Is LEED Still the “Gold Standard” of Sustainability?

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has been considered the “gold standard” of energy-efficient, sustainably designed buildings for years. Since its inception in 1998, LEED, managed by the U.S. Green Building Council, has gained national recognition for its system that rates buildings on energy consumption, carbon footprint, water management and other sustainable standards; after more than two decades, the accreditation is still sought-after, with the number of LEED-certified projects in the United States rising from just under 300 in 2006 to over 67,200 in 2018.

As reports of climate change, land degradation, pollution and destruction of biodiversity continue to dominate headlines around the globe, it’s no surprise the demand for more sustainable building options has steadily increased. But for building owners and AEC industry professionals who are committed to creating functional and sustainable built environments, is LEED certification the best system to optimize their environmental impact?

Don’t get us wrong—LEED is still an extremely worthwhile program. Many owners appreciate having a formalized, third-party system to measure the environmental impact of new construction and validate their sustainability efforts. Plus, the contributions that LEED has made to the discussion of building sustainability have been essential to creating a more ecologically conscious world. But LEED isn’t the be-all and end-all of sustainable building; in fact, there are several other factors and metrics that you can consider when it comes to designing the most environmentally responsible spaces possible. Let’s take a look at a few.

WELL Certification

LEED certification typically focuses on the qualities and ecological footprint of the building itself, measuring things like the use of sustainable materials and resources, energy consumption and use of clean energy, water efficiency, impact on ecosystems and waterways and so on. But it’s also important to consider the building’s overall impact on human health and well-being, which is where the WELL Building Standard™ can be useful.

Managed and administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), the WELL standard measures and certifies features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, looking at factors like air quality, water quality, accessibility to nourishment, light levels, opportunities for activity and fitness, overall comfort and impact on mental wellbeing. Building a sustainable workplace or school is commendable, but owners should also ensure that occupants of that building feel confident that their health and wellness are a top priority.

Carbon Neutrality

Building construction and operation accounts for 37% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program’s global status report. And with high CO2 concentrations to blame for increasing oceanic acidity, rising global temperatures and more severe weather events, it makes sense to consider carbon neutrality as a key metric for determining building sustainability.

The AEC industry has put a lot of effort into optimizing energy efficiency and minimizing carbon output once a building is finished and occupied—but the sector can make a huge contribution to curbing the climate crisis by taking a hard look at the overall carbon footprint of their projects. Conducting a Life Cycle Assessment of the products, systems and operations of a building can help owners determine its whole-life environmental impact, understand which phases of building are the most carbon-intensive, and identify areas for decarbonization efforts, like changing material practices and recycling spaces. For any organization that hopes to be a leader in sustainability, reducing the large amounts of carbon that buildings put into the atmosphere should be a priority.

Building Resiliency

As we continue to see the devastating impacts of climate change, especially in coastal areas, there has been an increased focus on designing buildings with adaptability and resiliency in mind—which is not something that the latest iteration of LEED touches on. Resilient buildings are designed for longevity and durability and can withstand extreme weather conditions or events brought on by climate change (like hurricanes, coastal floods, blizzards and droughts). These structures are also more likely to quickly recover from these sorts of devastating and disruptive events—which means less rebuilding and, in turn, less waste and energy consumption.

Creating climate-resilient buildings requires those of us in the AEC industry to design and construct our buildings a bit differently, incorporating more durable materials, making spaces flexible and adaptable for future use and opting for renewable power to minimize grid dependency, for instance. What makes a building truly resilient will largely depend on its location, its role in the community and what environmental challenges it is expected to face. There is no one way to build for longevity and durability. But as climate change continues to dramatically transform our world, building owners and architects have a responsibility to address these looming impacts by including resilience in their sustainability plans.

While LEED will likely remain popular in our industry for years to come, it is wholly possible to prioritize sustainability and environmental responsibility in construction without being LEED-certified. By looking at a project’s priorities and goals, identifying key metrics, setting targets, and holding themselves accountable, building owners and AEC professionals can be confident in their approach to creating sustainable, resilient structures that have a net positive impact on the environment and society at large.