LEED v4: What Were They Thinking?

LEED® version 4 has finally emerged from the lab, and into the real world for field testing. As a LEEDUser Expert I’m seeing an increasing number of questions that I characterize as “What were they thinking?” As a member of the development team starting in 2009, and former Chair of the USGBC Indoor Environmental Quality Technical Advisory Group (EQ TAG), I’d like to offer my insight.

At the root of the answer is the 16 page document “LEED v4, Impact Category and Point Allocation Development Process” http://bit.ly/2j4ZWBz I don’t see a date in the document, but I downloaded to my computer on 11/16/2013. Citations below are from that document.

In order to both increase the rigor of LEED, and to more closely align it with triple bottom line impacts, USGBC defined 7 impact categories and weighted them according to the “critical question: ‘What should a LEED project accomplish?’”

Once the 7 categories were weighted, USGBC devised a computer algorithm to statistically analyze the effectiveness of each credit against these criteria. Besides the obvious concern about putting a machine in charge of a systems thinking process, it presented a chicken and egg situation, since credits were not yet written and approved. It required an iterative process and some rules.

What would remain unchanged from LEED 2009 (version 3) was:

  1. 100 base credit points
  2. Thresholds for certification levels
  3. Inclusion of both of prerequisites and credits

In addition to maintaining the v3 rating system structure, credits had to be 1 point minimum, and had to round to whole numbers.

Every TAG had a wish list of credits. I am biased, but I believe the Indoor Environmental Quality category is unique in that it covers a range of issues with a requisite range of technical expertise: mechanical engineering, acoustics, lighting, industrial hygiene/public health, and psychology. So, we had a long wish list. I don’t remember how iterative the process was, but I do remember that we had a finite number of points assigned to us in which to allocate the EQ credits. There simply weren’t enough points to effectively cover all the issues we felt were important. We tried unsuccessfully to shift some credit to prerequisites, and suggested eliminating the point for LEED Accredited Professional and reassigning it to EQ (which I still contend is the right thing to do).

Our TAG also wanted to expand the focus from Indoor Environmental Quality to simply Environmental Quality, because the quality of the environment is not bounded by the walls of a building. Some of these ideas remained under the purview of other LEED categories, like outdoor lighting quality, and some did end up in other rating systems. For example Low Emitting Materials in LEED for Healthcare and LEED for Schools considers VOCs outside the building; and Occupant Comfort Surveys are part of Existing Buildings Operation + Maintenance, though not as the prerequisite we hoped for.

There was no way that this lengthy consensus process that included 6 public comment periods, a Technical Committee, a Market Advisory Committee, a board Steering Committee, and a computer algorithm, was going to perfectly align with the goals it set out to achieve. Case in point, LEED v4 was originally slated to be named LEED 2012, and after approval, the launch was pushed back an additional year to November 1, 2016.

So when someone asks if a particular point allocation, or more rigorous reference standard is meant to disincentivize a particular strategy or entry into LEED as whole, I can resoundingly say “no.” However, LEED v4 is intended to reduce gimme points, better align with people-planet-and profit, and up the ante on the value of LEED certification.

I like to think of v4 as a beginning and not an end, and that premise is consistent with LEED development since its inception. From the USGBC development process report, “significant consideration went into the development of each impact category, and they will continue to evolve as we learn how the impact categories drive the rating system priorities.” In short, the proof is in the proverbial pudding, so please get in the kitchen and start breaking some eggs.

-Michelle Halle Stern, AIA, PE, LEED Fellow, is the President and Chief Co-Creator at The Green Facilitator, Inc.www.thegreenfacilitator.com, a strategic planning and green building consulting practice, where she specializes in designing and facilitating engaging workshops, meetings, and discussions, that spark creativity and collaboratively move groups to inspiring, shared solutions.

Ooh That Smell! Low-Emitting Materials


You can smell that smell. The smell of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) surrounds you: your new car, a brand-new marker, a recent carpet installation, a fresh paint job. That smell is increasingly less noticeable thanks to regulations and standards like the LEED® Green Building Rating System.

When I taught the old 8-hour LEED Technical Review workshops, I used the Low-Emitting Materials credits to demonstrate the low-hanging fruit of green design. These were the gimme credits. Product manufacturers didn’t want to make paints and adhesives just to meet California standards, and another set of products for the rest of the world. The referenced standard for carpet was written by that industry’s trade association. No-added urea-formaldehyde in composite wood was the only real challenge presented by the suite of credits.

Not so any longer. Now it’s complex if not complicated.

In developing LEED Version 4, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) Environmental Quality Technical Advisory Group (EQ TAG) wanted to get the most health value out of the limited number of points we had to work with. We arguably had the toughest credit category, covering a broad range of topics including pollutants, ventilation, and occupant experience. But the algorithm that determined the total number of points for the EQ category didn’t give us enough points to be as comprehensive as we would have liked. I really wanted to commandeer the point for having a LEED AP on your project, but it was not to be. We had to be efficient. Counting grams per liter of VOCs wasn’t’ going to cut it anymore. Those content standards were written to address ambient air quality and smog production. Occupant health effects stemmed from what people were actually exposed to – the emissions.

The sub-committee assigned to this credit was comprised of scientists, manufacturers, and one lonely practitioner, who happened to also be an industrial hygienist: me. Our charge was to strike a balance between rigor and practicality.

For rigor, there were two major tenets. One: base compliance on emissions of the entire assembly. Two: use independent third party referenced standards. This commitment would up the game for manufacturers, testing organizations, and practitioners because everyone liked the “show-me-the-list” simplicity of the LEED-2009.

For manufacturers there is a learning curve to understand not only what type of testing to do, but what information to provide to practitioners. Of the early manufacture tech sheets I saw, none of them disclosed the total VOC range (TVOC) as required in the credit language. It’s part of the test, but not compliance. The point of the requirement is to increase transparency for practitioners so they could make better design decisions.

To level the playing, field third party certification organizations now had to adopt the referenced standard rather than using their proprietary test methods. As you can imagine there was some resistance. The 3rd party certification table includes the organizations that agreed to make those changes. Hopefully that list will grow.

As for practitioners, the sticking point is the matrix of thresholds, standards, and calculations. How much compliance is enough? The current credit calculations are a result of many conversations around the balance between rigor and practicality. They appear more daunting than they are. It could have been much worse; an early iteration of the credit calculated compliance in terms of 1/32 of a point – certainly overly granular for an allocation of 3 total possible points. The current budget calculation is basically a simple average to be referenced against a set threshold. Fortunately the Low-Emitting Materials Calculator provided by USGBC goes a long ways towards easing that pain point.

That’s the basics. If you want to do a deeper dive, I’m teaching a 2-hour course from 4pm- 6pm on March 1st, 2016 in downtown Chicago. I’ll go into more detail on the referenced standards and you will practice reviewing manufacturer tech sheets and working with the Low-Emitting Materials Calculator, so you can tackle this credit with confidence. For even more confidence, you can sign up for an additional 2 Learning Units by doing an assignment related to your own work, and I will mentor you through the process. The October launch of LEED v4 is coming sooner than you think, so join Prairie Lab and be prepared to take on this credit.

Register for Prairie Lab Low-Emitting Materials and other courses in the LEED v4: Beyond the Requirements series at www.prairielab.com/register.

Embrace the Middle (Wo)Man for Strategic Planning

IMG_0040It costs too much to hire a facilitator. We know what we want and can do it ourselves. Sound familiar? But how many person-hours have you spent in meetings? Did you reach consensus? Is your plan voluminous and sitting on a shelf? What if I told you that a strategic plan could be created in a day or two, including an action plan with timelines and assigned responsibilities? Now that would save you time and money.

I was thrilled when I discovered Technology of Participation (ToP™) Facilitation Methods, developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Chicago. Here was a structured participatory process that allowed everyone to be heard. The method led to quick consensus, putting everyone’s ideas into a limited number of clearly articulated buckets, easily leading to an actionable plan. After using the methods several times I realized that I led strategic planning constantly, but didn’t recognize that fact. What is a green building charrette/eco-charrette/LEED® workshop, but a strategic plan for integrative design? I started modifying the techniques for project workshops and even education seminars.

A colleague who has participated in a couple of these sessions said “it’s like magic” Everyone is amazed with how it comes together, and excited because they co-created the plan. After working with a dedicated group of leaders who had planned events together for years, my colleague also mentioned that she could see the value of engaging a third party with no vested interest in the outcome, and who didn’t have to interact with other participants on a regular basis. That facilitator can neutrally, assertively, and kindly keep the group on task. After all, it’s awkward to tell your boss it’s time to move on to a new topic.

So the next time you’re considering cutting out the middle (wo)man, think about how much more effectively you could come to resolution – translation: save time and money – if you turned to a third party for help.

Michelle Halle Stern, Chief Co-Creator at The Green Facilitator

Grab Your Energy Efficiency Money Off the Table


Are you leaving energy efficiency money on the table? Section 179D, a provision of the 2005 Energy Policy Act (EPAct), offers tax incentives to building owners and designers, but many organizations aren’t claiming this free money, either due to perceived complexity or lack of awareness. The 179D version for buildings put in service through 2014 provides incentives ranging from $0.30/sf to $1.80/sf for energy efficient lighting, HVAC, and envelop systems. The tax credit was originally intended for property owners, but in 2008 Congress amended the requirements to allow government entities to pass on the incentives to designers, which may include architects, engineers, builders, energy modelers, and sustainability consultants.

One downside to consider is mandatory third party verification. Verifiers generally charge as a flat fee that needs to be balanced with the potential payoff. But these groups can help you navigate the required documentation. Another potential inconvenience is that while 179D allows credits for projects built in previous tax years, you must resubmit taxes for that year in order to claim the credit. Still, if you are wondering how to pay the additional soft costs for sustainability consulting, the tax credit is often enough to pay for those fees, making the hassle worthwhile.

Although the tax credit has officially expired, on July 21, 2015 the Senate Finance Committee cleared a tax extender, paving the way for an extension through Dec 31, 2016 that allows retroactive submissions for previous years. The proposed changes include more rigorous energy efficiency standards that align 179D better with current best practices. However, the biggest positive change is to allow 501(c) 3 organizations, in addition to government clients, to pass on the tax credits, greatly expanding financial opportunities for designers. Be on the lookout for congressional approval so you can claim your free money for energy efficient design.

PowerPoint vs. Personality: Nailing Your Sustainability Interview

projector-428665_1280Have you stayed up past midnight perfecting your slide deck for the next day’s interview, laboring over whether to include the lobby shot or the building exterior? Your client probably won’t remember which image was up on the screen for 20 seconds, but they will remember if you spent the interview looking at the screen rather than them.

Once you’ve reached this stage, the client knows you are qualified. They’ve already read the statistics: number of LEED APs; number of certified projects; awards. What then, are they looking for?

Passion and chemistry. They want to know how much you understand them, and whether working with you will be an enjoyable experience. You can demonstrate your passion through eye contact, stories, and a focus on the client’s needs.

An interview, like giving a speech, is an opportunity to engage – think TED talk. There is a temptation with PowerPoint to point at the screen. But that requires you to turn away from your audience (yes it’s an audience). Where you look shows what you think is most important. Make eye contact with each person in the room to demonstrate you are present, and that you want to connect with them.

Stories are what makes successful TED talks successful, and interviews are no exception. Share your portfolio and your team management plan through stories about design decisions, challenges overcome, and relationships. You can intersperse facts and statistics, but only to support the stories.

Likely this project is the only one the people in the room undertake in their entire career, and they want to know that you get them. Tease out from the RFP what they want the headline to be when the project is written up in their trade publications, and talk about what you deduce is important to them. Follow a Toastmasters rule and use the word “you” more often than “we.”

What’s in it for me? is a big part of the client’s selection process. Eye contact, stories, and emphasizing “you,” all answer that question. The day before the interview, rather than culling slides, spend your time discussing the client’s priorities, honing your stories, and practicing audience engagement. After all, they are hiring you, not your PowerPoint.

Come on in, We’re Open


How many times have you said “if only I worked for myself!” I can answer, “many times” over the past 10 years. First there was the allure of firing up my computer, my favorite coffee mug in hand, dressed in my PJs (no video conferencing 10 years ago). I could run to the kitchen for a quick snack, finally put up that shelf in the living room, and attend the school assembly that my daughter insisted, “you just have to go.” Gone would be timesheets and close scrutiny of billable ratios. I would just work hard to make my clients happy. That idyllic image was always outweighed with concern about financial stability, insurance, and the dreaded accounts receivable.

Certainly there have been opportunities over the years. Business acquaintances would call seeking green building advice and lament “if only you didn’t work for a big firm, we could hire you.” I would sigh to myself and suggest one of my colleagues who had the guts to take the plunge.

So why now? When you get to a certain point in your career, you know, well I know, what I want from my day to day work life. I don’t want to make compromises about the projects and clients I take on, and how much time I spend on business development and strategy.

The Green Facilitator quietly launched months ago. I thank the colleagues who have sent prospects my way. But it didn’t feel official until I got my WBE certification, wrote this first blog post and took down the “this site is under construction” page on my website. So let me say, “Come in. I’m open for business.” Contrary to my prior anxieties, it has been immensely freeing; and if you are self-motivated, I highly recommend starting your own practice.

But if you see me at Home Depot some afternoon, it’s not because I’m not working. I’m just taking a mental break. It’s so much easier to get things accomplished when your books have a shelf to rest on.

Now where did I leave my slippers?