LEED Zero: New Designation for Net Zero

March 11, 2019

Emma Hughes, project manager for LEED, speaks with Janelle Penny about how project teams pursuing LEED certification for buildings now have a new option: LEED Zero. Learn more about this designation, including the requirements behind it and how it can benefit your building.

Emma Hughes, project manager for LEED, speaks with Janelle Penny about how project teams pursuing LEED certification for buildings now have a new option: LEED Zero.

Learn more about this designation, including the requirements behind it and how it can benefit your building.

Done listening? Read more about this topic here: 4 Ways to Add Net Zero to Your LEED Certification

Here’s the transcript:

Janelle: Hi, this is Janelle Penny, senior writer with BUILDINGS, here with another BUILDINGS Podcast. Our guest today is Emma Hughes, from the U.S. Green Building Council, and we’re going to be talking about LEED Zero. Welcome, Emma.

Emma: Thanks, Janelle. And hello everyone.

Janelle: Emma, can you explain your role at the USGBC?

Emma: Sure thing. So, I am a member of the LEED technical development team at the U.S. Green Building Council. So, I work closely with our team of sort of subject matter experts, the Green Building Certification Inc. reviewers that are responsible for rewarding LEED certification to building projects as well as a network of LEED committee volunteers.

So, this is more than 150 building professionals that span the diverse industries that make up the built environment who volunteer as members of these technical committees. And we work closely with them to develop and refine the requirements of the rating system.

Janelle: Great.

Emma: So, that’s what I do in a nutshell.

Janelle: Awesome. So, how did LEED Zero specifically come about?

Emma: Sure. So, the mission of the U.S. Green Building Council is to transform the way that buildings and communities are designed, built and operated. And really sort of enable an environmental and socially responsible healthy and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life. So, quite an ambitious mission.

One of the main leverage points that we have to achieve that mission is the LEED Green Building rating system. LEED Zero we think is one of the tools that USGBC can deploy to increase the urgency of the built environment to address climate change.

We understand at USGBC that we have to do all that we can to reduce the carbon emissions and the resource use associated with buildings and create spaces that really improve human health and well-being. And that again is the goal of the LEED rating system and also LEED Zero, which I’ll talk about a little bit more in detail.

The LEED Zero program itself is really a compliment to an existing LEED certification. And the LEED Zero designation verifies the achievement of net zero goals in building operations. So, the program is not necessarily a rating system, but an operational verification that projects are meeting these Net Zero goals.

It was designed to help stretch the market, and as I mentioned earlier, it really aligns with the goals of LEED and the goals of USGBC.

So, how it came about, so we have seen a lot of interest in a net zero program that recognizes, verifies and defines net zero in operations from buildings. We’re hearing from LEED users that they want to show that they’re doing their part to address climate change and that they’re operating their buildings at Net Zero Carbon, Net Zero Energy, Net Zero Water and/or Net Zero Waste.

So, LEED Zero really delivers that verification of building operations. And we’re hoping can be used to inspire more teams to reach for those aspirational goals.

The program itself, as I mentioned, is a compliment to an existing LEED certification and that there’s actually four different verifications that we’re offering as part of the LEED Zero program.

The first being LEED Zero Carbon, which recognizing buildings that are operating with net zero carbon emissions over the past 12 months. LEED Zero Carbon looks at carbon emissions cause, both from the building energy consumption as well as building occupant transportation and provides sort of a transparent accounting of those that carbon generated to carbon emissions that are avoided or offset through renewable energy performance strategies, etc.

So, that’s the first sort of certification within the LEED Zero program.

The second is LEED Zero Energy. And that recognizes buildings that achieve a source energy-use balance of zero for the past 12 months.

The third sort of option that we have is LEED Zero Water, which recognizes buildings that achieve a portable water-use balance of zero for the past year.

And then lastly, we have a LEED Zero Waste recognition for buildings that have achieved the true Zero-Waste certification at the platinum level. So, those are some of the goals and the impetus for establishing a LEED Zero program. This program is currently available to project teams and we’ve opened it up in beta and that we’re asking teams to test it out, try it out and share recommendations on ways that we can evolve the program to make it most useful and meaningful for all projects.

As far as minimum program requirements, we have again, the project must be able to provide that most recent 12 months of operational data. And again, have initially in this beta period made the program available to projects that have previously achieved certification under our building design and construction rating system, or operations and maintenance rating systems.

It’s also available to teams that have registered to pursue operations and maintenance certification. And again, we’re hoping to sort of access and explore ways that we can expand this program and make it available to more diverse project types over the course of the beta.

Janelle: Great. This was announced at Greenbuild originally, right?

Emma: Yes, that’s correct. Greenbuild Chicago in 2018, November.

Janelle: Right. So, what kind of interest have you seen in the program since then? How are people responding to it so far?

Emma: So, we’ve received a lot of interest just from USGBC members that are reaching out to better understand the program requirements and how they might be able to apply them to their LEED projects. We’ve been connecting with some municipalities. We’ve had sort of initial conversations about the potential for LEED Zero to help projects benchmark and document progress towards more aspirational building codes and standards that are striving for zero.

And then lastly, we did excitingly enough, have our first project certify under the program just at the end of last year, a LEED Zero Energy project that is located in Brazil, that had previously achieved LEED Platinum.

They were able to come back to us a year later, share their performance data and demonstrate that they are operating with a source energy-use balance of zero, which was really exciting to get those early adapters in.

And I will say we’re in discussions now with additional upwards of 10 projects that have expressed interest in the program and are in the initial phase of assessing feasibility and next steps for pursuing certification.

Janelle: Great. So, it sounds like you don’t necessarily have to get your LEED Zero certification at the same time that you’re certifying to an actual rating system, is that correct?

Emma: Yes, that’s correct. So, again, this LEED Zero verification is available to projects that have previously achieved certification under Building Design and Construction, or BD&C, or our Operations and Maintenance, or O&M, rating systems.

And then again, we also are making this available to projects that have registered to pursue operations and maintenance certification.

Janelle: Great. What gap was the USGBC trying to fill in the market by launching LEED Zero? Was there something that you felt was missing?

Emma: Well, not necessarily missing, but we did see an opportunity to provide a recognition for projects that are going above and beyond. Like I mentioned, our users and members have expressed interest in a program like this. So, we think that LEED Zero is really the next evolution. And increasingly, we’re seeing more and more Net Zero buildings becoming less uncommon in the marketplace.

We feel like there was a real opportunity there to highlight those projects with this type of certification and then also, be able to lift them up as examples and encourage others to strive for higher levels of sustainability performance.

Janelle: Great. Where can people go if they need to learn more about LEED Zero or they’re interested in certifying to it?

Emma: I’m happy to answer questions at any time, but we do have a website on USGBC, it’s just And that webpage provides an overview of what the program requirements are, which I mentioned earlier. And then also on that website, you can download the LEED Zero program guide.

We also do have a full sort of customer service team that’s available to help answer initial questions that prospective projects might have. And so, if you have a specific question, you can always email [email protected] to get specific inquires addressed.

And then the last thing I will say is that we have been delivering sort of informational webinars and education sessions for potential projects or members that might be interested. And so, that can be arranged as well upon request.

Janelle: Sounds great. Emma, thank you so much for speaking with us. And thanks to you listeners for listening today. You can find BUILDINGS Podcasts on iTunes, Google Play and Pocket Cast. Subscribe today. You’ll never miss an episode.

Another podcast you may be interested in: The RELi Standard and the Future of Resilient Design

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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