How sustainable is your building?

By Ralph Walker (special thanks to my friend Ralph for writing this post for me)

How do you know if a building has been built sustainably or not? Living or working in a place it is not as if there is a label on the front door that tells you the carbon footprint of the structure or defines how ‘Green’ it is. You don’t have the information needed to understand what is in your buildings. Imagine if all of the food in the grocery store no longer had labels. Now you can’t tell how much sugar there is in a box of cereal, or what ingredients are in a bottle of juice. In the real estate and construction communities we have never had those types of labels. We don’t know all of the materials used in each building, or what processes were used to construct them. When it comes to real estate no one knows how sustainable or even how healthy a building is.

In 1993 that is what the USGBC set out to change that. The USGBC is the United States Green Building Council. It is an organization made up of professionals in the building industry. The membership of the USGBC includes everyone from architects, like me, to contractors, engineers, product manufacturers, raw material suppliers, educators, government officials and entrepreneurs. The group works together in an organic way to create connections and provide resources to change the way we create buildings. The overarching goal is to make the built world more sustainable. The biggest achievement to date of the USGBC is LEED.

LEED itself is an acronym which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The LEED Rating system is a voluntary, point based system used to judge the level of sustainability achieved by a building. It is a program that has been rolled out worldwide to encourage building owners, architects, engineers and contractors to consider the impacts of their design decisions and construction processes. In some areas of the world LEED has become a new building standard and is required by law on some new public buildings.

This system provides an ‘award’ of LEED certified, LEED Silver, LEED Gold or LEED Platinum to buildings that meet or exceed the prescribed criteria in each of six primary areas; Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Indoor Air Quality, Materials & Resources, and Innovation. In each category there are a number of prerequisites and potential points to be achieved. The points are documented and filed with the USGBC for independent certification. Once the building has been fully reviewed a rating is applied. The target for the LEED rating system is to help the public identify buildings that are more sustainable and to provide a baseline for further innovation. LEED helps to separate out ‘Green Wash’ from truly sustainable projects through its independent certification process.

Over the past two decades the LEED Rating system has evolved. It has been adjusted and fitted to match up with the current state of the design and construction world. The rating system is not a one size fits all program so a number of individual rating systems have been rolled out for specific building types including Homes, Schools, and Hospitals as well as variations for existing or new buildings. The points system has changed to provide a more intuitive understanding of the LEED rating and the individual points themselves have evolved with changes in the industry. All of these changes make it difficult to understand and follow what LEED really means not only for the public but even for professionals like me.

The truth of the matter is that LEED is a challenge, a gauntlet set down by an industry. It sets a bar available for any building owner to try and rise above. Design and Construction teams that set out on the journey of completing a LEED rated building are challenged to ask harder questions about what is more sustainable, more efficient, more healthy and more appropriate for one building. Their answers and what they build are judged by their peers and ultimately by the public. LEED buildings are certainly more sustainable than their counterparts that are not LEED if nothing less than because they took on the effort to measure and test how sustainable they really are.

For more information about LEED and the USGBC see

About the Author

Ralph Walker is an architect in New Jersey and a LEED Accredited Professional. He has focused his career on sustainable design and educational design project around the country. Ralph’s work and writing on sustainability and educational design have been widely published and his design work has received numerous awards. He can be reached at


One thought on “How sustainable is your building?

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