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20 years of USGBC: LEED then and now

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I have a vivid memory of an architecture professor telling me that thinking about sustainability was a waste of time – no one outside academia would bother with that kind of silly obsession. This was Missouri in the 1990s, when a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar and “green” was a paint color. I stubbornly pushed onward despite the disparagement – as I am prone to doing – and ultimately discovered that jobs in green building did, in fact, exist. I’m also happy to report that my alma mater, Washington University, has become a leader in sustainability.

I was introduced to this new thing called LEED shortly after joining HOK to work on the HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design. HOK was working on a LEED pilot project, the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, which I inserted myself into on a mostly informal basis. Those were the days of the unwieldy binders, long before the Great LEED AP Take-over (now 196,537 and counting). I was an oddball in the rather conservative architecture community: a vegetarian woman who biked to work and sported a pierced eyebrow. I was lucky to have HOK colleagues that embraced this differentness and company leadership with a vision for a more sustainable world. LEED provided a framework around which we could organize the conversation and measure our success.

We’ve come a long way since then. LEED has grown from a single system focused on new construction to 9 distinct, mature rating systems with numerous international versions.

In the early years, we had to sell the value of commissioning and energy modeling as if our lives depended on it. Now, both are nearly ubiquitous in many sectors. We now make design decisions based on sophisticated modeling and analysis, not guesswork and optimism. Thankfully, we’ve also learned from our mistakes – for instance, all glass buildings are no longer considered to be a win for daylighting, as we had naively assumed on some early LEED projects.

Even just a few years ago, I had a lot of explaining to do when people looked at the funny set of letters after my name. In contrast, when I recently gave a guest lecture to an undergraduate construction management class, nearly everyone raised their hands when I asked if they were familiar with LEED. The question has changed from “What is LEED?” to “What level of certification did your project achieve?”

LEED is not the only fish in the sea. Programs like the 2030 Challenge, Energy Star and others also deserve credit. Nonetheless, LEED and the hundreds of thousands of people behind it have been the single biggest instigators in moving green building to the position it holds today. I look forward to what the next 20 years will bring. 

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    Mara Baum made 10 contributions in the last 6 months

Mara Baum

Sustainable Design Leader, LEED Fellow HOK

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