By Meghan Hall
When Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, more well known as LEED, made its debut almost 20 years ago, the conversation of sustainability in the commercial real estate and construction industries was just beginning, spearheaded by a grassroots movement of engineers, architects and developers keen on taking steps to protect the environment. Today, LEED is in 167 countries and is the most widely-used green building program in the world. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) recently released its Top 10 States for LEED certification. Both California and Washington State made the list, which highlights sustainable leadership and building practices not just around the United States, but around the world.
“Certainly, the construction industry, and the real estate industry across the board, can be fairly slow to change,” explained Melissa Baker of the USGBC’s Technical Core. “But we’re 20 years in, and the fact that we’ve seen this lasting impact, folks understand that. LEED and sustainability is not going away.”
California ranked 9th on the list — and in the country — according to the USGBC. The state certified 521 projects in 2018, the most out of any state, and it has made the Top 10 States list every year since 2011. Washington ranked even higher, coming in at third place nationally, even though it certified 137 projects.
The ranking, according to Amanda Sawit, USGBC’s communications project manager, is calculated based off of the square footage per capita from commercial and institutional buildings. While California certified more than 112.39 million square feet of space, equaling 3.02 square feet per person, Washington certified nearly 28.6 million, or 4.25 square feet per capita.
“It is to even the playing field a little,” explained Sawit of USGBC’s strategy behind the rankings. “Year after year, California will certify the most projects out of any state. With the exception of D.C., which ranks so high because there are so few people but it is one of the biggest hubs for green building, [California] beats everyone heads and shoulders when it comes to ranking.”
The top states on the list, Illinois and Massachusetts, certified more than 68 million and 34 million square feet of projects, respectively, in 2018 for gross square footages per capita of 5.31 and 5.3. This year’s top ten states — which certified a combined 468 million square feet of space — are home to roughly 128 million Americans.
For the most part, Sawit and Baker agreed, the Top Ten list remains mostly consistent from year to year. Washington was barely off the list in 2017, according to Baker. Factors such as how much of a state’s existing building stock comes up for recertification or the construction of large corporate tech campuses can have a major impact, said the pair.
USGBC’s ranking comes at a time when the organization is in the midst of launching its newest version of LEED — Version 4.1 — around the world. The updated rating system, which comes four years after the previous version was launched, intends to make the program and certifications system more accessible and inclusive with its updated reference standards.
Some of the updates, said Baker, involve the inclusion of a specific metric to measure a building’s carbon impact in LEED’s energy category, updating credits with an eye toward building performance and increased clarity on what developers, builders and other commercial real estate professionals must do to earn specific credits for measures such as rain water management or building acoustics. LEED 4.1 will also allow projects test credits so they can make substitutions from various rating systems. The result, Baker hopes, is that LEED will become nimbler and more efficient.
“We’re so excited about LEED Version 4.1” said Baker, who has been working with the USGBC for 12 years and has seen the program evolve. “We’re really confident that the new system will delight project teams, and so far, we have received a lot of feedback that has been very positive. That has helped us to know that we have hit our mark.”
According to Baker, uptake on LEED 4.1, has been sound, although it is too soon to say how wide reaching this version of LEED will be. Testing the boundaries of sustainability while encouraging the industry to take up newer iterations of the program is a fine line.
“As we develop LEED, we’re always looking at the balance of transforming the market and pushing the leadership side of things, but also having a rating system that the market can actually take up and utilize and be able to implement,” explained Baker. “There is always that sort of tension between introducing new ideas that we know are critical and new learning curves.”
Baker estimates that so far there have been several hundred project registrations and around a dozen certifications for LEED 4.1. Baker emphasized that it is not simply U.S. companies adopting the new measure, but ones all around the globe.
“One of the pieces that I think is really exciting is that there has been a global uptake,” said Baker. “There is interest in the United States — there always is — but many global markets are adopting it and testing it out. It shows geographic diversity.”
LEED’s status as a global measure for sustainability is not likely to end anytime soon, even with a myriad of new health-based and sustainability measures ranging from Zero Net Energy to the Living Building Challenge gaining traction in the industry. However, Baker said that the advent of new systems is exciting, and they will continue to drive conversation and innovation in both construction and commercial real estate.
“When I started, we always used to joke that if we could put ourselves out of business, that would be the start of success,” said Baker. “We want to have sustainability just to be inherent in the work that’s done and not need a rating system anymore. We’re not there yet, but I’m excited to see there is so much interest in pushing the market. I think it’s a good thing, and [the new rating systems] will continue to expand the market of sustainability in the built environment.”