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Many owners and municipalities are requesting LEED “certifiable” buildings from their design teams. How is a specifier to respond?

The ZGF-designed "Living Learning Center" at the University of Oregon was designed to the LEED Silver standard but did not apply for certification. Colleges & universities frequently take this approach.
Photo Credit: University of Oregon

In our experience with over 200 (real) LEED projects, we have seen four approaches.

Approach 1: Declare an early victory

The team completes the LEED scorecard and declares victory. There is no mention of LEED in the project manual and the contractor is asked to “make the right green choices.” There is no review of the scorecard after construction. While this is clearly a useless LEED approach, there are many who accept this result. In fairness, some are municipalities that are not able to mandate certification, others are architects who believe their professional training and personal commitment is the correct measure of sustainability.

Specifier’s Response: As always, at least include low-VOC products, high-performance products, and construction waste management in your specs.

Approach 2: Sprinkle in some requirements

The team completes the LEED scorecard, makes a determination of which design credits could be easily achieved, and includes only a few requirements in the specifications. Perhaps construction waste management, FSC-certified wood, and Green Label Plus carpet are sufficient to demonstrate some interest in sustainable design. Data-intensive credits such as recycled content, regional materials, and low-emitting materials are typically avoided. Again, the scorecard is not evaluated after construction.

Specifier’s Response: Match the specs with the LEED credits selected. Include submittals at the level of detail that a LEED audit would require, such as chain-of-custody (CoC) documentation for FSC products and VOC levels for paints, coatings, sealants, and adhesives.

Also Read

Six Things LEED Consultants Do Wrong in Specs

Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: BuildingGreen Checks the Facts

Approach 3: Everything but submitting for LEED review

The team completes the LEED scorecard, includes it and all relevant requirements in the project manual, and collects all the data from the contractor, but does not submit to GBCI for certification. The team makes an internal evaluation of whether the goal has been obtained, and declares success. This approach is frequently taken at colleges, where those that manage the projects need to respond to various faculty and student initiatives. There is some certainty that LEED Certification would have been achieved, but typically there is no energy model, no commissioning—generally, little attempt at any credit which involves increased expense.

Specifier’s Response: Again, match the specs with the LEED credits selected. Note that the credit numbering and language for all the different LEED rating systems is slightly different—be sure which LEED program the team is following.

Approach 4: Go beyond LEED

The design team is actually committed to sustainability, and regrets the owner can’t or won’t fund LEED Certification. The energy model is developed early and really informs the design. Products that meet the VOC limits, regional goals, recycled content are specified into the project without reference to LEED. The contractor is asked to include sustainability in their product choices. The contingency fund for construction includes sustainability as a reason for a change order. After all, isn’t that what design is all about—understanding the owner’s requirements and delivering the best result for the funds available?


Specifier’s Response: Same as Approach 3 above, but now there’s the opportunity to go beyond LEED requirements. Make sure environmentally committed firms like Interface and Kingspan have an opportunity to bid. Ask the project owner what their standard products are, to help minimize waste in the future. Look downstream and make sure the NFPA fire door inspections are actually done and documented.

Also read Six Things LEED Consultants Do Wrong in Specs, by Mark Kalin—and join the discussion there.

Mark Kalin is President of Kalin Associates Specifications and currently Chair of CSI’s National Technical Committee. The firm has completed specs for over 200 LEED projects. Free spec downloads and position papers at

Check out GreenSpec for guidance on more sustainable building products to include in your project specifications.

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1 The Reality of LEED "Certifiable" Projects posted by Sarah Hirsch on 06/28/2012 at 03:02 pm

In theory it is possible to take Approaches 3 or 4. However, in practice we find that without the actual requirement to document the project and achieve the determined rating level, the rigor is not there and infact the project would not achieve the desired, determined rating goal. Without the documentation requirement there is a tendency of the team to make decisions at critical points in the project for reasons such as cost, time, or because it is easier and not for how it impacts the projects sustainability and LEED rating.

2 Sustainable Design Requirements posted by Bruce Maine on 07/05/2012 at 06:53 am

Depending on the client's expectations any of the approaches are feasible. There are so many LEED credits that are now standard practice and so expressed in our design principles and specifications  (as with many firms I suspect), that many clients are of the opinion that having a plaque on the wall is less important than being able to demonstrate green building principles to employees and stakeholders as a matter of general practice.  For those clients who wish to pursue a greater committment without pursuing LEED certification, we have a unique "Sustainable Design Requirements" Division 01 document that has many LEED credits as well as other practices.  A good place to start is to adopt some "Minimum Sustainable Requirements" and implement those on all projects and move forward from there on any of Mr.Kalin's approaches.   

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