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Sustainable Design: LEED Certification Is Not Exact Science

Imagine you were building a new vacation home in Park City, Utah. You hired Sparano + Mooney as your architect, partly because one of the things they do is practice sustainable design with an eye on LEED certification. You have made a wise choice. Yet do not assume that LEED certification is an exact science. It’s not.

LEED is more of a rating system than anything else. Architects, designers, and builders earn points by designing new buildings with components that are considered environmentally friendly, energy friendly, and sustainable. A final score based on a 100-point scale determines the kind of LEED certification a building gets.

More About LEED

The sustainability movement had barely started when, in 1989, an architect by the name of Bob Berkebile called on the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to begin studying ways more environmentally responsible architecture could be practiced. His efforts eventually led to the formation of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE).

COTE worked with the EPA to create new guidelines for sustainable architecture. The AIA committee would eventually go on to become the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the organization that now sets the standards for the LEED rating system. LEED-rated buildings with certification are certified by the USGBC.

6 Key Rating Areas

LEED certification is issued based on a design’s score in six key areas. Standard LEED certification is awarded for scores between 40 and 49 points. Three additional certifications are as follows:

  • Silver – 50 to 59 points
  • Gold – 60 to 70 points
  • Platinum – 80+ points.

According to Sparano + Mooney, the USGBC’s six key rating areas are:

1. Sustainable Building Sites

Site selection is considered by some to be most important aspect of building sustainable structures. Buildings interact with sites on many levels, for as long as they remain standing. Everything from passive design suitability to access and public transportation affects a project’s score.

2. Water Efficiency

The USGBC wants to see designers and architects being more mindful of a building’s use of fresh water. Designs score higher when they are equipped with things like low flush toilets. In industrial settings, designers can earn points by implementing ways to reuse gray water.

3. Energy and Atmosphere

This rating category covers both energy consumption and emissions. A structure that is more energy-efficient will get a higher rating than one for which energy efficiency is not a priority. In terms of emissions, builders are scored on everything from CO2 footprint to the refrigerants used in HVAC systems.

4. Materials and Resources

This particular area is about more than just utilizing sustainable building materials. Of equal importance is reducing waste. Designers and architects are encouraged to utilize recycled, renewable, and repurposed materials. They are also encouraged to reduce waste during construction.

5. Indoor Environmental Quality

The USGBC is also concerned about how a structure’s interior affects the people occupying it. They developed the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) category to cover everything from ventilation to lighting and indoor pollution.

6. Innovation in Design

Finally, architects and designers can earn LEED points for coming up with entirely new green and sustainable concepts that go above and beyond current LEED standards. It is assumed the organization implemented this particular category as a means of improving their standards and certifications while simultaneously promoting Bob Berkebile’s original vision.

If you are looking to build a new home or commercial structure with LEED certification, just know that certification isn’t an exact science. Though based on published standards, scoring is still subjective. A building’s total score and certification level only tell you so much.

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