Actual performance will supersede theory about energy and water usage.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program has become the gold standard for certifying a building’s green credentials. Yet more than a few critics have poked holes in LEED from various directions - too complex, questionable criteria, skewed weighting, etc. Additionally, many people in the plumbing industry think LEED gives short-shrift to water savings.

At least one of LEED’s most glaring shortcomings seems to have been amended. As part of LEED v3, the latest version of USGBC’s program for green building design, construction, operations and maintenance, buildings seeking LEED certification will begin submitting operational performance data on a recurring basis as a precondition to certification.

“Today there is all too often a disconnect between the energy modeling done during the design phase and what actually happens during daily operation after the building is constructed,” said Scot Horst, senior vice president of USGBC’s LEED program. “We’re convinced that ongoing monitoring and reporting of data is the single best way to drive higher building performance because it will bring to light external issues such as occupant behavior or unanticipated building usage patterns, all key factors that influence performance.” 

Bravo. Data is intrinsically better than theory when it comes to evaluating any system or product. Actual building performance will provide feedback that “will guide LEED’s evolution,” said Brendan Owens, USGBC’s vice president of LEED technical development. “This data will show us what strategies work - and which don’t - so we can evolve the credits and prerequisites informed by lessons learned.”

Here’s hoping performance-based certification also will help reduce the runaway green hype that now accompanies most new product introductions, and which ultimately leads to a backlash of skepticism about green claims.

One thing that LEED does get right, in my opinion, is to de-emphasize the role of individual products in achieving energy and water savings and to focus on the systems to which they are attached. No matter how efficient HVAC equipment or plumbing fixtures and fittings may be, no building is going to save energy or water with systems that are poorly designed or maintained.

“(LEED v3) will also help us to educate building owners on how users of the building can impact its energy use and water consumption, to be sure the building is operating as it was designed to,” Horst stated. “Similar to the sticker on a new car that says the car will get 30 miles to the gallon - the car is calibrated to perform but it’s also reliant on the driver’s habits.”

  1. Projects can comply with the performance requirement in one of three ways:1. The building is recertified on a two-year cycle using LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance.

  2. The building provides energy and water usage data on an ongoing basis annually.

  3. The building owner signs a release that authorizes USGBC to access the building’s energy and water usage data directly from the building’s utility provider.
The requirement creates a data stream on LEED-certified building performance that can be used by owners and operators to optimize their building performance and promote the establishment of energy-efficiency goals over the life of the building. USGBC will be able to use the performance information collected to inform future versions of LEED.

Plumbing and mechanical contractors can benefit from this data stream as well. Any contractor can sell and install ultra-low-flush toilets, but they won’t save water if flush valves leak or flawed DWV installations lead to multiple flushes. Down the road, the best contractors will be able to cite a track record of LEED-certified jobs they worked on with performance data to back up their claims of green plumbing and HVAC expertise.

“USGBC is investigating cost-effective ways for every LEED building to become metered as a way to capture this data,” said Owens. “However, we know there are building types that may have a central plant - a military base or a university campus, for instance - where it would be cost prohibitive to install meters on every single building.” In this circumstance, the minimum program requirements would be waived.

Even though gas-guzzling autos gain the lion’s share of attention in the popular press when it comes to energy efficiency, building systems consume around 40 percent of the nation’s energy overall, much more than vehicles. The performance data coming out of LEED v3 ought to open a bunch of eyes to this problem.