Feature Article

Finding Products for LEED v4-A Guide

That complicated new Materials and Resources section of LEED v4 that we debated for years? It's here. Are you ready?

The Prospect Elementary Building at Lake Mills Elementary in Wisconsin is a participant in LEED v4 beta testing. The new building, designed by Miron Construction and Eppstein Uhen Architects, will use ground-source heat pumps, low-flow toilets, and natural daylighting and operable windows in classrooms, among other features.

Photo: Phil Weston, Weston Imaging

If you’re accustomed to looking for products that earn LEED points by checking boxes for recycled content, regional materials, and other single attributes used in previous versions of LEED, the MR category in LEED v4 can be pretty disorienting. To get into the right mindset, it helps to step back and see the big picture—where the building industry is now and where the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) hopes to move it over the next few years.

What’s the Big Idea, USGBC?

As it has made particularly clear in energy and water categories, USGBC (with some nudging from its critics) is pushing LEED toward a focus on building performance. And just as USGBC wants to see LEED stand for energy-efficient building performance, it also wants to make sure that we are truly improving the environmental and health performance of our building material selections. That’s a longer-term trajectory, however, and USGBC sees the need for stepping stones, which it has carefully placed within LEED v4’s materials-related credits.

Life-cycle assessment, or LCA, looks at the impact of a building product, a material, or a whole building over its entire life cycle. This is potentially a more sophisticated and results-oriented approach when contrasted with the pursuit of single attributes like recycled content.

Disclosure and transparency: While LCA appears in LEED v4, there isn’t enough data about our building products and materials to rely on LCA for design decisions. Other design decisions and design tools that could be driven by building product data, such as hazard avoidance, are also hobbled by a lack of data. Therefore, by encouraging disclosure of impacts and ingredients, USGBC hopes to fuel more sophisticated use of data in future design activities and in future versions of LEED. In the meantime, disclosure advocates argue that simply shining a light on manufacturing practices will lead to cleaner products.

Higher standards: “Higher” because LEED v4’s requirements are tighter than they used to be. Biobased materials must now adhere to the Sustainable Agriculture Network standard, for example. “Standards” because LEED v4’s MR section is referencing a number of standards and programs not previously seen in LEED, such as the European REACH program, GreenScreen, and more (see below). It’s likely that some of these standards will be more widely adopted by the industry and lead to change while others won’t gain the same traction. But in referencing outside programs and creating multiple options for compliance, USGBC hopes to spur market development and, ultimately, better performance.

Now, let’s take a look at how these big-picture concepts are unfolding within the credit requirements—and how you can get on board. This article will focus on LEED Building Design & Construction (LEED BD&C), and particularly LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC), but the concepts and programs discussed here are relevant for all LEED v4 rating systems.

Published September 3, 2013