Is LEED Still Your Best Investment

The emergence of next generation models and ratings systems might point the way to sounder financial choices in sustainable projects

By Bob Zabcik

Historically, building and design decisions have been made with lowest first cost in mind. More recently, a focus on long-term ROI has gained favor.

Certainly, investing money in choices that would be best over the life of the building — and would, moreover, guarantee a return — is sound and basic. However, in the age of green building, this basic approach can be complicated by tangents. Owners need to be very careful in determining how they will judge the success of their facility investment.
Green building rating systems are a good example. Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design (LEED) was introduced by the USGBC in 1998 and has since become the de facto authority for “green” builders, certifying 1.5 million square feet of building space each day in 135 countries. The building industry continues to look to LEED for projects, and while it stands up as a thorough and robust grading system, it — like anything else — has its limitations and idiosyncrasies. Chief among them is the fact that it causes builders and owners to choose options that previously would not have been considered, often at higher first cost.

Given recent economic fluctuations, decision-makers are increasingly reluctant to spend money unless they can justify it. Builders and owners, then, should be encouraged to take a second look at their projects and reassess what motivates them to apply for LEED certification in the first place.

LEED is a guideline, not a guarantee

As with any endeavor, the applicable goals and criteria of success for a construction project should be identified early in the process. A green building rating system is no exception. Should they choose LEED, it is incumbent upon builders and architects to review LEED credits with owners and decide which ones make the most sense for the building. They are useful guidelines for any builder, but not all construction projects necessarily track well with LEED. It is important for builders to start with the question of what improvements or applications will create the highest return on investment for their building and its function. The improvements they decide upon might end up being incompatible with LEED, but this mindset will create more valuable buildings in the end.

Optimize Energy Performance credit

For example, the Optimize Energy Performance credit of LEED, which is awarded for a reduction in energy use between 30% and 48%, is potentially worth a lot of points. However, not all buildings have a fair chance at obtaining this credit. The way it is set up, this credit handicaps low usage buildings like warehouses or structures that are not fully air conditioned. Because these structures have comparatively low energy consumption to begin with, it can be much more difficult for them to reduce their output by a large enough percentage to earn this LEED credit. A non-air conditioned warehouse that has a starting energy use of, say, 10 kilowatt hours per square foot, would have to lower its usage to 7 kWh/sq ft to qualify, which may fall below the minimum required for the buildings’ basic functionality. A hospital that has a starting energy use of 30 kWh/sq ft would have a much easier time finding areas to trim usage to get down to 21 kWh/sq ft.

Public Transportation and Regional Materials credits

Another example applies to the Public Transportation and Regional Materials credits, which might not be accessible for all projects, based on where the site is located. For instance, an owner may have purchased the site for the building long before the decision to apply for LEED certification. If the site is not near a metropolitan area, their chances of qualifying for the public transportation credit are slim, since there’s no way to simply choose a new location. Along the same lines, there may be plans for a building in the Southwest US, surrounded by desert. If such a project, (based on cost or performance) requires a timber frame structure, the builder faces an impossible challenge to find a source of timber within the 500-mile radius that would qualify it as “regional material,” and so the building would not be eligible for the regional materials credit.

Innovation in Design

LEED does allow builders to create and apply for their own credits, on a limited basis. This credit is called Innovation in Design. A building can get up to five points by applying out-of-the-box thinking while keeping in the spirit of LEED.

Life Cycle Assessment

During the past few years, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) has emerged as an alternative to the LEED Materials and Resources credits, replacing several of those credits in the newest version of LEED. This assessment uses a scientific process to evaluate environmental impacts of a product’s raw material procurement, manufacturing, delivery, deployment, use, deconstruction, recycling and disposal.

Following this process allows professionals to look at the building’s impact as a whole and take a more “big picture” approach to sustainability. LCA differs from traditional LEED credits, which can encourage builders to go for individual materials that don’t necessarily work well together. Highlighting the distinction, metal buildings perform particularly well with LCA because of their durability, high recycled content and recyclability.

This approach brings together numerous stakeholders to contribute best practices in sustainability. This has led to the idea of ‘design charettes’, which have grown increasingly popular during recent years. This model brings together the builder, architect, general contractor, structural engineer and building product manufacturers at the very beginning of the process. The group then can set goals for the building, which can include ideas along with intended outcomes for both sustainability and the general function of the building. This process works nicely with the LCA model and sets the stage to compare original goals against LCA findings at the end of the project.

Getting Back to Basics

  • When sustainability is the objective, focus first on the goals for the project as a whole. 
  • Try to resist the urge to start blindly collecting LEED credits to achieve the highest point total possible because of the short-term gratification or hopes to see the company’s name annotated with a LEED certification at the completion of the project. 
  • It is important to research and find the best ways to make the building as sustainable as possible, based on its function and purpose, not the color of the plaque. 
  • Choose what is right for the project, and then go back and see what credits might apply.
  • LEED is a tool, and if the tool is misused, the intended outcome is unlikely to be met.
  • Allow LEED to make the building better, not limit its potential.

About the author

Bob Zabcik is NCI Building Systems’ Director of Research and Development. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Registered Professional Engineer with more than 20 years of experience. He serves on several professional committees, such as the MBMA Energy Committee and Sustainability Committee, as well as several task groups of those committees.  He is also on the Board of the Cool Metal Roofing Coalition and serves as the Director of their technical committee. To learn more about NCI Building Systems, visit or contact Bob: