Building teams face many key decisions as they begin a project. One relatively new choice, in an official capacity, is whether to make the project “green”. Typically this question comes down to whether or not to seek LEED certification or to pursue some near equivalent without going through the submission and review with GBCI (Green Building Certification Institute). There are pros and cons to both the official and “stealth” green building approaches which must be weighed according to the project’s needs and goals.

At only 3,111 certified projects as of June 2009, LEED projects make up only a fraction America’s building stock. LEED certification lends credibility to green building claims through third-party verification of compliance with a system that has been through the wringer of expert development and public vetting several times over. The overhaul apparent with the launch of version 3 and a commitment to bi-annual updates demonstrates that the USGBC is serious about continually raising the bar of these standards. LEED version 3 brings consistency to the point structures across the various ratings packages and re-weights points to prioritize the looming issue of climate change. LEED certification will now be more difficult to achieve without serious consideration and implementation of energy efficiency measures. A new requirement for two years of utility data after occupancy will ensure that the energy modeling simulations performed during the design phase are verified against real-world energy use.

Putting your project through LEED’s green building rating system brings several advantages. Committing to LEED certification can advance your marketing clout as it demonstrates to prospective clients and employees that your organization walks the “sustainability” talk. The system encourages teams to bring all stakeholders to the table throughout design and construction; The LEED scorecard promotes an Integrated Design Process (IDP) where projects start early with an Eco-charette to share important information and set goals. The scorecard’s six categories, though not exhaustive, cover a range of environmental issues affecting the construction and operation of buildings. LEED also provides structure and accountability as each team member is assigned responsibility for assessing and documenting points in their area of expertise. Last but not least, LEED’s structured levels of achievement often can inspire clients to push sustainability further, especially when scorecard progress reviews show the project positioned only a few points away from a gold or platinum rating.

Of course, LEED is not a perfect system. The decision about whether to pursue the LEED plaque typically starts and often ends with the price tag. The GBCI fees, for project registration and certification reviews, ranging from $2,250 (for buildings under 50,000 sf) to $22,500 (maximum), are actually just a fraction of the LEED process costs. Energy Modeling and Commissioning, two prerequisites, usually add another $20,000 to $70,000 each. LEED project management, whether performed by a sustainability consultant or the architect, tends to run up an additional $20,000 to $70,000. Lastly, LEED Online documentation requirements will mean increased fees for the architect, civil engineer, landscape architect, MEP consultants and construction contractors. Since these basic costs vary little with project size, they can be prohibitive for smaller project budgets to absorb.

If costs are not a deal breaker, other issues may make LEED impractical. If any of the prerequisites can’t be met, LEED is automatically a no-go. In some cases, LEED’s scoring priorities may not mesh well with the program, site, or other project design requirements. Certain sustainability strategies, including elimination of finishes and other building materials efficiencies, are not rewarded by the LEED system. Another flaw with the system is the temptation to buy points by pursuing easier strategies, regardless of whether they fit the project’s goals or make it more sustainable, in order to reach a desired LEED level.

Truly idealistic project teams may find the newer Living Building Challenge a better measuring stick for sustainable building goals. The Cascadia Region Green Building Council, the Pacific Northwest’s chapter of USGBC, launched the Living Building Challenge (LBC) in November 2006. The LBC consists of sixteen prerequisites which must all be met and proven based on a year of post occupancy data collection before being recognized as a Living Building. LBC’s stringent requirements, meant to approach truly sustainable development, range from net-zero energy and water to locally derived and manufactured building materials that don’t contain any red-listed toxins, to providing operable windows for every occupied space.

Lona Rerick is a LEED AP with Portland-based Yost Grube Hall.