Over the past decade, sustainable design has been transformed from a fringe movement to big business. However, given the sheer scale of the environmental damage caused by the built environment, it’s clear that far more must be done. To prevent future catastrophes, the industry must both scale up its green initiatives and increase their effectiveness. On the quantity front, the entity most responsible for the explosion of green building is LEED. Developed in 2000 by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the voluntary project rating system has won over the industry by providing both a convenient set of guidelines for sustainable practices and a clear marketing incentive for designers and firms to go green (or at least appear to).
When it comes to moving forward on the quality side, however, the picture is a bit fuzzier. No one organization seems to clearly lead the way in promoting innovation as clearly as the USGBC does in popularization. But although there have been many rumblings about organizations striving to outdo LEED in terms of rigor, given the tremendous name recognition and market penetration of the program, LEED seems better positioned to move the industry forward than other actors. Within LEED, the most obvious place to look for innovation is Platinum, the highest level of project certification. To earn Platinum, project teams must obtain at least 80 of a possible 110 points (as compared to, for example, 40 points at the program’s lowest rung, Certified.) Of these 110 points, six are specifically designed to recognize innovation in sustainable design. And although it is possible to reach 80 points without gaining a single innovation point, Platinum certification is commonly viewed as recognition that a project team is pushing the boundaries of the possible. And to judge by the numbers, this is occurring with increasing frequency within LEED: 116 projects were certified Platinum in 2009, a figure equal to the total number of Platinum projects from all previous years combined.
To find out more about the relationship between the USGBC, LEED Platinum, and innovation, I spoke with Scot Horst, the USGBC’s Vice President for LEED. How does the USGBC see its role in promoting innovation in sustainable design? It’s very difficult to look outside and see how we’re going to turn this around, especially by just changing how we design, engineer, build and live in buildings. The tendency when you say ‘innovation’ is to look for a specific product that’s innovative. But the reality, from my perspective, is that the innovation is going to come from a much larger shift. And I actually think we’re seeing that shift, just kind of vaguely. The way I see innovation and the USGBC’s role in it is that we’re helping the entire market head to a place where it’s going to be regenerative instead of just sucking up resources. I don’t want to say this word lightly, but innovation is more of a paradigm shift. Innovation is how nature works. I’m thinking of our part in a natural system, not just a manmade system. Part of what USGBC is about, and what LEED Platinum helps do, is creating more people thinking that they can be part of this transformation because they do it in their daily lives. So when you say that LEED is trying to get people to be part of natural systems, would an example be the new local credits that give people more incentive to respond to the specific natural contexts that they’re working in? I think that’s a good way to put it. LEED is sort of a rough way of pulling people into recognizing that they are part of a natural system, that we’re part of nature, not ‘there’s us and then there’s nature.’ You can build a building so that it’s actually part of nature. It can be a skyscraper, even. Platinum is really good at helping people start to think this way. Once we are really building that way at a much larger scale, it’s entirely possible that our buildings are our power plants and our water filters, that they’re part of what sustains us instead of part of what’s killing us.
Are there trends or commonalities among projects that are currently in design for Platinum? Is there such a thing as a typical Platinum project? A lot of times when you go to a LEED building you aren’t sure that you’re seeing LEED, but with Platinum projects you can see where it has really helped guide the project team. You can’t necessarily see all the systems that are saving energy and water, but with a Platinum project you can just see there’s so much energy and love put into the design. Relative to trends with those projects, because you have to achieve so many different points, it’s almost impossible that you would have a Platinum project without good daylighting, really high-quality lighting design, and extreme water savings features. I’ve heard that Platinum certification might be a lot more difficult to achieve in the new version of LEED, LEED 2009. Is that the case? I wouldn’t say that it’s a lot more difficult to achieve, because usually when a project team is close to getting Platinum they’re really focused on a lot of things that are beneficial environmentally—so they aren’t just focusing on energy efficiency, they’re looking at the building holistically. And they’re usually using a different type of design process, a more integrated design process. All of those things collectively allow projects a lot more opportunities. If you’re just trying to go for Certified, for example, a lot of times you’re just looking for points. Usually when you’re getting Platinum you understand in-depth how to build a green building.
So that’s one answer to that question. The other answer is that Platinum does raise the bar in LEED 2009 at the lowest levels. But once you’re getting energy credits, for example, if you’re shooting for Platinum you’re going to be getting a lot more. Anything else you’d like to say on the topic? There are people that talk a lot about going beyond LEED, and that’s really a fun philosophical place to be. But the really amazing thing about Platinum is that it’s people on the ground really doing it. There’s just so much to be said for that. Interview conducted, condensed & edited by Sarah Wesseler