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Building Certification: What Does LEED Really Mean?

A little over a dozen years ago, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) established LEED in response to a perceived need that specific and determined standards and third-party verification be required in order for structures to be considered "green," or environmentally friendly. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification program focused primarily on new, commercial-building projects and based upon a points system.

The more points you earn, the higher your rating. Acquisition of LEED status can require significantly higher upfront expenditure on the part of a corporation or builder, but also may yield massive cost savings over time in the form of state and local tax breaks and higher rents as well as other perks. Originally designed to help green the planet, LEED is a widely recognized tool which can be maximized efficiently for its stated purpose, capitalized upon for financial gain, or both. Do the costs outweigh the benefits of getting LEED-certified? And does the planet benefit either way?

Green Or Greed? 

LEED-certified buildings when well maintained, produce less waste products and are more energy efficient than they would be otherwise. The ratings system by which buildings can achieve certification, however, has come under scrutiny as well as criticism for granting points that require little, if any, effort on behalf of the builder. No-brainer points given for check-list items such as proximity to public transportation or location within a densely populated area, can mean the difference between silver, gold or platinum certification. These levels represent more than just a nice wall plaque; buildings with higher ratings benefit from higher tax breaks, which can result in literally millions of dollars in savings over time.

"There are no federal-level tax breaks given for LEED certification," says Lane Burt, USBGC's Director of Technical Policy. According to Burt, familiarity with the program has yielded a greater desire for corporations to take advantage of the state-based tax credits given for LEED certification, as well as the added perk of expedited permitting. But Burt is clear; the LEED program was not designed with those types of financial benefits in mind as the end goal but rather as incentives, capable of supporting continued growth and broad-based use of the highly popular program.

How Green Is Green Enough?

Despite its name and Washington, D.C. location, the USGBC is an independent non-profit organization and not a government-run agency, which receives most of its funding through certification fees and educational conferences. As early as 1998, the USGBC determined that the lack of definition and consensus about what constituted a green building had the potential to create a wild west atmosphere, in which anyone could claim practically any building as being environmentally friendly and sustainable. The first LEED-certified building went up in 2000 and currently, there are more than 10,000 structures worldwide that tout this status. Clearly, the incentive to erect green buildings exists, but how sustained and effective LEED's impact will ultimately be on global warming and reduced pollution is up for debate. What it clearly can do, however, is provide a definitive framework within which builders can operate when green is the goal, and also incite greater use of environmentally friendly measures like installation of low-VOC emitting carpets and low-flow water systems, better ventilation and even more daylighting in schools and office buildings. These simple line items can result in better working conditions and arguably, happier, more productive students and employees. Such was the case at PNC Financial Services Group, who LEED certified several of its branches as early as 2002 and now claims higher employee engagement and raised awareness of meaningful sustainability goals, as well as cost savings, as a result. But for those truly interested in highly impactful, greener initiatives globally, is this enough?

Is LEED Worth Its Weight In Green Or In Gold?

USGBC has become fairly fluid, continually updating this consensus-based program and improving its point-based criteria over time. While the program is far from perfect, arguably, financial incentives may be necessary in order for it to work. Would corporations be just as likely to instill environmentally beneficial improvements without the promise of financial gain? It's hard to say, but in the long run, does it really matter? The LEED program, by providing third-party verification as well as a defined, manageable framework, can have an impact on the future of the urban landscape as well as our global carbon footprint. How effectively it is utilized and for what purpose is up to the user. Financial gain aside, Burt states USBCG's blue sky goal as being its own eventual disbandment of the LEED program due to a lack of need for these types of environmentally friendly measures. Let's hope it does not dissolve due to lack of effectiveness or public interest in a cleaner, more sustainable planet.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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