LEED-ing the way to sustainability

It seems like every month, a new trend or concept emerges in Seattle's green scene. But what does Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design have to do with the building boom in Seattle, and how does it work? Consider this the everyman's guide to the LEED process.

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle Central Public Library, Wikimedia Commons, user Moody75.

It seems like every month, a new trend or concept emerges in Seattle's green scene. But what does Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design have to do with the building boom in Seattle, and how does it work? Consider this the everyman's guide to the LEED process.

Words like locavore and biomimicry, along with acronyms like LEED pop up frequently in green discourse these days. LEED in particular is frequently bandied about in Seattle, where the green building movement is strong. But what does Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) have to do with the building boom in Seattle, and how does it work?

LEED is a non-profit program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to create a universal standard of eco-friendly building. It provides a set of standards that are recognized across the country, so everyone is on the same green page. The competitive edge of builders and architects have embraced LEED certification as just another selling point; by saying than an apartment complex adheres to a well-known set of sustainable criteria — both during the process of construction and in the structure's ultimate functionality — the buyer sees it as an investment that deserves a pat on the back from Mother Earth. The long-term goal of LEED is to move certification from being a selling point to commonplace. As the number of certified projects increases, the building industry will have to come up with new ways to be environmentally friendly to keep a competitive edge. LEED is the jumping-off point in a national sustainability revolution.

With such lofty goals, how does LEED actually work? Let's follow the progress of a new construction project vying for certification in our fair city, such as the Alcyone Apartments in the South Lake Union neighborhood, or the much-hyped Seattle Central Library downtown. To be officially certified by the Green Building Council, a building's functions, location, and construction must fulfill minimum requirements from a lengthy list of criteria, depending on the type of building (including residential, school, and commercial buildings), as well as new renovations to existing structures. Each building earns points in six categories that address everything from water efficiency and mass transit accessibility, to on-site renewable and green energy, and the use of existing or local building materials. LEED-accredited professionals, who have passed a rigorous test from the Green Building Certification Institute, are involved in every step of construction to make sure everything is in accordance with LEED's standards of sustainability, and they decide the appropriate number of points awarded to a building to determine the level of certification. There are certain minimum requirements for certification, but points also are awarded for optional building features, such as the use of low-emitting paints, or natural instead of overhead lighting. Points also can be earned by reducing material waste during construction. After assessment, buildings are assigned LEED levels: "certified," "silver," "gold," or "platinum."

While accredited professionals (LEED-APs) are vital to the construction process, they aren't the brains of the operation. The LEED process is a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, with the majority of members at the bottom. Any individual can become a member simply by contacting his or her local LEED chapter, with one in every major city. Members are required to pay annual dues to the chapter that range from $300 to $2,500, depending on the individual's gross annual income. The chapters act as the local voices of the Green Building Council and enforce its policies with the LEED-APs in the area. Highest in the pyramid are the LEED committees, which manage and regulate categories of the program. Each committee has a president and vice president who oversee program functions such as criteria consistency and integrity. Research teams track and react to the building market and economic fluctuations.

The City of Seattle is well-acquainted with the workings of LEED. From 2001 to 2005, City Hall offered a LEED Incentive Program, which reimbursed building projects up to $2 million in costs to help with water conservation, natural drainage, and LEED design and consulting fees. Seattle also now requires all city remodels and newly constructed buildings over 5,000 square feet to gain at least a silver-level certification. With 1,160 LEED-APs, Seattle also has the highest concentration in the nation. Seventeen percent of new residential housing consists of Green Homes, according to the Green Building Council. While LEED-certified buildings are good for the Earth in the long run, they save their owners and tenants some green in the meantime. The Alcyone Apartment buildings, for example, uses a central hot water heating system with water on demand, instead of individual heaters for each unit, meaning lower utility bills. Seattle City Hall, which recieved a Gold rating in 2005, collects rainwater — an abundant resource in Seattle — for use when filtered water is not required, such as in toilets and landscape hydration. Seattle Center's Fisher Pavillion utilizes giant glass sliding doors to reduce energy consumption.

LEED provides a uniform, understandable series of criteria to produce buildings worthy of the sustainable future.

  

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