LEED Compliance

When we think of being green in the context of participating in a construction project, we immediately think of LEED. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is the originator and developer of the LEED rating systems that have become the dominant rating systems for green building projects in this country. In order to make the rating systems functional, the USGBC had to create and enforce rules. These rules are in the form of requirements that must be met in order to achieve specified credits. The more credits achieved, the higher the level of certification awarded. Construction projects are divided into categories, each with its own LEED rating system. Although similarities exist between rating systems, differences can be critical. A list of rating systems can be found on the USGBC website, usgbc.org. They include: Commercial Interiors, Schools, Retail, Healthcare, Homes, etc.

On a given building or renovation project, the project team (which includes the owner, contractor, architect, etc.) is responsible for deciding what level of LEED certification it’s trying to achieve and how to accomplish the task. Due to the diverse impact of the trades working on the project, it’s difficult for the design team to know every aspect of LEED requirements on the job. Therefore, it’s good for each vendor and sub-contractor to have as much understanding of LEED requirements as possible, especially for those credits that are directly affected by his or her product or trade. With this specific knowledge in hand, each participant can help the project team achieve their goals. They accomplish this by using methods and materials that comply with the category of project and level of certification being pursued.

If we want to participate in a LEED project as woodworkers, it’s important for us to learn how to comply with the specific requirements that apply to woodworking. In order to learn these requirements, we might attend webcasts and seminars. That’s at least a start. We might also purchase a LEED reference guide from the USGBC for each category of project in which we participate. Then we’ll need to study the sections of the reference guide that show us what we need to do to help the project team achieve its goals. If we can’t afford to devote this much time right away, we might hire a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) with an understanding of woodworking, either on a full time or consulting basis. A LEED AP has a verified understanding of the requirements specific to at least one category of project.

Even after we’ve done this extensive preparation, we can’t be sure we’re in compliance in every situation. The requirements are subject to interpretation by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), an offshoot organization developed to administer LEED requirements, amongst other things. This organization analyzes extenuating circumstances on a given project and interprets how LEED requirements should apply. Interpretation can sometimes become a back and forth process between the project team and the GBCI. As vendors or sub-contractors, we don’t negotiate directly with the GBCI, so we need to rely on the project team to relay GBCI rulings to us as they apply to our participation in the project.

So, if we’re a woodworking company of limited means, how can we be assured that we’re complying with LEED regulations on a given project? We can hope that the project team is informing us as to exactly what’s required of us. And if they don’t, we’re not responsible, right? Wrong. Many project specifications hold individual trades responsible for meeting the appropriate LEED criteria and if we don’t, we will be held liable.

Does this seem a little overwhelming? I understand. I’ve gone through the process of becoming a LEED AP with my emphasis on Corporate Interiors back in 2008. The requirements have changed since then so I need to keep myself up to date. Also, the requirements for Corporate Interiors don’t coincide completely with the requirements for other categories of projects, such as Healthcare or Schools. Each category must be researched individually. This research only lets us know the specifications of the requirements, not how to achieve them. For example, we’ll still need to learn how to choose and apply finishes that comply with the appropriate LEED requirements for the specific application and at the same time we’ll need to be certain the finish will be acceptable in terms of aesthetics and durability.

The complexity of LEED rating system requirements leaves a lot of woodworkers out of the bidding on LEED projects. Hopefully, the USGBC can find ways to make the requirements less complicated and easier to meet since compliance is expensive, especially for small companies. Expensive is a formidable obstacle in today’s economy. If the USGBC wants to maintain its dominant position for regulating green building practices, it will need to address the expense involved in accomplishing certification. Otherwise, LEED will become unsustainable.

In the meanwhile, those of us with limited means who have the desire to participate in LEED projects have little choice but to educate ourselves as best we can.