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Jacob Kriss

To celebrate the release of our list of the Top 10 States For LEED, we’re posting our narrative of the history of LEED’s development, originally released at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in November 2013, in three parts on

Click here to read Part 1: From a Simple Idea to a Several-Hundred-Billion-Dollar Industry.

Part 2: A Green Building Explosion (2003-2009)

LEED saw a number of significant developments in 2003. USGBC had grown and matured from its start as a fledgling nonprofit, gathering strength, staff and resources, and it had launched LEED v2.1 the previous year. In April 2003, LEED for Existing Buildings and LEED for Commercial Interiors both began pilot testing, while in October, LEED for Core and Shell launched. In November, the National Geographic Society building in Washington, D.C., became the first LEED-certified existing building, and in December, Boulder Community Foothills Hospital in Colorado became the first LEED-certified facility of its type.

Brendan Owens, USGBC vice president of LEED technical development, attributed the rapid market uptake that began in this era to several factors, but in particular, to the accessible and inclusive manner in which USGBC introduced LEED into the market: offering it for free on its website. “We said, ‘Look, we are a mission-driven organization; our mission is to get people to change the way they think about building buildings. We’re not going to sell this thing — we’re going to give it away.’”

He also noted USGBC’s collaborative approach to LEED’s development as pivotal to its success, as well as its ability to connect users to its mission of improving life for everyone. “There has always been an ethic within the professional engineering and architecture communities that the decisions that we make matter," he said. "We tapped into the rekindling of that ethos of ‘I’m responsible for stewardship of society.' That was absent from a lot of people’s professional practice, and we found a way to tap back into that and say, ‘This is what you’ve been looking for.’”

In April 2004, LEED reached a significant milestone: 100 certified projects, mostly in the commercial office space. However, Roger Platt, USGBC senior vice president of global policy and law, noted that at least initially, the commercial real estate sector viewed LEED with skepticism.

“The real estate industry looked at LEED with a great deal of apprehension, because whereas many industries try to themselves influence the future parameters of what constitutes best practice in the industry, suddenly you had this independent entity made up of architects and engineers and environmentalists,” he said. “Suddenly the hired hands are telling the person who makes the investments and pays how they need to do these more expensive things.”

According to Platt, the real estate industry became more engaged with LEED when it became clear in the early to mid-2000s that lenders and tenants, the industry’s sources of capital, were enthusiastic about it, and LEED became proxy for building value. And as the big players in the industry began to latch on, it was only a matter of time before LEED started to become standard practice.

“The fact that it was a business decision [to build to LEED] is why LEED has been able to geometrically expand its engagement,” Platt said. “That is what scaled market transformation — for market reasons to be driving it.”

Early local and federal government support of LEED also proved pivotal in advancing the rating system. In 2003, the U.S. General Services Administration mandated LEED certification for all federal projects, and in 2004, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced that all public buildings in the city would be LEED certified. Not long thereafter, in 2006, the U.S. Army followed suit, mandating LEED for its major construction projects, while Washington, D.C., passed the Green Building Act of 2006, requiring certification for all new nonresidential construction projects of more than 50,000 square feet.

Joel Todd, chair of the LEED Steering Committee from 2009 to 2013 and an early participant in USGBC, noted that in particular, the federal government’s use of LEED made it seem less risky to the private sector, simultaneously causing contractors to learn how to use the system and causing manufacturers to begin creating more green products to meet demand. “Up until then, we were kind of doing it one building at a time,” she said. “I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of the U.S. federal government support.”

LEED’s rapid expansion in the mid- to late 2000s took many by surprise, and the period saw a number of milestones. In April 2004, the first LEED Gold residential high-rise, the Solaire in New York City, secured its certification, while in November 2004, USGBC launched LEED for Commercial Interiors, followed by its next iteration of the rating system, v2.2, in 2005.

June 2005 also saw the first data center certify under LEED, the Fannie Mae Urbana Technology Center in Urbana, Md., and the 20,000th individual became a LEED Accredited Professional. Several months later, in February 2006, the first project certified under the pilot LEED for Homes rating system, a 1,600-square-foot property in Oklahoma City.

However, it was the launch of LEED for Existing Buildings in October 2004, and its continued expansion to eventually outpace square footage of space certified under LEED for New Construction in 2011, that particularly stands out to USGBC leadership.

Platt noted that LEED for Existing Buildings was an expansion into a space previously monopolized by the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR system. “When [real estate companies] could start saying, ‘half of my buildings are LEED-certified,’ meaning, they’re not only very good for energy efficiency, but they’re also creating better indoor air quality and promoting other performance elements that people want, that was a big jump from it being something that you’d just discuss at conferences about ‘buildings of the future,’ to buildings of ‘right now.’”

Not surprisingly, 2007 was another boom year for LEED. In July, the 1,000th commercial project certified, followed by the 10,000th registration, in November. February also saw the launch of the LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot program, a collaboration among USGBC, the Congress for New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Meanwhile, LEED continued to make significant inroads in the education space. In March 2007, Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, D.C., became the first school to achieve LEED Platinum, while April saw the formal launch of the LEED for Schools rating system, an adaptation of LEED for New Construction tailored to the specific needs of learning spaces. And in September of the same year, the Ohio School Facilities Commission adopted LEED for Schools as part of its school design standards.

Moving into 2008, in February the LEED for Homes rating system saw its official launch, and in November, the 2,000th commercial project certified. That year also saw the creation of a sister organization, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), to administer LEED project registration and professional credentialing.

“The reaction to LEED and the rapid market uptake we began to experience in the mid-2000s was nothing short of astounding,” said Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chair of USGBC. “But as more and more projects began to build to LEED, the more we came to understand the shortcomings of the rating system and the imperative for improvement to guide the market toward more environmentally sustainable strategies and decisions.”

Accordingly, USGBC pursued this imperative, launching LEED v2009 in April 2009. Among the many improvements over its predecessor, LEED v2.2, Todd noted the introduction of weightings for credits, based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts (TRACI) and weightings developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as an advancement that made LEED much more rigorous.

“[Previous versions of LEED] didn’t really give any indication of how important something was,” she said. “This was a way of indicating which credits were most important, and by giving them more points, you really encouraged project teams to go after those credits.”

Owens, too, noted the launch of v2009 as the first time there was objective scientific intentions behind the assigned credit values. “That shift that we made to be intentional about the priorities that we communicate via the credit structure … was a huge watershed moment for us,” he said.

That same year, USGBC moved into its new headquarters at 2101 L St. NW, a Platinum-certified LEED for Commercial Interiors space, the first project to certify under LEED v2009 and a showcase of sustainable interior design.

Meanwhile, the LEED AP credential was updated and expanded to include five specialty credentials corresponding to each of the LEED rating systems, and 3,929 individuals became the first LEED Green Associates, a more inclusive credential intended for anyone, from business leaders to marketers to students, to be recognized for general knowledge and basic mastery of green building principles. The launch of this credential, in particular, underscored just how many professions and individuals LEED was affecting.

January 2009 also saw the 20,000th project register with LEED, and in April, two pro sports facilities, Phillips Arena in Atlanta and American Airlines Arena in Miami, both certified as existing buildings.

By the end of the decade, LEED’s status as a transformative force within the buildings sector was unmistakable. Beyond certifying thousands of structures, LEED had also created new markets, especially in the product arena. Before LEED, materials like low-volatile-organic-compound (VOC) paints and green cleaning products were virtually nonexistent, but by 2009, these items were in widespread use. The same was true for various other green technologies and energy-efficient products, which had become available not only in the commercial sector, but also for homeowners in the residential space.

USGBC Senior Vice President of LEED Scot Horst likened the expansion of the green building movement in this era to the struggles of the 1960s, for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. “I don’t think we have too many opportunities in our lifetime to connect to that kind of momentum,” he said. “The motion that we’ve put together is a bunch of people really interested in doing something good and getting together and creating real change — that’s powerful.”

Click here to read Part 3: Challenges and Opportunities (2010-Present).