sustainable industries

California’s Green Building Dilemma: Navigating Environmental Impacts Beyond LEED

Unveiling the Complexity of Green Building Choices for California

In the quest to construct environmentally responsible buildings, California faces the intricate challenge of determining which green features yield the most significant reductions in cost. While relying on the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification, the state is exploring innovative approaches to pinpoint the building features that truly contribute to the lowest overall environmental impacts.

Partnering with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) for Holistic Assessment

To delve into the environmental ramifications of its LEED-NC Gold-rated Inland Empire Transportation Management Center, California collaborated with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a third-party environmental certification body. Covering 50,000 square feet, this center, owned by the Department of General Services and operated by Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol, plays a pivotal role in traffic management.

SCS embraced a life cycle assessment (LCA) framework, evaluating the building’s environmental impacts throughout its entire existence. This comprehensive analysis considers factors from resource extraction and construction to building usage and material disposal. By harnessing the LCA framework, builders can forecast a building’s performance, ensuring that LEED-certified structures result in optimal resource and cost reductions.

Unearthing the Impact of Commutes and Sustainable Measures

Pioneering the study based on the ISO 14044 standard, SCS examined a spectrum of environmental factors, encompassing occupants’ commutes, energy utilization, deconstruction, and LEED-covered aspects. Notably, the study underscored the significance of a building’s usage phase, shedding light on the disproportionate environmental impact of lengthy commutes. This revelation suggests that the location of a green building, minimizing transportation distance, holds paramount importance. Additionally, the study revealed that while photovoltaic solar panels contribute positively, their placement on ecologically sensitive land may counteract their benefits. Moreover, LEED criteria addressing low water usage emerged as a substantial contributor to reducing overall water consumption.

Revolutionizing LEED with Life Cycle Assessment

While LEED primarily focuses on design and construction planning, the study exposes the need for a life cycle approach. LEED’s ongoing public comment period for its next version signals a potential evolution, incorporating life cycle assessment to refine its scoring system. Critics often highlight LEED’s equal crediting for diverse features with varying environmental impacts. By integrating life cycle assessment, builders could gain insights into each feature’s savings, facilitating more nuanced and impactful credit allocation.

Environmental Building Declaration: A New Frontier in Reporting Performance

Results from the transportation center study will culminate in the inaugural environmental building declaration—a comprehensive report based on the ISO 14040 series of standards for LCA. This report not only ensures consistency in assessments but also empowers the state to monitor the building’s performance over time.

Looking Beyond LEED: A Call for Green Building Evolution

While acknowledging LEED’s industry acceptance and evolutionary spirit, critics stress the need for continual improvement. As the green building industry matures, life cycle assessment emerges as a valuable tool to refine LEED, aligning it with its mission of creating genuinely sustainable structures.

Authors’ Background:

Nick Kordesch, Communications Associate, and Keith Killpack, Life Cycle Practitioner, both hold Masters degrees in Environmental Science and Management from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Explore more on sustainable building practices and environmental certifications at CommonShare.

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