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Is LEED still the Leader?

Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design (LEED) was introduced by the USGBC in 1998 and has since been adopted industry-wide as the go-to sustainable building rubric. LEED has become the de facto authority for "green" builders and certifies 1.5 million square feet of building space each day in 135 countries. LEED is used regularly in the metal building industry and stands up as a thorough and robust grading system, but it does have its limitations and idiosyncrasies.

Builders and owners should be encouraged to take a second look at their projects and reassess what motivates them to apply for LEED certification in the first place.

LEED is a guideline, not a rule

As with any endeavor, the applicable goals and criteria of success for a construction project should be identified early in the process. A green building rating system is no exception. Should the project team choose LEED, it is incumbent upon builders and architects to review LEED credits with owners and decide which ones make the most sense for the building. LEED is a useful guideline for any builder, but not all construction projects necessarily track well with LEED. It is important for builders to focus on what improvements or applications will create the highest return on investment for their building and its function. These improvements might end up being incompatible with LEED, but this mindset will create more valuable buildings in the end.

For example, the energy section of LEED is worth a lot of credits, but many buildings may not be able to manage the required percentage change of energy because of its function. Another example applies to the public transportation and regional materials credits, which might not be accessible for all projects, based on where the site is located. However, LEED does allow builders to create and apply for their own credits, on a limited basis. These credits are called Innovation in Design and a building can get up to five credits this way.

Do a life cycle assessment

The sustainable building industry is evolving and there are new green building standards and systems coming onto the scene. During the past few years, Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) have emerged as an alternative to the LEED Materials and Resources credits and have replaced several of those credits in the newest version of LEED. LCA evaluates the environmental impacts of a product's raw material procurement, manufactur- ing, delivery, deployment, use, deconstruction, recycling and disposal.

Following this process allows professionals to look at the building's impact as a whole and take a more "big picture" approach to sustainability. LCA differs from traditional LEED credits, which can encourage builders to go for individual materials that don't necessarily work well together. Metal buildings, in particular, perform well with LCA because of their durability and recyclability.

Coordinate a design charrette

The design charrette model has become increasingly popular during recent years as it brings together the builder, architect, general contractor, structural engineer and building product manufacturers at the very beginning of the process to set goals for the building. These can include ideas and intended outcomes for both sustainability and the general function of the building. This process works nicely with the LCA model and sets the stage to compare original goals against LCA findings at the end of the project.

A new paradigm for sustainability

When sustainability is the objective, focus first on the goals for the project as a whole. Try to resist the urge to start blindly collecting LEED credits to achieve the highest point total possible because of the short-term gratification or hopes to see the company's name on a plaque at the completion of the project. It is important to research and find the best ways to make the building as sustainable as possible, based on its function and purpose, not the color of the plaque. Choose what is right for the project, and then go back and see what credits might fit in. LEED is a tool, and if the tool is misused, the intended outcome is unlikely to be met. Allow LEED to make the building better, not limit its potential.

Bob Zabcik is Houston-Based NCI Building Systems' director of research and development. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Registered Professional Engineer with more than 20 years of experience. He serves on several professional committees such as the MBMA Energy Committee and Sustainability Committee, as well as several task groups of those committees. He is also on the board of the Cool Metal Roofing Coalition and serves as the director of their technical committee. To learn more about NCI Building Systems, visit or contact Zabcik at