The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) attracted more than 25,000 attendees to its Greenbuild conference last month. Interest in sustainable building has never been higher because the benefits of green buildings are real.

Yet, the LEED certification program has recently received an undue amount of criticism. While some of the criticism is justified, the part of the discourse that is disheartening is the undertone that the LEED program is flawed.

The real issue might be that LEED is being used like a square peg in a round hole. Rather than fault the hammer, the peg, or the hole, I think we need to learn the right way to use the tools to maximize the benefits of LEED and green building.

Using LEED Correctly

It’s true that you can use LEED to do some not so bright things. You can fault the bike rack credit when nobody uses the stalls, or the measurement and verification credit when nobody implements it and buildings fail to perform as they should. You can fault LEED for Schools program when designers/owners elect to install advanced HVAC systems that operators can’t manage on tight budgets.

Or, those involved in these projects can look in the mirror for the source of the problem.

Sometimes, recognition can be a powerful driver. Gold is better than Silver, and Platinum can seem like nirvana. When owners, designers, governments, want to achieve high levels of performance, they fall back on LEED “medals” as a proxy. It’s easier than mandating real performance targets for energy, water, etc…and it sounds a lot catchier.

When this happens, we chase the points needed to get a precious medal and quick wins; we get permits more quickly, can increase buildable area, or gain bragging rights that we have the “first LEED certified” project in a particular area. Everyone wants to be the first, the biggest, or the best and LEED allows for that. And striving for a precious LEED medal can cause people to go for the gold when they shouldn’t.

Goal is to Save Energy and Lower Costs

We’ve worked on projects that achieved the lowest level of LEED certification that saved more energy than many Platinum projects I’ve read about. One of our Gold project owners elected not to install systems that could have been used to achieve points for Platinum but had little potential for long-term performance results.

The thread linking these projects is that we helped the teams identify LEED credits that achieve real, measurable, sustained value. That’s best accomplished by making smart decisions at the beginning of a project.

You may have experienced a “LEED Charrette” in which you tirelessly walk through the scorecard point by point to identify a certification goal. And at some point, someone puts a dollar number to each point to figure out the “cost of LEED.” These meetings invariably suck the life out of a team and don’t necessarily add value at the start of a project.

Use LEED as the Back Check and Not the Driver

Instead, envision how a sustainability lens can create a framework to identify tangible benefits that are meaningful to your stakeholders. Once you know what that looks like, back-check the values with LEED to identify the points that help you validate them. Let the points fall where they may, and be satisfied with the certification goal that results from this value based exercise.

Doing so will result in a project that is more energy efficient, has a lower total cost of ownership, with occupants that participate in the actual performance of the finished project. It’s an approach that you and the USGBC will benefit from. A win-win approach is always more fun to participate in and it makes implementation easy.

The LEED program certainly has its share of unique tools, rules, and online systems, and they’re not always easy to understand and implement.

However, there are enough proof points that lasting change is possible with LEED. So let’s stop blaming the tool and learn how to use LEED to shape the future we want.

Brad Pease AIA, LEED® AP BD is the leader of Paladino’s Signature Buildings Practice that guides owners to embed core organizational values around sustainability into their significant single building projects

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