LEED-NC: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for New Construction


The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) Green Building Rating System is a set of rating systems for various types of construction projects. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the rating systems evolved with the intent of helping to “fulfill the building industry’s vision for its own transformation to green building.” [U.S. Green Building Council. LEED green building rating system. 2004.] The rating systems developed by the USGBC are for new construction, existing buildings, core and shell construction, commercial interiors, homes, and residences. This article considers one of these systems, LEED-NC. It discuses the influences that shaped development of LEED-NC for new construction and major renovations, details how the process works, and considers how new projects are scored. The article concludes by providing a brief assessment of the program’s strengths and weaknesses.


Land development practices have yielded adverse environmental consequences, urban dislocation, and changes in urban infrastructure. Urban development in particular has long been associated with reduced environmental quality and environmental degradation.1-2-1 The rate at which undeveloped land is being consumed for new structures—and the growing appetite of those structures for energy and environmental resources—has contributed to ecosystem disruption and has fostered impetus to rethink how buildings are sited and constructed. While urban developmental patterns have been associated with environmental disruptions at the local and regional scales, the scientific assessments of global impacts have yielded mixed results. In part as a reaction to U.S. development patterns that have traditionally fostered suburbanization and subsidized automobile-biased transportation infrastructure, design alternatives for structures with environmentally friendly and energy efficient attributes have become available.

According to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, “air and water pollution in urban areas are associated with excess morbidity and mortality … Environmental pollution as a result of energy production, transportation, industry or lifestyle choices adversely affects health. This would include such factors as ambient and indoor air pollution, water pollution, inadequate waste management, noise, pesticides and radiation.”[3] It has been demonstrated that a relationship exists between the rates at which certain types of energy policies are adopted at the local level and select indicators of local sustainability.[4] As more urban policies focus on the built environment, buildings continue to be the primary building blocks of urban infrastructure. If buildings can be constructed in a manner that is less environmentally damaging and more energy efficient, then there is greater justification to label them as “green” buildings.

The concept of sustainability has evolved from considerations of land development, population growth, fossil fuel usage, pollution, global warming, availability of water supplies, and the rates of resource use.[5] Thankfully, a vocabulary of technologies and methodologies began to develop in the 1970s and 1980s that responded to such concerns. Driven by ever increasing energy costs, energy engineers began to apply innovative solutions, such as use of alternative energy, more efficient lighting systems and improved electrical motors. Controls engineers developed highly sophisticated digital control systems for heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems. With growing concerns about product safety and liability issues regarding the chemical composition of materials, manufacturers began to mitigate the potential adverse impacts of these materials upon their consumers. Resource availability and waste reduction became issues that began to influence product design. In the span of only 25 years, local governments made curbside recycling programs in larger U.S. cities nearly ubiquitous. Terms and phrases such as “mixed use planning,” “brownfield redevelopment,” “alternative energy,” “micro-climate,” “systems approach,” “urban heat island effect,” “energy assessments,” “measurement and verification,” and “carrying capacity” created the basis for a new vocabulary which identifies potential solutions. All of these concerns evolved prior to the 1992 U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development, which resulted in the Rio Agenda 21 and clarified the concept sustainability.

In regard to the built environment, architectural designers renewed their emphasis on fundamental design issues, including site orientation, day lighting, shading, landscaping, and more thermally cohesive building shells. Notions of “sick building syndrome” and illnesses like Legionnaires’ disease, asthma and asbestosis, jolted architects and engineers into re-establishing the importance of the indoor environmental conditions in general and indoor air quality (IAQ) in particular when designing their buildings.

The decisions as to what sort of buildings to construct and what construction standards to apply are typically made locally. Those in the position to influence decisions in regard to the physical form of a proposed structure include the builder, developer, contractors, architects, engineers, planners, and local zoning agencies. In addition, all involved must abide by regulations that apply to the site and structure being planned. The rule structure may vary from one locale to another. What is alarming is that past professional practice within the U.S. building industry has only rarely gauged the environmental or energy impact of a structure prior to its construction. Prior to the efforts of organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) (established in 1995), the concept of what constituted a “green building” in the United States lacked a credible set of standards.


Accepting the notion that sustainable, environmentally appropriate, and energy efficient buildings can be labeled “green,” the degree of “greenness” is subject to multiple interpretations. The process of determining which attributes of a structure can be considered “green” or “not green” is inconclusive and subjective. Complicating the process, there are no clearly labeled “red” edifices with diametrically opposing attributes. While it is implied that a green building may be an improvement over current construction practice, the basis of attribute comparison is often unclear, subjective, and confusing. It is often unclear as to what sort of changes in construction practice, if imposed, would lead the way to greener, more sustainable buildings. If determinable, the marketplace must adjust and provide the technologies and means by which materials, components, and products can be provided to construction sites where greener buildings can arise. Since standards are often formative and evolving, gauging the degree of greenness risks the need to quantify subjective concepts.

There are qualities of structures, such as reduced environmental impact and comparatively lower energy usage, which are widely accepted as qualities of green construction practices. For example, use of recycled materials with post-consumer content that originates from a previous use in the consumer market and post-industrial content that would otherwise be diverted to landfills is widely considered an issue addressable by green construction practices. However, evaluation of green building attributes or standards by organizations implies the requirement that decisions be based on stakeholder consensus. This process involves input to the decision-making processes by an array of representative stakeholders in often widely diverse geographic locations. For these and other reasons, developing a rating system for green buildings is both difficult and challenging.


Rating systems for buildings with sustainable features began to emerge in embryonic form in the 1990s. The most publicized appeared in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. In the United Kingdom, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) was initiated in 1990. BREEAM™ certificates are awarded to developers based on an assessment of performance in regard to climate change, use of resources, impacts on human beings, ecological impact, and management of construction. Credits are assigned based on these and other factors. Overall ratings are assessed according to grades that range from pass to excellent.[6]

The International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment, based in Ottawa, Canada, has its Green Building Challenge program with more than 15 countries participating. The collaborative venture is geared toward the creation of an information exchange for sustainable building initiatives and the development of “environmental performance assessment systems for buildings.”[7] In the United States, agencies of the central government co-sponsored the development of the Energy Star™ program, which provides “technical information and tools that organizations and consumers need to choose energy-efficient solutions and best management prac-tices.”[8] Expanding on their success, Energy Star™ developed a building energy performance rating system which has been used for over 10,000 buildings.

Entering the field at the turn of the new century, the USGBC grew from an organization with just over 200 members in 1999 to 3500 members by 2003.[9] The LEED™ rating system is a consensus-developed and reviewed standard, allowing voluntary participation by diverse groups of stakeholders with interest in the application and use of the standard. According to Boucher, “the value of a sustainable rating system is to condition the marketplace to balance environmental guiding principles and issues, provide a common basis to communicate performance, and to ask the right questions at the start of a project.”[10] The first dozen pilot projects using the rating system were certified in 2000.


The USGBC’s Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-developed set of criteria and standards. This rating system evolved with a goal of applying standards and definition to the idea of high-performance buildings. The use of sustainable technologies is firmly established within the LEED project development process. LEED loosely defines green structures as those that are “healthier, more environmentally responsible and more profitable.”[1]

LEED-NC 2.1 is the USGBC’s current standard for new construction and major renovations. It is used primarily for commercial projects such as office buildings, hotels, schools, and institutions. The rating system is based on an assessment of attributes and an evaluation of the use of applied standards. Projects earn points as attributes are achieved and the requirements of the standards are proven. Depending on the total number of points a building achieves upon review, the building is rated as Certified (26-32 points), Silver (33-38 points), Gold (39-51 points) or Platinum (52 or more points).[11] Theoretically, there are a maximum of 69 achievable points. However, in real world applications, gaining certain credits often hinders the potential of successfully meeting the criteria of others. While achieving the rating of Certified is relatively easily accomplished, obtaining a Gold or Platinum rating is rare and requires both creativity and adherence to a broad range of prescriptive and conformance-based criteria.

The LEED process involves project registration, provision of documentation, interpretations of credits, application for certification, technical review, rating designation, award, and appeal. Depending on variables such as project square footage and USGBC membership status, registration fees can range up to $7500 for the process.[12]


To apply for the LEED labeling process, there are prerequisite project requirements which earn no points. For example, in the Sustainable Sites category, certain procedures must be followed to reduce erosion and sedimentation. In the category of Energy and Atmosphere, minimal procedures are required for building systems commissioning. Minimal energy performance standards must be achieved (e.g., adherence to ANSI/ASHRAE/ IESNA Standard 90.1-1999, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, or the local energy code if more stringent), and there must be verification that CFC refrigerants will not be used or will be phased out. In addition, there are prerequisite requirements outlining mandates for storage and collection of recyclable material, minimum IAQ performance (the requirements of ASHRAE Standard 62-1999, Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality must be adhered to), and the requirement that non-tobacco smokers not be exposed to smoke.

In addition to the prerequisite requirements, the LEED process assigns points upon achieving certain project criteria or complying with certain standards. The total points are summed to achieve the determined rating. Projects can achieve points from initiatives within the following sets of categories: Sustainable Sites (14 points), Water Efficiency (5 points), Energy and Atmosphere (17 points), Materials and Resources (13 points), and Indoor Environmental Quality (15 points). Use of a LEED Accredited Professional (1 point) to assist with the project[13] earns a single point. Additional points are available for Innovation and Design Process (maximum of 4 points).

Within each category, the specific standards and criteria are designed to meet identified goals. In the category of Sustainable Sites, 20.2% of the total possible points are available. This category focuses on various aspects of site selection, site management, transportation and site planning. The goals of this category involve reducing the environmental impacts of construction, protecting certain types of undeveloped lands and habitats, reducing pollution from development, conserving natural areas and resources, reducing the heat island impacts, and minimizing light pollution. Site selection criteria are designed to direct development away from prime farmland, flood plains, habitat for endangered species and public parkland. A development density point is awarded for projects that are essentially multi-story. If the site has documented environmental contamination or is designated by a governmental body as a brownfield, another point is available. In regard to transportation, four points are available for locating sites near publicly available transportation (e.g., bus lines or light rail), providing bicycle storage and changing rooms, provisions for alternatively fueled vehicles and carefully managing on-site parking. Two points in this category are obtained by limiting site disturbances and by exceeding “the local open space zoning requirement for the site by 25%.”[14] In addition, points are available by following certain storm water management procedures, increasing soil permeability, and attempting to eliminate storm water contamination. Potential urban heat island effects are addressed by crediting design attributes such as shading, underground parking, reduced impervious surfaces, high albedo materials, reflective roofing materials, or vegetated roofing. Finally, a point is available for eliminating light trespass.

Water efficiency credits comprise 7.2% of the total possible points. With the goal of maximizing the efficiency of water use and reducing the burden on water municipal systems, points are credited for reducing or eliminating potable water use for site irrigation, capturing and using rainwater for irrigation, and using drought tolerant or indigenous landscaping. This section of the LEED standard also addresses a building’s internal water consumption. Points are available for lowering aggregate water consumption and reducing potable water use. Reducing the wastewater quantities or providing on-site tertiary wastewater treatment also earns points.

Energy and Atmosphere is the category that offers the greatest number of points, 24.6% of the total possible. The intents of this category include improving the calibration of equipment, reducing energy costs, supporting alternative energy, reducing the use of substances that cause atmospheric damage, and offering measurement and verification criteria. Optimizing the design energy cost of the regulated energy systems can achieve a maximum of ten points. To assess the result, project designs are modeled against a base case solution which lacks certain energy-saving technologies. Interestingly, the unit of measure for evaluating energy performance to achieve credits is not kilocalories or million Btus, but dollars. Points are awarded in whole units as the percentage of calculated dollar savings increases incrementally. In addition to the ten points for energy cost optimization, a maximum of three additional points is available for buildings that use energy from on-site renewable energy generation. Purchased green power is allocated a single point if 50% of the electrical energy (in kWh) comes from a two year green power purchasing arrangement. This category provides points for additional commissioning and elimination of the use of HCFCs and halon gases. Measurement and Verification (M&V) is allowed a point, but only if M&V options B, C, and D, as outlined in the 2001 edition of the International Measurement and Verification Protocol (IPMVP), are used.

The Materials and Resources category represents 18.8% of the total possible points. This category provides credit for material management; adaptive reuse of structures; construction waste management; resource reuse; use of material with recycled content; plus the use of regionally manufactured materials, certain renewable materials and certified wood products. A point is earned for providing a space in the building for storage and collection of recyclable materials such as paper, cardboard, glass, plastics and metals. A maximum of three points is available for the adaptive reuse of existing on-site structures and building stock. The tally increases with the extent to which the existing walls, floor, roof structure, and external shell components are incorporated into the reconstruction. LEED-NC 2.1 addresses concerns about construction waste by offering a point if 50% of construction wastes (by weight or volume) are diverted

from landfills and another point if the total diversion of wastes is increased to 75%. A project that is composed of 10% recycled or refurbished building products, materials, and furnishings gains an additional two points. Another two points are available in increments (one point for 5%, two points for 10%) if post-consumer or post-industrial recycled content (by dollar value) is used in the new construction. To reduce environmental impacts from transportation systems, a point is available if 20% of the materials are manufactured regionally (defined as being within 500 miles or roughly 800 km of the site), and an added point is scored if 50% of the materials are extracted regionally. A point is available if rapidly renewable materials (e.g., plants with a ten year harvest cycle) are incorporated into the project, and yet another point is earned if 50% of the wood products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

In the category of Innovation and Design Process, 7.2% of the total possible points are available. The innovation credits offer the opportunity for projects to score points as a result of unusually creative design innovations, such as substantially exceeding goals of a given criteria or standard.


The LEED-NC process has numerous strengths. Perhaps the greatest is its ability to focus the owner and design team on addressing select energy and environmental considerations early in the design process. The LEED design process brings architects, planners, energy engineers, environmental engineers, and IAQ professionals into the program at the early stages of design development. The team adopts a targeted LEED rating as a goal for the project. A strategy evolves based on selected criteria. The team members become focused on fundamental green design practices that have often been overlooked when traditional design development processes were employed.

Furthermore, the LEED program identifies the intents of the environmental initiatives. Program requirements are stated and acceptable strategies are suggested. Scoring categories attempt to directly address certain critical environmental concerns. When appropriate, the LEED-NC program defers to engineering and environmental standards developed outside of the USGBC. The components of the program provide accommodation for local regulations. Case study examples, when available and pertinent, are provided and described in the LEED literature. To expedite the process of documenting requirements, letter templates and calculation procedures are available to program users. The educational aspects of the program, which succinctly describe select environmental concerns, cannot be understated. A Web site provides updated information on the program with clarifications of LEED procedures and practice. The training workshops sponsored by the USGBC are instrumental in engaging professionals with a wide range of capabilities.

These considerations bring a high degree of credibility to the LEED process. Advocates of the LEED rating system have hopes of it becoming the pre-eminent U.S. standard for rating new construction that aspires to achieve a “green” label. To its credit, it is becoming a highly regarded standard and continues to gain prestige. Nick Stecky, a LEED Accredited Professional, firmly believes that the system offers a “measurable, quantifiable way of determining how green a building is.”[15]

Despite its strengths, the LEED-NC has observable weaknesses. The LEED-NC registration process can appear to be burdensome, and has been perceived as slowing down the design process and creating added construction cost. Isolated cases support these concerns. Kentucky’s first LEED-NC school, seeking a Silver rating, was initially estimated to cost over $200/ft2 ($2152/m2) compared to the local standard costs of roughly $120/ft2 ($1290/m2) for non-LEED construction. However, there are few comparative studies available to substantially validate claims of statistically significant cost impact. Alternatively, many case studies suggest that there is no cost impact as a result of the LEED certification process.

It is also possible that the savings resulting from the use of certain LEED standards (e.g. reduced energy use) can be validated using life-cycle costing procedures. Regardless, LEED-NC fails as a one-size-fits-all rating system. For new construction, Kindergarten to 12th-grade (K-12), school systems in New Jersey, California, and elsewhere have adopted their own sustainable building standards.

There are other valid concerns in regard to the use of LEED-NC. In an era when many standards are under constant review, standards referenced by LEED are at times out of date. The ASHRAE Standard 90.1-1999 (without amendments) is referenced throughout the March 2003 revision of LEED-NC. However, ASHRAE 90.1 was revised, republished in 2001, and the newer version is not used as the referenced standard. Since design energy costs are used to score Energy and Atmosphere points, and energy use comparisons are baselined against similar fuels, cost savings from fuel switching is marginalized. In such cases, the environmental impact of the differential energy use remains unmeasured, since energy units are not the baseline criteria. There is no energy modeling software commercially available that has been specifically designed for assessing LEED buildings. LEED allows most any energy modeling software to be used, and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses when used for LEED energy modeling purposes. It is possible for projects to comply with only one energy usage prerequisite, applying a standard already widely adopted, and still become LEED certified. In fact, it is not required that engineers have specialized training or certification to perform the energy models. Finally, LEED documentation lacks System International (SI) unit conversions, reducing its applicability and exportability.

A number of the points offered by the rating system are questionable. While indoor environmental quality is touted as a major LEED concern, indoor mold and fungal mitigation practices, among the most pervasive indoor environmental issues, are not addressed and are not necessarily resolvable using the methodologies prescribed. It would seem that having a LEED-accredited professional on the team would be a prerequisite rather than a optional credit. Projects in locations with abundant rainfall or where site irrigation is unnecessary can earn a point by simply documenting a decision not to install irrigation systems. The ability of the point system to apply equally to projects across varied climate classifications and zones is also questionable and unproven.

While an M&V credit is available, there is no requirement that a credentialed measurement and verification professional be part of the M&V plan development or the review process. Without the rigor of M&V, it is not possible to determine whether or not the predictive preconstruction energy modeling was accurate. The lack of mandates to determine whether or not the building actually behaves and performs as intended from an energy cost standpoint is a fundamental weakness. This risks illusionary energy cost savings. Finally, the M&V procedures in the 2001 IPMVP have undergone revision and were not state-of- the-art at the time that LEED-NC was updated in May 2003. For example, there is no longer a need to exclude Option A as an acceptable M&V alternative.

The LEED process is not warranted and does not necessarily guarantee that in the end, the owner will have a “sustainable” building. While LEED standards are more regionalized in locations where local zoning and building laws apply, local regulations can also preempt certain types of green construction criteria. Of greater concern is that it is possible for a LEED certified building to devolve into a building that would lack the qualities of a certifiable building. For example, the owners of a building may choose to remove bicycle racks, refrain from the purchase of green energy after a couple of years, disengage control systems, abandon their M&V program, and remove recycling centers—yet retain the claim of owning a LEED certified building.


The ideal of developing sustainable buildings is a response to the environmental impacts of buildings and structures. Developing rating systems for structures is problematic due to the often subjective nature of the concepts involved, the ambiguity or lack of certain standards, and the local aspects of construction. While there are a number of assessment systems for sustainable buildings used throughout the developed world, LEED-NC is becoming a widely adopted program for labeling and rating newly constructed “green” buildings in the United States. Using a point-based rating system, whereby projects are credited for their design attributes, use of energy, environmental criteria, and the application of select standards, projects are rated as Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

The LEED-NC program has broad applicability in the United States and has been proven successful in rating roughly 150 buildings to date. Its popularity is gaining momentum. Perhaps its greatest strength is its ability to focus the owner and design team on energy and environmental considerations early in the design process. Today, there are over 1700 projects that have applied for LEED certification. Due to the program’s success in highlighting the importance of energy and environmental concerns in the design of new structures, it is likely that the program will be further refined and updated in the future to more fully adopt regional design solutions, provide means of incorporating updated standards, and offer programs for maintaining certification criteria. It is likely that the LEED program will further expand, perhaps offering a separate rating program for K-12 educational facilities. Future research will hopefully respond to concerns about potential increased construction costs and actual energy and environmental impacts.

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