The nature of LEED: How natural laws inspire and inform green building | U.S. Green Building Council
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The nature of LEED: How natural laws inspire and inform green building

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In the late 1990s, a revolutionary idea arrived on the scene, shepherded by an innovative thinker and nurtured by scores of curious and passionate individuals. In the book Biomimicry, Janine Benyus introduced the notion that we could be better off by simply mimicking the ways problems are solved in nature; this idea has proven transformative.

In the book, Benyus lists nine principles that govern and define how nature operates. Not surprisingly, elements of each of these principles are readily identifiable in connection with LEED.

Nature runs on sunlight:

Just as nature is powered by the renewable energy of the sun, LEED promotes the use of renewable energy sources and the purchase of green power. If we were to consistently mimic the ways of nature, we would rely solely on renewable power.

Nature uses only the energy it needs:

We can all learn a lesson from the Center for Green Schools; one of the key ideas taught to the world’s future sustainability natives is to take only what you need, not as much as you want. In addition to encouraging the use of renewable energy, LEED also rewards projects for optimizing energy performance, both newly constructed buildings and existing buildings can receive points for energy efficiency measures.

Nature fits form to function:

This is a no-brainer, but it’s also something we very rarely pay conscious attention to. A tree is rooted in the ground to draw water and nutrients from the soil, it spreads its branches and leaves wide to increase its surface area and soak up the sunlight it needs to produce energy and grow. In the same vein, well-designed buildings and communities that adhere to the principles of biomimicry make optimal use of mass and space. LEED for Neighborhood Development capitalizes on this principle, encouraging urban planners and developers to make the best possible use of the space available and to design for the future.

Nature recycles everything:

Think about it, everything produced in nature is biodegradable. Once the natural life of a pinecone has come and gone, it breaks down into essential elements and compounds that are repurposed. In the built environment, LEED recognizes projects that reduce, reuse or recycle construction materials and that encourage recycling once the building is occupied. Additionally, LEED encourages project teams to engage in a life cycle assessment, considering available resources based on their ability to be repurposed.

Nature rewards cooperation:

Very little in nature exists in isolation. By way of example, plants persist because of pollinators, which in turn feed on the nectar they collect. LEED also rewards cooperative forethought and effort with the integrative process credit. Buildings that are designed with input and analysis from experts of diverse backgrounds capitalize on the differences and similarities between building systems, honoring the synergies that exist.

Nature banks on diversity: 

Diversity is one of nature’s best insurance policies. We know that species with limited genetic diversity have more difficulty adapting to environmental change, and that ecosystems rich with diversity are more stable. Like a living system, LEED has evolved and changed over the years and is now applicable to a diverse body of building types including schools, healthcare spaces, retail facilities and homes.

Nature demands local expertise:

There is a reason the term “invasive species” has such strong connotations, nature’s systems are inherently local. Certain species thrive under specific conditions; local and regional weather patterns matter, as do the types of soil, air particulates and water temperatures. Not only does LEED incorporate regional priority credits, which encourage project administrators to consider geographically specific issues, but LEED also has added incentives for the selection and use of raw materials that are locally sourced. Products and materials that are extracted, manufactured and purchased within 100 miles of a project are valued at 200% of their cost.

Nature curbs excesses from within:

Every natural system has a tipping point, a carrying capacity or a state of disequilibrium that triggers a change. Forest fires are a great example of a natural phenomenon that renews and refreshes, cutting down on excessive growth and allowing for regeneration. A large part of what makes LEED a successful system is the human element; in the end, green building is all about the people. The LEED Dynamic Plaque monitors usage and human experience, allowing building owners and occupants to identify excessive waste or usage and to adapt accordingly.

Nature taps the power of limits:

All living things are governed by limitations; age, climate, population density and many other factors determine how species and systems develop. LEED recognizes the importance of identifying limits and finding creative ways to compensate for them. A building constructed in the heart of a city may have limited parking options, but LEED rewards project administrators and owners for building near public transportation hubs. 

If there is one take away this Earth Day from Janine Benyus’s simple list of natural laws it’s that there is an endless amount we can learn if we just pay attention to our surroundings. Building design and construction is an imaginative process and LEED provides credits in line with the best of what nature has to teach us about sustainable development.

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Aline Peterson

Communications Manager U.S. Green Building Council
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