The Single Most Significant Change in LEED

By Jacqueline Lusk and Stuart Kaplow

The newest version of LEED, with the designation LEED v4 is not simply another step in the continuous improvement of the third party verified green building rating system, and while not paradigm shift equal to a Neil Armstrong “giant leap for mankind,” LEED v4 is an all but an entirely new green building certification program.

Among the many modifications from the previous version, LEED 2009, there is a single change that is the most significant, bar none.

The change is buried deep within the LEED Operations and Maintenance Existing Buildings program and is not even in the printed reference guide. 

The quick explanation is the change is an alternative method of satisfying the prerequisite that an existing building achieve an Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool energy performance rating of at least 75. Prior to the availability of this alternative compliance path, an existing building that could not achieve an Energy Star rating of 75 was excluded from participating in LEED.

There are nearly 4.9 million existing non-residential buildings in the U.S. If green building is going to save the planet, the huge impact that existing buildings have on the natural environment must be addressed.

Launched in 2004, as of February 1, 2014, more than 2,700 existing buildings are LEED Existing Building –Operations and Maintenance certified, and more than 6,500 buildings are registered pursuing certification. And while that is a respectable number, it is also a ridiculously small percentage of those nearly 4.9 million existing buildings.

As a practical matter the LEED EB-OM Minimum Energy Performance prerequisite is the gatekeeper determining if an existing building can even be a LEED candidate. LEED v4 requires a minimum Energy Star rating of 75. (This is more significantly stringent than LEED 2009 requiring an Energy Star score of 69.) An Energy Star score of 75 means the building is performing better than 75% of similar buildings nationwide. The prerequisite of a minimum score of 75 arguably excludes 75% of all existing buildings from participating in LEED.

David Gottfried, the cofounder of U.S. Green Building Council has often been quoted saying, “USGBC decided that the minimum bar for the ‘L’ level for LEED [i.e., L for Leadership] certification would begin with the top 25% of buildings.” And the very real application of that philosophy is that the maximum potential market for LEED is 25% of existing buildings (as limited by an Energy Star score of 75).

Even with that cap LEED EB-OM certified more than half of all the domestic floor area in the LEED rating system in 2013.  So, any change to EB-OM is of paramount import to LEED itself, not to mention the implications for the millions of existing buildings.

In LEED v4, the “Existing Building – Operations and Maintenance” rating system was renamed “Operations and Maintenance: Existing Buildings” and is known as O+M: EB.

LEED O+M: EB encourages owners and operators of existing buildings to implement sustainable practices and reduce the environmental impacts of their buildings, while addressing the major aspects of ongoing building operations, including: exterior building site maintenance programs, water and energy use, environmentally preferred products and practices for cleaning and alterations, sustainable purchasing policies, waste stream management, and ongoing indoor environmental quality. LEED O+M: EB is popular with building owners concerned about costs because it identifies and rewards current best practices and provides an outline for uncovering operating inefficiencies.

The monumental change in O+M: EB is there is an alternative for satisfying the EAp2 prerequisite that an existing building achieve an Energy Star rating of at least 75. There is a pilot credit known as “EAp2 Energy Jumpstart” which is that alternative compliance path.

Existing building that reduce energy consumption by 20% are now LEED eligible. The pilot credit text provides,   

Demonstrate energy efficiency improvement, measured by source energy use intensity (EUI), of at least 20%, normalized for climate and building use. The percent reduction is determined by the project building’s energy reduction over the most recent 12 months, and data from three contiguous years of the previous five represents the baseline period. Buildings without four consecutive years of energy data are ineligible.

That is, a building that improves its Energy Star score by at least 20% is LEED O+M: EB eligible! And that is huge.

There are a few limitations on use. This pilot alternative compliance path is only available to projects from Energy Star eligible building types. Today, when Energy Star rating are available for building types from bank branches and barracks to wastewater treatment plants and warehouses, such is not a significant limitation. And there is a 500 project cap on participation in this pilot credit. Which is also not a significant bar to entry when it does not appear any project has yet been certified using the pilot credit.  

This is a pilot credit and will no doubt be revised over time, including providing other options for providing energy consumption data to USGBC.

By way of background, USGBC did test this idea. The little used (and still available for LEED 2009 EB:OM buildings) Pilot Credit 67, was the precursor to Energy Jumpstart, offers the same “alternative compliance path requiring projects to achieve an energy improvement of 20% over a 12-month period.”

Available for use now, the single most significant change to LEED O+M: EB, and to the entire LEED v4 green building certification program, is the alternative method of satisfying the prerequisite that an existing building achieve an Energy Star rating of at least 75. LEED certification is now possible for the over 3.6 million buildings (of the nearly 4.9 million existing non-residential buildings in the U.S.) that would otherwise be excluded.

The new pilot credit provides expanded opportunities for USGBC.

Pilot credit EAp2 Energy Jumpstart may be “one small step” for LEED, but it is “a giant leap” for reducing energy use on the planet.

Jacqueline Lusk is a sustainability consultant at Lorax Partnerships and can be reached at jackie@loraxllc.com. Stuart Kaplow is a sustainability and green building attorney and can be reached at skaplow@stuartkaplow.com  

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