USGBC Strives to Improve Quality of Life (The State Journal 4/10/15)

As a commercial interior designer who’s been working in the building industry for over 20 years, I couldn’t agree more with Brooks McCabe’s assessment that the built environment is “more than just bricks and mortar.”  And as Chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s West Virginia Chapter, this definitely holds true for me and our members.  The purpose of the organization is to improve the quality of life for West Virginians by transforming the way the built environment is designed, constructed, and maintained, resulting in buildings and communities that are environmentally, socially, and economically prosperous.  That is a big purpose, but doable within a generation.  We have to start now.

A little history and our role in West Virginia:  the U.S. Green Building Council is a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., formed in 1993.  It developed the LEED Green Building Rating System (LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in 2000.  Many stakeholders are involved in LEED’s continual development including architects, engineers, interior designers, contractors, industry groups, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.  LEED has always been based on current scientific standards, energy standards, and best practices, but also strives to push the marketplace toward greener practices and building products.

LEED is essentially a checklist used by project teams to address all aspects of a building project in 8 categories:  Location and Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation, and Regional Priority.  Many “credits” within each category are interrelated and require close collaboration between design disciplines.  There are a total of 110 points available, with a minimum of 40 required to become Certified, the lowest of 4 levels of certification.  There are over 100 projects throughout the state registered with the USGBC and of those, almost half are certified, with the other half still going through the process.  There are nearly 100 LEED Accredited Professionals throughout the state.  These are people, mostly professionals in the building industry, who are familiar with the LEED process, have taken an exam to prove it, and who, in most cases, are required to attain continuing education credits.

Not surprisingly, there’s been some pushback in West Virginia to the LEED Green Building Rating System.  In part, this is due to some misinformation.  First, the USGBC is not a government agency and participation in LEED is voluntary.  The local chapter is made up of fellow West Virginians all concerned about sustainable design and construction practices.

Second, many believe that LEED projects are cost prohibitive.  In the half dozen LEED projects I’ve worked on in West Virginia over the past 7 years, all have come in on time and under budget.  Fear of the unknown often causes people to dismiss outright new ways of doing things, but what’s nice about the LEED system is that there is no “one size fits all” for every project.  The USGBC recognizes that every project is different, every site and state is different, and so project teams are offered a variety of choices toward certification.

Third, the USGBC does not require the use of untested materials or systems, thereby causing undue risk to project teams and their clients.  Decisions regarding which credits to achieve and how to meet the requirements are no different from decisions made during the design process.  Not everyone is familiar with the hiring of design professionals like architects, engineers or interior designers, but doing so, especially if their firms are national members of the USGBC and have LEED APs on staff, will bring an understanding of the synergy between credits and various approaches to meeting the requirements.

The building industry and associated development practices have a huge effect on climate, the long-term viability of earth’s resources, public health and general happiness of all of us.  The LEED Green Building Rating System is simply the best measurement of the positive impacts that can be made to improve everyone’s quality of life, beyond bricks and mortar.