Clearing Up LEED Misconceptions

11/25/2009 | By Joanna Switzer, LEED AP

LEED is becoming a more common term; however, the uptick in popularity hasn’t dispelled common misconceptions held by many tackling the initial learning curve. As such, misunderstandings about what LEED provides and how to use it abound. Owner and management teams have a powerful tool in LEED. By becoming better informed, teams can maximize the potential for improvements and help make smarter decisions during the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of their investments.

Opposing Expectations
Working with clients from all industry sectors, a pattern has emerged. Concepts about LEED are generally stratified: policymakers often believe that following LEED guidelines automatically generates specific results, and the “in-the-trenches,” detail-oriented staff often cling to the idea of LEED criteria being too difficult to incorporate into their facilities.

Today’s world of information overload often tempts people to latch onto the big ideas captured in catchy sound bytes. As a result, many high-level administrators are inclined to think that LEED guarantees a high-performance building. One particular example that highlights this dynamic is in a city that ordained all new developments to achieve LEED certification. At an impact fee negotiation meeting between the developer, the city, and the water utility, the city’s sustainability coordinator was surprised to learn that the LEED rating system didn’t guarantee that the buildings would use less water than their code-compliant counterparts (this has been subsequently addressed in LEED 2009). It was apparent that city staff felt dismayed and misled after having personally touted the fact that “LEED buildings use 20- to 40-percent less water.” It would seem they skipped over the words “have the potential to” or “regulated water use.” The same basic misunderstanding commonly springs forth from general facts regarding energy efficiency.

On the flip side, other professionals have a tendency to dismiss LEED standards outright. Convinced that they won’t be able to apply particular criterion or strategy to their project, their closed-minded approach leads to regularly missed opportunities to creatively tackle the core sustainability values. If they can’t be directly rewarded in their certification efforts, teams often throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. A common example is the deletion of computer-based energy management systems if the cost doesn’t seem worth it for a LEED point in the initial design phase of a project. As this type of decision is critical to more effective energy management over the life of a building, owners should be informed advocates for the long-term value of their facility, and guard against exclusively “point-oriented” recommendations.

Educational Resource
LEED reference guides will not be able to address every sustainability consideration and every possible strategy, or answer every question you may have.

However, the LEED reference guides offer a centralized source of information previously unavailable to industry professionals. These weighty compilations highlight best practices and various strategy suggestions to aid in the implementation of the myriad sustainability principles. Admittedly, these manuals can be a bit intimidating at first glance; however, they offer an introduction to various facets of the design, construction, and facility management world that can be difficult to glean from either formal education or on-the-job training.

Few professionals received an education that included a comprehensive cross-training of related trades and management responsibilities, which are crucial to the “big-picture” view of sustainability, which allows more holistic decisions during integrated design collaboration. Likewise, hands-on experience varies widely, and the immediate demands of any job make it challenging to stay abreast of relevant technological advancements and trends in related market sectors and building types. The LEED reference guides can help to fill in some of these gaps.

Reframe the Conversation
Owners, design teams, and municipalities seeking to design or retrofit facilities in a sustainable manner need to be on the same page. If you aren’t sure where to begin, and want to know enough about related disciplines and trades to have informed discussions with consultants and associates, the LEED reference guides are a great place to start.

Owners should strive to understand their particular building type and its consumption patterns, whether new or existing. These insights will better position the team to select appropriate strategies for conservation and efficiency goals. Owners can also better engage their team, choose LEED guidelines that make sense for their project, and require specific performance thresholds of their consultants and service vendors.

Approached with an open mind, the LEED rating systems and their accompanying reference guides are invaluable tools. They offer property and business owners, facility engineers, and operations managers the opportunity to empower themselves with knowledge and pave the way for a sustainable journey from initial design through operations.

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