end—the innovators who are operating at the top end of a linear grading curve.  If the ‘Super Platinum’ level required a super leap forward in design and technology, the rating system as a whole could accommodate all comers and reward effort and results commensurately.”