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 USGBC.org.

You can also read Part 1: From a Simple Idea to a Several-Hundred-Billion-Dollar Industry and Part 2: A Green Building Explosion (2003-2009).

Part 3: Challenges and Opportunities (2010-Present)

The dawn of a new decade coincided with a tremendous milestone for LEED: In 2010, the Green Building Certification Institute certified the 5,000th LEED project. Additionally, in September 2010, USGBC launched the Center for Green Schools as a way to drive the transformation of all schools into healthy, sustainable learning environments. And after almost three years of pilot testing, LEED for Neighborhood Development saw an official launch in April 2010 with 56 participant projects.

At Greenbuild that year in Chicago, USGBC continued its vigorous expansion into new market sectors, launching LEED for Retail, offering options for certification under New Construction as well as Commercial Interiors. Also at Greenbuild 2010, USGBC launched the LEED Volume Program, which provides organizations with large building portfolios with a streamlined and cost-effective means to certify high volumes of buildings through prototyped standards. Today, the program includes participants like Starbucks, Verizon Wireless and Bank of America. And only a few months later, in April 2011, USGBC launched LEED for Healthcare, a new system with a specialized focus on meeting the energy-intensive and human health-oriented needs of built spaces devoted to healing.

Later that year, two iconic buildings, the Empire State Building in New York and the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., both certified as existing buildings, marking a notable achievement for USGBC in its eight-year initiative to green such structures.

The movement’s continued expansion in this era was not without challenges, however, as USGBC has faced pointed criticism around ongoing performance for LEED-certified buildings. Building performance was initially addressed through the LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance rating system introduced years earlier, which requires projects to measure building metrics like energy and water use over a performance period of at least three months prior to earning certification. However, USGBC realized this alone would not be enough, and it has expanded its exploratory efforts to monitor ongoing performance of LEED-certified buildings to ensure that the plaque on the wall means something important, even years after certification.

“We are trying to gently redefine what it is to have a green building, as meaning, a green building is only a green building if it is green right now," said Roger Platt, USGBC senior vice president of global policy and law.

These efforts revolve around reorienting LEED to be less of a snapshot in time to being a performance indicator. A pivotal element of this effort is the introduction of the LEED Dynamic Plaque, a new tool to monitor how well a building is performing over time. “We are the experts in helping people understand what they can do to improve, but we are not the experts in measuring the improvement,” said USGBC Senior Vice President of LEED Scot Horst. “What the LEED Dynamic Plaque does is put us in the position to actually measure those outcomes and to measure real improvement. We built the car, but now we’ve put in the speedometer."

Another major USGBC transparency initiative was the November 2012 launch of the Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG), a powerful web-based tool that provides a holistic view of places, projects, collections and credits, detailing the actions and activities of LEED building owners and project teams over time. GBIG allows users to search and explore green building activity around the world, analyze trends and patterns in green building practice and discover connections between projects, people, products and services.


The latest version of LEED, LEED v4, launched in November 2013 after passing member ballot in June 2013 following a record six public comment periods. All versions of LEED are required to undergo public comment and must pass a ballot by USGBC’s membership.

LEED v4 continues the momentum in green building by increasing LEED’s technical rigor and facilitating its expansion into new market sectors, including data centers, warehouses and distribution centers, hospitality, and midrise residential structures. LEED v4 also brings an additional focus on user experience, with significant efforts put toward streamlining the LEED documentation process and developing helpful tools for project teams in LEED Online, the web-based tool for managing the certification process that launched in 2006.

Platt noted the increased technical rigor of LEED v4, observing that, “One of the challenges that’s perennial is that we’re the only producer of a totally successful product that makes the product less pleasant every three or four years.” However, he remained confident that in time, market adoption of v4 would be widespread.

LEED v4 includes an entirely new section that awards points to project teams that use products and materials for which life-cycle information is available and that have environmentally, economically and socially preferable life-cycle impacts. The new credit also rewards LEED project teams for selecting products that are verified to minimize the use and generation of harmful substances. The LEED v4 approach paints a more complete picture of materials and products, enabling more informed decisions that have a greater overall benefit to the environment, human health and communities.

LEED v4’s renewed focus on material ingredient reporting and the use of sustainably harvested wood has also made USGBC and  LEED the subject of new attacks from the chemical industry as well as the timber industry, which had previously come to a head in 2010 when USGBC members voted against including Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standards in the LEED rating system (USGBC did not deem SFI rigorous enough for sustainable wood). In both cases, these entities are intent on preserving the status quo and are threatened by LEED’s recognition of environmentally friendly, healthy green building products. These groups have utilized a variety of tactics to undermine LEED, such as developing their own rating system, creating front groups and working to eliminate the use of LEED by federal and state entities.

For his part, Horst was actually heartened by such efforts. “What these attacks show us is that we are very relevant, and the power that we have to help people make good decisions about their building is very threatening to some people,” he said. The chemical industry, with which USGBC worked to design the material ingredient credit at the heart of the controversy, will eventually realize that ingredient disclosure is inevitable, Horst said.

Brendan Owens, USGBC vice president of LEED technical development, points to the 20,000-plus certified commercial projects as the ultimate endorsement: from the market. “If we get the rating system wrong, they [the market] will stop using it,” he said.

The Path Forward

At USGBC, there is wide acknowledgement that despite LEED’s success thus far, the organization’s work is far from over, as LEED must continue to excite an evolution in the global community’s thinking about what the built environment can and should offer.

“We’ve accomplished so much since those early back-of-the-napkin conversations David [Gottfried] and I used to have,” said USGBC President, CEO and Founding Chair Rick Fedrizzi, referring to one of his co-founders of USGBC. “It’s entirely possible that in the next 15 years we’ll have net-zero-energy buildings in all communities and that USGBC will be obsolete. Those are worthy goals. But if we become complacent, and the status quo becomes the bar, we will have squandered the biggest part of what we should and could do for our nation, our planet and our children. And that’s just not acceptable.”

In particular, in recent years USGBC has focused on furthering LEED’s international growth. There are currently LEED projects in 147 countries, with 40 percent of LEED-certified square footage outside the U.S. China, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and several nations in Europe have been particularly robust centers for growth, furthered by the World Green Building Council, of which Fedrizzi serves as chair. Since USGBC’s founding 20 years ago, it has worked to establish LEED as a global rating system, with a goal to compare buildings across regions for their design, construction and performance. Today, USGBC is actively working to make the 97 green building councils around the world become successful. And while some have created their own rating systems, LEED provides global connectivity.

USGBC has focused on expanding LEED in the global marketplace in several ways. The first is by promoting the concept of LEED as a global rating system — so when companies want to implement green building projects of a certain international standard, LEED becomes their natural choice. Projects pursue LEED because it provides them with a blueprint for how to approach their green building project, results in tangible environmental and business benefits, as well as positive recognition in the international marketplace. Therefore, USGBC is also promoting LEED as a well-integrated system and developing equivalencies between LEED and other local rating systems — working through cooperation, not competition, with local parties to achieve USGBC’s ultimate goal of green buildings for all.

USGBC has also established the LEED International Roundtable to leverage the incredible technical expertise of global green building practitioners as it works to create a truly international rating system. Working with the Roundtable, USGBC is developing regional and local technical compliance paths for LEED. These paths provide ways for projects outside the U.S. to achieve LEED points in a way that works for their region and with their existing local standards and directives. This allows USGBC to keep LEED consistent and still recognize the unique differences across the globe.

In addition, in an effort to encourage continued international growth, in 2013 USGBC launched the LEED Earth campaign, offering free certification to the first project to certify in the more than 100 countries with no LEED projects.

However, beyond these avenues for international expansion, former LEED Steering Committee Chair Joel Todd considers the principles of regenerative design as central to the ongoing evolution of LEED, which must encourage the design and operation of truly responsive structures. “How do we get [people] to think about the building’s relationship to that place, the local community and the people that are there, where they become positive contributors instead of just being there?” she asked.

Similarly, Owens counted engagement on social equity and human health issues as critical to LEED’s continued success. USGBC, he believes, must leverage its market position to use the construction industry as a lever for positive change — for instance, the elimination of contemporary slave labor and a global ban on the use of cancer-causing chemicals in building materials. “It’s a long chain of events that gets us to that, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” he said.

In particular, USGBC has been positioning LEED as a mechanism for advancing human health initiatives related to the built environment. Among other health-related initiatives, the LEED for Healthcare rating system has already seen success, certifying its first project in April 2013, the LEED Gold Group Health Puyallap Medical Center in Puyallup, Wash. In January 2013, USGBC hosted its first Summit on Green Building and Human Health, bringing together designers, product manufacturers, researchers, public health practitioners and government officials, among others, to share knowledge and discuss how to build and support a nationwide movement that promotes healthy green building. And in February 2013, USGBC launched its Green Health Partnership with the University of Virginia and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working to understand health metrics in the context of LEED, to recommend new measures of success that quantify health impacts and demonstrate the application of new health metrics in GBIG.

In 2013, USGBC celebrated its 20th anniversary, and it can say with confidence that the environmental movement as a whole can count LEED among its successful endeavors. Found across all sectors and in nearly every area of the world, LEED plaques adorn college campuses, hospitals, office buildings, sports arenas, restaurants, apartment complexes, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, data centers, police and fire stations and more. Situated at the intersection of business and environmental interests, LEED symbolizes the power of a collective will that insists that our built environment no longer do less harm, but do more good. And we have only just begun to unleash its potential.