The Next Generation of LEED: v4

By:  Margaret Fitzsimons, M. Arch., Assoc. AIA, LEED AP
       Sustainable Building Consultant /
       Architecture + Interiors Specialist,
       The Spinnaker Group

West Palm Beach, FL (February 20, 2019)  True to the
U.S. Green Building Council’s mission “to transform
the way buildings and communities are designed,
built and operated, enabling an environmentally and
socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous
environment that improves the quality of life,” the
USGBC builds on this vision through the development
and improvement of the LEED rating system. This comes again with the launch of LEED version 4. Officially released in October 2016, v4 is the first update to the rating system since 2009, when LEED v3 took effect. As with past revisions, LEED v4 continues to increase technical rigor across many credits, streamlines and combines several credits, and introduces new credits that continue to push the sustainable-design envelope of the building industry.

The new rating system builds on the fundamental structure of the previous rating systems, and many elements remain unchanged. To name a few:

  • Four certification levels: Certified (40 pts), Silver (50), Gold (60), Platinum (80+).
  • The same 100-point rating scale, plus 10 "extra" points available through innovation, pilot credits, and regional priorities.
  • The structure remains the same: 12 prerequisites in LEED-NC (but the number is up from the previous eight) and 43 Credits (down from 49 in v3), now in a more consolidated structure, offering more options.

While the primary rating system types also remain the same -- using the familiar LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) and LEED for Operations + Maintenance (LEED O+M) for example -- these systems expand with the addition of key adaptations fine-tuned for schools, retail, warehouses, hospitality, and data centers, more closely tailored to specific project types.

What are some of the most notable changes in V4?

Integrative Process (IP): This new section requires teams to take an integrated approach from the project outset -- a multidisciplinary look at key design decisions such as the early analysis of energy and water systems to optimize performance. While USGBC encouraged this in earlier versions of LEED, this credit officially recognizes these efforts. A few impacts to projects include:

  • Developing a “simple box” energy model, and a preliminary water budget analysis.
  • More team workshop sessions, integrating input from consultants, examining feedback, and referencing project goals and metrics.
  • Demonstrating how the preliminary analyses were used to optimize the design of the building’s energy and water-related systems.
  • The positive: Design informed by high-performing building systems, and an opportunity to make economically informed design decisions about these systems early on.

Location & Transportation (LT): This new section has been created to reorganize several credits around site selection. Projects in dense areas with access to mass transit will continue to excel here, especially if the project can locate in a LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) location.

Water Efficiency (WE): This category has a few additions, including a new prerequisite and a credit for water metering. Reduced irrigation is now a prerequisite, and process water uses from cooling towers and appliances are now addressed.

Energy and Atmosphere (EA): A significant change raises the bar from ASHRAE 90.1-2007 to 90.1-2010. Some projects will be challenged by the new automatic shut-off requirements for 50% of receptacles in offices and computer classrooms. Projects that comfortably achieved 20%+ reduction in energy (7+ additional points in v3), now hit closer to 5-7 % reduction under the later version of ASHRAE (2-3+ LEED points). While this appears to be constraining on the scorecard, it pushes the energy envelope more aggressively to increase efficiency and further reduce the strain on global energy use, resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Materials & Resources (MR): A new prerequisite has been added, changing the construction waste management plan from optional to required. On the credit front, one of the most significant changes is a shift from focusing simply on a product’s single sustainable attributes (i.e., recycled content or source of origin), to product , transparency, and optimization. Key now are products with Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), Health Product Declarations (HPDs), Cradle to Cradle certification (C2C), and other applicable third-party certifications, significantly increasing the product selection criteria and documentation requirements.

Among the new MR credit offerings is 'Building Life Cycle Impact Reduction', which promotes a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) -- translating to acumen with new software and building component analysis. There is more emphasis placed on the impact that products and design choices have across their life cycle -- from extraction, to use, to disposal -- as opposed to single-attribute measures like recycled content. LCA can impact structural and massing decisions, and teams will need to understand and deploy LCA tools, or engage consultants to provide these services.

In summary, the most recent reports from USGBC research provides: "In the United States alone, buildings account for almost 40 percent of national CO2 emissions and out-consume both the industrial and transportation sectors, but LEED-certified buildings have 34 percent lower CO2 emissions, consume 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water, and have diverted more than 80 million tons of waste from landfills. (1)

The market is responding to these cost savings and environmental benefits at a dramatic rate. According to a Dodge Data & Analytics World Green Building Trends 2016 SmartMarket Report, the global green building sector continues to double every three years, with survey respondents from 70 countries reporting 60 percent of their projects will be green by 2018. (2)

While upfront project costs are always of concern, the common question when it comes to LEED building certification is "How can we afford to pursue LEED certification?" But with so many factors at stake, perhaps the question should shift instead to "How could we not consider it?"

(1) U.S. Department of Energy (2011). Re-Assessing Green Building Performance: A Post Occupancy Evaluation of 22 Buildings.
(2) Dodge Research and Analytics (2016). World Green Building Trends 2016 SmartMarket Report.