LEED as the Seed: Sustainability Beyond Certification

by | Jan 13, 2011

Congratulations. You’ve been LEED certified.  Now what?

That is the question facing the owners and operators of over one billion square feet of commercial space that have obtained LEED status under the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Green Building Rating System.

What they (and you) decide will make a big impact – it will mean the difference between one billion square feet of truly sustainable real estate, and one billion square feet of potentially sustainable real estate.

The gap between real and potential sustainability lies in the way LEED is perceived.

If you think attaining LEED is attaining sustainability, your answer to the “now what?” question might well be “nothing,” since you’ve already achieved your goal.

But you would be missing the point because LEED does not equal sustainability.  It merely opens the door to sustainability.  True sustainability is a process.

Think of it this way.  Would you walk away from your garden after carefully planting your seeds?  Or would you continue to tender and monitor it to make sure it thrives?

With LEED as the seed, what’s next is to ensure that sustainability blooms.

So back to the question. Now what?

Well, first, go ahead and hang that LEED plaque up on your wall.  You deserve it.  You’ve made a great start.  To reach your full, sustainable potential, here’s what you must do beyond LEED:

1)   Establish a long-term environmental management system

In a nutshell, this means putting in place a plan to ensure the continued improvement of your building’s environmental performance following a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.  Beyond LEED, this means that other sustainability efforts should be constantly evaluated and added when necessary.  This may include programs like ISO 14001 and 9001, ENERGY STAR, supply chain lifecycle analysis and carbon footprint reporting.

2) Measure and manage with a sustainability metrics

Is your building saving as much energy as its LEED certification predicted?  Are the bathroom retrofits lowering water consumption?  Is the recycling program being fully utilized? These questions can only be answered if a building’s sustainability performance is being measured and managed.  Right now, little of that is being done. USGBC research suggests that a quarter of new LEED buildings are not saving as much energy as expected, and that most buildings do not track energy consumption.

The key to any long-term plan is a system to measure and manage your sustainability efforts so that you can set baselines for future improvements, not just for LEED recertification.

Environmental performance should be measured and managed as widely as possible, and should go beyond energy and water use to include purchases (paper, recycled materials, cups, cardboard cafeteria trays, etc.), waste and recycling, heating and cooling days, and other sustainability markers.

3) Communicate and educate

Your building’s tenants and employees have to realize that they do not just work in a LEED building, but that they are in fact part of the green process.

Tenants who are reminded to switch off the lights, for example, can make a difference in energy use.  Other tenant-controlled activities like recycling and purchasing should be guided with regular education sessions and the use of informational signs to make sure your sustainability programs are not under utilized.

Because new equipment cannot be run in the same old ways, don’t forget to train your operations and maintenance staff in updated efficiency techniques. They will hold the key to any upgrades you’ve made for LEED.

Externally, your building’s efforts should be communicated through corporate social responsibility reports or the use of a sustainability-reporting framework like the Global Reporting Initiative.  These detailed reports document results (obtained using a sustainability metrics) and demonstrate a commitment to sustainable development that will serve to motivate and build on LEED for a lasting green benefit.

4) Conduct management review

As a process, sustainability has to be incorporated into your building’s or company’s overall strategy.  Sustainability has to be accounted for in capital budgets, risk management, corporate reputation and other decisions.  This will ensure that the sustainability process continues beyond LEED as part of your long-term vision.

Richard Fuller is President of Great Forest, Inc., a leading sustainability consultancy that works to improve environmental performance and reduce costs for clients across the country, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to universities. A pioneer in the field with over 20 years of experience, Great Forest continues to introduce innovative ideas including the Sustainability Metrics, one of the most comprehensive tools available to track and access sustainability data. Richard Fuller also founded the nonprofit Blacksmith Institute to clean up life-threatening pollution in low and middle-income countries. Learn more at www.greatforest.com

Anna Dengler is Director of Sustainability at Great Forest, where she manages sustainability projects, including LEED certification, carbon footprints, ISO 14001 and sustainability management systems focusing on best environmental practices for businesses. Anna is LEED accredited and also holds a certificate in Sustainability Management from The Natural Step (TNS) in Sweden. She teaches a course on sustainability and green buildings at Hunter College.

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