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How LEED Building Certifications Work Transcription

How LEED Building Certifications Work

Speaker 1:                    00:00                Hi, this is John Melvin. I’m your host for the How Great Buildings Work podcast. This is a podcast where we discuss all things buildings, from construction and build methods to architecture, engineering and systems designs. This podcast is sponsored by JM engineering PLLC. JM Engineering provides innovated and integrated building systems designs; including mechanical, plumbing, electrical and structural engineering as well as building commissioning services. Markets served are commercial including educational and healthcare and high-end residential projects.

Speaker 1:                    00:47                Our guest today is Kath Williams.

Speaker 1:                    00:50                Kath William’s is the president of Kath Williams and Associates. Kath Williams and Associates is a collaborative of creative independent contractors who come together to support innovative green projects worldwide. Their mission is to change the way buildings are designed, built and operated in the 21st century through aggressive learning and continuous improvement. Kath has a doctorate in education focused in conflict resolution and adult and higher education from Montana State University. Kath has been recognized as a LEED fellow in 2011 one of the first 34 in the world. That’s a very cool thing. Lives in Bozeman, Montana. Kath, welcome to the show.

Speaker 2:                    01:30                (KATH) Thank you John. Appreciate being here and the opportunity.

Speaker 1:                    01:35                (JOHN) Well, thanks for being here. Why don’t you fill in some of the blanks for our listeners on who you are and what you do?

Speaker 2:                    01:44                (KATH) Okay. First of all, I always say I have the best job in the world because I have the opportunity to work with amazing people on Green building projects all over the world. And for a gal from Bozeman, Montana, that’s pretty cool. I always say I live on Delta airlines rather than Bozeman, Montana, and I do have a lot of miles on Delta. The biggest thing that I get to do is that I’m not a designer and my team, we DON’T design. What we do is we help and support the creative designers both on the architecture side, the engineering side, and the construction side to help owners reach the goals and help them reach the owners goals in regard to sustainability. So, we’ve used all kinds of ratings systems around the world, but the primary one, as you know, in, the United states as LEED.

Speaker 2:                    02:55                LEED is a tool. It’s a tool to help us educate each other and help us focus on what the issues are in regard to a building project coupled with sustainability. So, we use the tool as an educational tool. I often hand it just the checklist, I hand it to an owner and say this is, these are the issues that we’re going to be addressing in your building project and I need you as the owner to prioritize these. So, we use it starting from the beginning as an educational tool. Then we use it to set goals as a team, as a collaboration. We use it to set goals, sustainability, another otherwise, and then we used it as a measurement tool and ultimately leading to certification.

Speaker 1:                    04:03                (JOHN) Oh, okay. So, LEED is basically, as you’re describing, it sounds like it’s an evolving process from beginning to end.

Speaker 2:                    04:13                (KATH) Definitely, and it’s project specific. It can be really tailored regardless of the type of project. And so, we make sure our listeners know LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. So, it’s leadership and that’s also why I like the L E E D, LEED, as the acronym for it because this is about projects that want to go beyond. They don’t want it to be a standard office building or a standard school or a standard project. They want to go beyond.

Speaker 1:                    04:57                (JOHN) Sure. And I can see how this is an exciting thing for you because you get to be that leader and take someone that wants to have a more innovative, efficient building and help them through that process. So, people often hear about the US Green Building Council. How is LEED related to the US Green Building Council?

Speaker 2:                    05:26                (KATH) Well, that’s a really good question and as we get further and further away from the roots of the US Green Building Council on LEED, as we get further away, people forget or don’t even think to ask. The US Green Building Council was formed in the early 1990s and it was formed by a group of developers, lawyers, designers, contractors, product manufacturers, and the purpose of it will ultimately, well the purpose really from the beginning was to transform the market. They wanted to change the way buildings were designed and built and particularly tied with the environmental impact of buildings and they didn’t really know how to do that. They were pioneers and definitely the fore-runners up this and that’s how it evolved into we need a tool and we need the tool for the purpose of defining what a green building was and then a tool to measure. So that’s how US Green Building Council came first.

Speaker 2:                    06:44                A team from within the US Green Building Council started to develop the checklist and LEED, and then US Green Building Council was responsible for launching that in. It was approximately 1999. 2000 is when the first pilot projects of LEED were named and then began using it as a tool and it’s kind of interesting because the roots are here in Montana, which a lot of people don’t know. A lot of people don’t know. The US Green Building Council was being formed at the same time Montana State University had got earmarked money from Congress to do green building technology research. So, the project ended up in the Vice President of Research Office at Montana State and it became my job. I was the project manager and my responsibility was to develop and handout congressional money to corporations and projects and studies and research that was going to lead us toward sustainability.

Speaker 2:                    08:12                And as I got involved with that, I got involved with the founding members of the US Green Building Council. So, we became here in Montana, the first LEED pilot project. But also, I really think that came up here because they like to fish and play golf. They could come up here and work a little bit on developing LEED, but mostly it was playing in Yellowstone Park and on the rivers and the golf course. And they saw a river runs through it and for sure. (JOHN) So, I want to loop back to the introduction about you being named a fellow. That is quite an award. Tell us about that. (KATH) Well, right now there’s 154 LEED fellows around the world and they started the program in 2011 and named the first 34 out of us. And what it designates it, it designates that we know LEED and that we’ve devoted at least 10 years to full time work and making sure the LEED process runs well, that we volunteer on the continuous improvement part of LEED, that were basically salespeople for LEED and that we understand what it takes to make a LEED project, a successful LEED project.

Speaker 1 & 2:              09:54                (JOHN) Gotcha. So, and then in regard to LEED, what type of projects can be a LEED project, is there any limitation for that? (KATH) Yes. Um, first of all on has to have at least one full time person occupying the building. So, we keep saying we don’t do dog houses and we don’t do storage units and that. So, it has to have a human being working in it because the purpose of course is to have a relationship, the people in the occupants of a building have a relationship with the environment. So just a storage unit doesn’t do it. And it has to be at least 2000 square feet so that we have a big enough belt. I shouldn’t say that. It’s not 2000 square feet. It’s 1000 square feet because we’re trying to, as in sustainability to downsize. So, we originally talked about it being 2000 square feet, but it’s not, it’s 1000 square feet with at least one full time equivalent in the building.

Speaker 2:                    11:07                But it can be any building type. And at first, we really, when we were all working on LEED and oh, one of the important things about LEED is it was developed by volunteers. The people working on LEED and the people leading LEED today, are volunteers, and that’s really different than what happens in other countries and their rating systems. The people working on Green Star in Australia and New Zealand are paid employees. The people that have developed a German rating system, were consultants. That’s one of the powers of LEED is that first of all, we all committed our time to working on it and still do. So, its volunteers and that’s an important part of it. And as a LEED AP, accredited professional, as a LEED Accredited Professional or now for me as a LEED fellow, we have a responsibility to continuously improve it and that work is mostly volunteer.

Speaker 2 & 1:              12:22                So we’re all on committees, were all on education teams or faculty. We teach, we spend a lot of time making sure people understand what LEED is and more importantly sometimes what LEED isn’t. (JOHN) Right. Yeah, I can see how that’s equally as important is what LEED is not. Let’s talk about that. What are a few things that LEED is not? (KATH) Well, one of the things is LEED is not an award you can buy or that you can influence. You have to actually do something. You don’t, get points for not doing things. You get points, and you earn points in a rating system for actually taking action using strategies, using systems design, integrating so that you end up with the best building that’s possible at the time. Now, one of the things that was a basis for LEED originally was that it be off the shelf, that it be in the market.

Speaker 2:                    13:36                The strategies or the technologies at least were off the shelf. It wasn’t like, and it still isn’t that you have to create a new technology to do a LEED building. You just have to combine creatively the best solutions to reach whatever goal or to make your building perform as appropriate for the building. So, it doesn’t take away any creativity. And it’s definitely not prescriptive. A lot of people say, just give me the formula, tell me what to do, I’ll do it and we’ll have a LEED building. It isn’t that easy. What it is, is the collaboration of the design team and the owner. I really like it when on a project we can include kids, we can include the neighbors in the project, to make the project better. So, LEED gives us that opportunity and what we call it is a charette.

Speaker 2:                    14:42                And that that term came from, it’s a meeting but, or a workshop. But the term came from France, when designers in France put their, way back when, put their designs on carts or what they called a charrette, and wheeled him around the street and ask people’s opinions about their design. So, we use the term charrette now to be a design workshop where we get input from stakeholders and from people who are going to be affected by the project. And that again is different than what happens on a conventional project. (JOHN) So, let’s go into, why should a project consider LEED status? What are some of the benefits of LEED? (KATH) The real benefits of using the LEED are that we have a shared tool as the design team and construction team and for the owner, we have a tool that helps us set goals and measurable goals.

Speaker 2:                    15:53                So we can say, you know, these are the issues that are important to us. You get so many points based in the LEED system, but we have something measurable. It isn’t just like, well, we’re going to build sustainably or we’re going to build a green building. Well, how do you define that? How do you measure that? And even if that is the case, there’s no way to measure it. When I’m talking to school system, I always say, “well, it’s like every student saying they did their homework and they’re are an ‘A’ student.” Unless you see the homework and you evaluate the homework, you can’t say there are an ‘A’ student. And that’s the way it ends up with a building. Designers say we always build to LEED standards. Well, how do you know that? You have contractors who will say, we divert all our waste from the landfill.

Speaker 2:                    17:02                Well, how do you know that? Unless you actually measure it. And that’s to me one of the most important things is that we have a way to document that we did what we said we did as a team. That’s what LEED gives a certification level for how far did you push it on sustainability? So, you end up with either the certified level of LEED or silver, which is where most governments have set their standard saying, “we use LEED, we want all of our buildings built at least to the lead silver standard.” And then if you push beyond that, you’re LEED gold. And a very top level is LEED platinum.

Speaker 1:                    17:57                (JOHN) Okay. When you walk into a LEED building, can you tell that it’s a LEED building? I know this is a difficult question to answer, but if you were to walk into two buildings, one is a LEED building and one is not, can you typically tell which one is a LEED building and which one is not?

Speaker 2:                    18:14                (KATH) I have to say yes and the reason I say yes is because my husband can tell. If he walks into a building, he can say, particularly in hotels. He said, I can tell this is a LEED building besides the fact that the plaque is on the front door, or near the front door. The other thing is that it’s one of our team members early on said you can feel a green building and in this case, a LEED building, through your skin. The, reason is because of daylight and views. Usually there’s an emphasis at the very front door with bringing the environment into the building. You a lot of times have plants and you have a showcase staircase that encourages people to walk. And I can’t say people are happier being in a LEED building because it’s difficult to measure happiness.

Speaker 2:                    19:27                But, most of the time in a LEED building, the occupants or the residents of the building seem to have some more communication, connection to each other and to the environment. They spend more time outside of their hotel room or their small space because they enjoy the community spaces. So, it’s a lot of intangibles that, again, as LEED evolves, we’re only at 20 years, but as we get to that point where we can measure health and human productivity and happiness and wellness, more scientifically, so that we have data that proves buildings, green buildings, and LEED buildings make you feel better. As we get to that point, I think we’ll be able to document that they actually do, rather than just say you can feel it through your skin.

Speaker 1:                    20:41                (JOHN) Right. But ultimately the goal is if it’s a LEED hospital, that it’s a very healthy, healing environment. More so than a, what I’ll say, conventional building construction. And, with the LEED school it will have a better learning environment, over a conventional school. Is that fair to say?

Speaker 2:                    21:10                (KATH) Oh, I definitely think so. There’s LEED for health care now and LEED for health care is being applied in hospitals and nursing homes. It’s the most rigorous of the LEED standards and it’s more rigorous because those environments are essential for health. And so, the LEED for healthcare spends a lot more time on indoor environmental quality, particularly in regard to ventilation, fresh air, and they spend a lot of time on materials and material selection so that you’re not introducing anything whatsoever that’s toxic into that environment. Same way with refrigerants that are in the building. Absolutely no introduction of anything toxic so that we’re starting with a clean and healthy environment, with good ventilation, not transmitting more diseases. There’s also a real good part of LEED for health care that talks about the arrangement of a hospital room.

Speaker 2:                    22:26                Most of us have had the experience in a hospital room where there’s so much equipment that the person is kind of lost in a sea of equipment hanging over them and the nurses and the medical professionals have a hard time working in that room. So new design of hospital rooms is a key part of LEED for healthcare. On LEED for schools, there’s a lot of work on acoustics and the opportunity to have a connection with the outdoors but not the with the view like in an office you can look out the window and it’s not as distracting. But for the age of school kids having a view of the swing sets outside and other classes playing outside is distracting. But having daylight and views has long been proven to improve test scores in schools. And also, there’s again, the focus on materials that are healthy so that you’re not off gassing toxic fumes for the teachers or for the students who are sitting on the floors and furniture off gasses a lot. So, there’s what kind of materials and finishes are in classrooms. So, we’re looking more holistically through LEED then we are, if we just say, well we want the school to be pretty.

Speaker 1:                    24:04                (JOHN) Right. So, one thing that I mentioned is that a LEED building generally costs more than a non-LEED building. But is it fair to say that a LEED building is going to be more efficient in many different ways and have a payback over a conventional building in the long run?

Speaker 2:                    24:29                (KATH) Hmm, yes. And that’s the thing that really drives me crazy with LEED. And this goes all the way back to my very first project when I was at Montana State, is that we take a budget on every building project and we say, here’s the cost, here’s your budget to build a building. So, it’s first cost. Your job as a project manager is to bring the project on first cost or preferably under first cost. There’s no connection in our financing system of construction that connects the first cost of construction with the cost of operation and maintenance. And on my project originally, I kept saying, but if we put in these better windows, we will save money on energy. If we put in these sensors on the faucet, they will use less water. And I was told right from the beginning Kath, that is not your worry.

Speaker 2:                    25:41                Your worry is bringing it in on first cost. That’s a different department operation and maintenance. And it made no sense to me then. And it makes no sense to me now 20 years later. So, we have to change how we look at budgets to say total cost of ownership, correct. What’s it going to cost to totally build, operate, maintain, and then all ultimately to deconstruct it. And what’s that going to cost? So, it might’ve been great cheap insulation, asbestos stuff, way back when. But if we added up the cost of what it’s taken now to take the asbestos out, total cost ownership still on the building once asbestos has been taken out. I had one of my colleagues say in a presentation that we could have taken $5 bills and wadded them up and put them in all our walls to the r value that we did with this abestos and it would have been cheaper than what asbestos has cost us today.

Speaker 2:                    26:54                Not counting the health and, and human hazards that the asbestos has cost. So that’s where, that’s a really extreme example for what’s happened. But it’s the kind of thing, if we adopt that thinking of, okay, we can drop energy use by 20% or we can drop water use by 20% and that goes to your payback period. How long does it take before you paid for those better faucets? And yes, a LEED building costs more. Nobody can say it doesn’t cost more, but a Four Seasons Hotel costs more than a Super Eight. So, we’re looking at sustainability and better materials. And I say it’s equal to saying sustainability means quality because you can operate and maintain it. The maintenance stuff is it incredibly important because we don’t have to use toxic chemicals to clean the materials that are in a LEED building. So, then you’re thinking of the person who’s doing the maintenance and you’re not exposing them to toxic chemicals. So, it’s a whole different approach to thinking. It’s a transformation of the design and construction and it’s also got to be on the finance side to where we look at things differently.

Speaker 1:                    28:28                (JOHN) Sure. So, LEED is for someone who really cares about their occupants. They’re building the long-term process, the people even building the building. I know that there’s a lot of requirements with LEED during construction just to protect contractors building the building as well. Isn’t that correct?

Speaker 2:                    28:52                (KATH) Oh yes. It’s LEED to me originally attracted environmentalist, people who cared about the impact of buildings and building products on the environment. Those were the first ones to take up LEED. Then, the next people were, as the market was transformed, the next people said, ‘oh, this is good for business.’ Green products sell better. Green products impact the environment less. And as we build green, it’s costing us less to take dumps to the landfill. We have an outlet for recycled materials on a project it’s healthier. So, we started moving more and attracting more people who were interested in the financial leg of the three-legged stool. No market transformation’s going to be successful if it doesn’t make money. And just to do the right thing for the environment wasn’t attracting people who wanted to do it for the financial reasons or to create the market or to make money in the market.

Speaker 2:                    30:09                And now the third leg of this sustainability of stool, the third leg, which is pretty new, it’s been there forever, but it’s the idea of social equity and social impact. Now we’re getting into how we care about our employees and we care about the residents who are buying these apartment buildings. And it’s that if we build affordable housing using LEED, we can say that the people who can least afford to pay big electric bills or water bills at least can afford it. We’re building a better LEED certified apartment or a home so that they can afford their utility bills and spending money on something for the family or something else. So, we’re paying more attention now to the social equity side and that’s how we’re going to get sustainability to where it makes sense in the market is if it’s balanced, it’s balanced with environment, social, and with financial. If it doesn’t make money, ultimately, it’s going to go away.

Speaker 1 & 2:              31:18                (JOHN) Exactly. Well, so how does a project get awarded LEED status? Let’s go through that. How do we start out? If we have a new project or a remodel project, what are the first steps? (KATH) It’s a fairly straight forward process. You registered the project with the US Green Building Council and all of it is handled online through a database system called LEED Online. And you register the project, you get the teams together with the owner. You set the goals. You say this is the path work on a take. Our goal may be LEED silver. We’re going to head down this path. A person like me, a LEED Accredited Professional will help guide that and help document that we did what we said we did; that means everybody on the team. All through the process,

Speaker 2:                    32:26                The LEED Accredited Professionals job is to document it. We document every single trip to the dump. We document every paint coating, adhesive sealant that goes in the building. We help with the energy modeling that’s going to predict how the building’s going to operate. We worked with the design teams and as all that documentation comes together, pretty close to the end of construction, we send it via a LEED Online to what is called the Green Business Certification Institute, GBCI, which is the certification end of US Green Building Council. They’re separate because they need to be, because US GBC develops LEED, and GBCI judges and all they do is look at the documentation, which for most projects runs about 500 pages, if you printed it out. 500 pages of documentation on the building, every kind of carpet that’s in there, every kind of wall covering, everything that goes into building is documented; where it came from, what the materials are, and then the GBCI will ask questions.

Speaker 2:                    33:52                They don’t just say yes or no on it, they ask questions and then you answer the questions and then they award the points. How many points, which equates to certified silver, gold or platinum. (JOHN) Very interesting. And then at the end of the project, assuming it’s awarded whichever level, you get a nice plaque for the building? (KATH) You have to buy the plaque. Nothing’s free. And we laugh about that a lot. You get to the end and you have to buy the plaque. But one of the misconceptions about LEED, I’ve just heard it recently on a school project, is that while LEED, the whole process that I just described was going to cost the school about $50,000 to have all the documentation to, to research it, to get it all done was going to cost about $50,000. One of the school officials said, well I could buy a $50,000 plaque or I could buy another classroom.

Speaker 2:                    35:07                And that was missing the whole entire point. But it’s also missing the value of the documentation. We just had a 10-year-old library project where they were going to replace the carpet and they wanted to know what kind of adhesives did we use on that carpet and where did that carpet come from? We can’t find the architect and the person who specified it. And I said, but you have a CD with all the documentation sitting on your shelf. And within five minutes they had pulled it out, had the exact information on the carpet, exact information on the adhesive, So, replacing it was like simple, here’s what we had, here’s what we’ve got, here’s what we want. And it was all in one simple place for the documentation. That value to the owner is amazing. Versus trying to figure out what it is or track down the design professionals. But we don’t do a good job and sell on the value of the documentation and the plans and everything being in one spot.

Speaker 1:                    36:23                (JOHN) But that’s one of those things that that is hard to sell at the beginning of a project. It’s easy to show someone at the end, this is what you could have had, then it becomes very important. So, I understand that. What’s the future of LEED? What are some of the future technologies that you’re seeing coming down the line?

Speaker 2:                    36:46                (KATH) Well, one of the things we originally when we were on the pilot project is, the goal of the US Green Building Council was that we would transform the market so much that we wouldn’t need LEED. That LEED would be standard operating procedure. Everybody would design to these standards. And what we didn’t think through at the time, which we’re finding now, is the standards can always be raised. That’s with each version of LEED. And we’re now to LEED version four, but each version of LEED has set stretch goals. They’ve made it harder and harder to reach these goals and that makes it a great tool for continuous improvement. So, if we had gone out of business, say in 2004, we’d be at 2004 standards as opposed to where we are now and 2018 and continue to push it. I think the future of LEED is to continue to be a leader and a leadership document.

Speaker 2:                    38:05                And of course then you get the whiners and the people saying, well, this one’s too hard or we’re not going to do that. Or the last version was easier. Yes, that’s true. I think LEED, one of the biggest things as a leadership document that we’re going to see are new building materials and how did they measure up? We’ve moved from a period of having very few green materials, say paint as an example where we only had, in to year 2000, we only had one company in United States that made nontoxic, no VOC’s in their paint because they were hospital paint, but they were also $24 a gallon. Now we have a transformation of the market success. Every brand of paint has low or no VOC paint. So where are we going to go with new building materials?

Speaker 2:                    39:19                And that’s where LEED is pushing this with asking architects and specifiers to ask the building industry, the building materials industry for environmental perform product declarations, EPD, Environmental Product Declarations. Now we don’t have many companies that have those yet; that will tell you the impact of their product on the environment. And that’s the evolution where we’re going to again, try to transform the market, push product manufacturers to say what’s in your product. What is that stuff for putting in our walls? What is that stuff that you’re painting a stairway with? What is it? And before it was always, well, we can’t tell you that a company secret. LEED is going to push it and push that area of building materials so that we do know what’s in the materials that we’re putting into our building, particularly when they’re affecting the occupants.

Speaker 1:                    40:31                (JOHN) Sure. So, LEED is really transforming the overall building industry, whether they are LEED projects or not. And I like how it’s really, with LEED evolving, it’s essentially incentivizing companies to continue to innovate to meet the new requirements.

Speaker 2:                    40:59                (KATH) That’s absolutely true. And it’s also involved in, because LEED is about performance of the building, not just what you installed at the time, but about the performance of the building. That gives us new opportunities in monitoring systems, temperatures, humidity, the indoor environmental monitoring it; but then also making sure the facilities managers have that data so that they can control it. So, it’s a simple one on leaks. If water leaks, if a tenant in a building doesn’t tell you that their shower head has been leaking and they stayed there five years, think of how much water has gone down the drain just because a tenant didn’t say anything. So, we’re seeing a lot more of our apartment buildings where they’re putting in water leak sensors. They’re not expensive technologies, but they give the facility manager an opportunity to have control over or know what’s happening in that building and therefore can correct it.

Speaker 1:                    42:20                (JOHN) And the cost of sensors is dropping all the time and they’re getting smaller and pretty soon we’ll be able to have sensors just about everywhere.

Speaker 2:                    42:29                (KATH) And they can do it in one technology. So, it’s not like you’re putting up a hundred alarms. They’re combined into computer systems and smart sensors that really, really give ammunition and data to a facility manager.

Speaker 1:                    42:50                (JOHN) Yeah, well I think our building industry is just getting more and more exciting all the time.

Speaker 2:                    42:57                (KATH) One more quick thing about that, we’re getting smarter and we’re getting more sophisticated and we’re getting more highly technical, but some of the best LEED buildings; and if you look at say Living Building Challenge or any of the other rating systems, we’re also still appreciative of our roots and how our ancestors built with local materials. They didn’t ship everything all over the place. They built with what was in their backyard and they built responsibly. They didn’t waste any more wood than they needed for their house and to heat their home. So, a lot of the buildings and particularly when I’m working in developing countries, and right now I’m spending a lot of time in Central America, is that we can still have a green house or green building without all the bells and whistles. Where we respect the environment, use the climate in a positive way as opposed to building a box and keeping the environment out. So, that’s an exciting part of LEED too, that you can be rewarded and recognized for very simple elegance in design and construction.

Speaker 1:                    44:25                (JOHN) That’s fascinating. Well, Kath, thank you so much for being on our show today. Where can people go to learn more about you?

Speaker 1 & 2:              44:32                (KATH) Ah, it’s easy. My website is (JOHN) Well that’s great. Well, Kath, thanks again for being on the show. It’s been a lot of fun and very informative. (KATH) Thank you John for asking me and I appreciate the opportunity to work with you on projects. (JOHN) Well, thank you.

Speaker 1:                    45:07                Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. If you’d like more information, see our website at or on Facebook and Instagram at JM_Engineering. Our show notes will be posted on our website at Thank you.

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