Do We Really Need LEED?

Are the bragging rights worth the cost?

The question posed in the title of this article, “Do We Re ally Need LEED,” is rhetorical. Well, mostly.

Let’s clarify. Do the retail and restaurant industries need to make responsible building and energy conservation a priority? Absolutely, unambiguously yes. But is LEED certification the ideal guideline for us to follow? There’s the real question.

Many believe we’re post-LEED; that the certification industry it has spawned adds unnecessary expense and, in fact, works against its ultimate goals.

It’s a debate happening in every corner of commercial architecture and building. On one side there are serious, concerned advocates for LEED who point to its success in raising awareness and creating a certification process that demands thoughtful design and building practices. The opposing view: Equally serious and concerned professionals who believe that LEED, while well intentioned, is little more than an ideal – a perfect-yet unsustainable status that, once certified, is often betrayed as soon as a building is put into real use. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Increasingly, the very people who embraced LEED’s goals are now rethinking the way LEED certification itself is implemented. No one argues against its core mission: to redefine and codify Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (one of the best acronyms ever). But many believe we’re post-LEED; that the certification industry it spawned adds unnecessary expense and, in fact, works against its ultimate goals.

Within the walls of WD Partners there is ongoing dialogue about LEED, about its upsides and its challenges. While all embrace its intentions, some feel it’s too rooted in the past. We recently asked two building and sustainability experts at WD Partners, Sam Khalilieh, Sr. Vice President, Architecture & Engineering, and Jim Lake, Sr. Architectural Designer, to debate the advantages and challenges of LEED certification. It made for a very lively discussion. Both engineers are committed to responsible, sustainable building practices. And both have strong feelings about LEED, pro and con. Here are just a few of their thoughts.

What benefits do we continue to see today, thanks to LEED?

“It’s had tremendous impact,” says Lake. “LEED has driven builders to exceed code minimum efficiency standards, and to celebrate (and even create peer pressure) around sustainable practices. LED lighting wouldn’t be where it is today, if it weren’t for LEED standards driving change. And that’s just one example. Changes like this are especially important for the retail industry, which has lagged behind other categories in terms of minimizing waste. Because retail is constantly adapting to consumer tastes, waste is an undeniable fact.”

What do you see as LEED’s primary flaw?

“Unfortunately, LEED represents optimal efficiency,” says Khalilieh. “LEED is an aspiration under ideal conditions, modeled where the human element does not exist. The minute a new building is occupied, that optimal state changes. Things that weren’t intended as part of the system – space heaters, for example – get plugged in. Filters aren’t changed. LEED is like lab conditions – and reality is never that efficient. This is especially true in retail. With the constant motion of employees and customers, sustaining ideal efficiency is almost impossible.”

Where do you think this is heading?

“LEED will become less relevant, because it will simply be part of the code,” says Khalilieh. “California, for example, has developed a model green building code that’s being adopted by many municipalities. Soon, the extra expense invested in certification will go away, because the expectation will simply be in place.” At the end of the day, how should we think about LEED? “Know it. Be familiar. Embrace its intentions,” says Lake. “Create truly sustainable building practices that persist over the real, practical life of a store or restaurant. Target specific sustainability goals unique to you. Work with your facilities manager to set them, so they’re ongoing. Try to exceed code. Don’t settle for a plaque on the wall – create living sustainability documents. Revisit them, balance them with changing economics, and stay actively involved with them.”

Why is it hard for building management to sustain LEED goals?

“Because in a challenging economy, the first thing in a budget that always gets cut is maintenance,” says Khalilieh. “If there’s an issue of capital spending, they’ll immediately target maintenance. So truly great design is a system that requires the least amount of maintenance, something LEED may not reward. This is where lifecycle costing view and not just initial build, is in many ways a more responsible way to view it.”

But without LEED, will builders and companies do the right thing?

“Yes! Just look at Walmart,” says Lake. “Walmart has been driving development of more efficient equipment standards for its stores, but it’s not to achieve LEED certification. It’s about its own standards, relating back to profitability. Companies are discovering that green operations can also lower costs. And it greatly enhanced its image as a corporate citizen, too.”


LEED is an internationally recognized system for measuring a building’s sustainability. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council more than a decade ago, it measures performance in five areas:

  • Sustainable site development
  • Water savings
  • Energy efficiency
  • Materials selection
  • Indoor environmental quality

Certification isn’t cheap

LEED provides a framework, and independent third-party inspectors perform review and certification of a building. And that certification can come at a cost—anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 for LEED administration and documentation support services. Re-engineering midstream to achieve LEED can also add significant expense to a project.

LEED intentions are very good…

LEED encourages responsible building practices, water– and energy-saving features, and even the benefits of smart site selection (walking distance to amenities, for example, and a building’s interaction with surrounding spaces). These are goals that every new building should aspire to.

…Yet in practice, LEED can be unsustainable

LEED certification is granted when the building is complete – and once that certificate is on the wall, the use of the building may immediately counteract the good intentions. For example, unchanged filters, the addition of personal heating units, and other unforeseen situation.

Companies take pride in LEED certification…

The coveted LEED certificate can provide newsworthy bragging rights, and any public celebration of sustainability efforts is laudable. LEED gives a company reason to talk about its responsible design and can provide a public relations lift when a building is opened to the public.

…But certification means little to the public

A fair question to ask is: How many people, outside the building industry, truly understand – or have even heard of – LEED? Is the effort and expense to achieve certification worth it in the end? Once a plaque is on the wall, are maintenance and operations crews continually fulfilling the promise of its day-one perfection? Was it engineered and built for certification, or for more ambitious, long-term goals?


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