LEED Finally Lives Up to Its Promise

The 4.1 version of LEED’s design and construction rating systems is outstanding. Is it too late?

Nadav Malin, Hon. AIA

Nadav Malin, Hon. AIA, BuildingGreen President

Photo: BuildingGreen, Inc.
As Malcolm Gladwell illustrates so well in his bestselling book Outliers, nothing great emerges fully formed. Just ask the inventor of WD-40 about his previous 39 formulations.

LEED 4.1 is such an achievement. The current working drafts of LEED for Building Design and Construction (BD+C) and LEED for Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) are truly outstanding.

LEED has arrived

Despite its remarkable market success over nearly two decades, as a standard LEED has been flawed in various ways. That’s not intended as a criticism of anyone involved with developing it; we were doing the best we could. It’s just that the simplifications and proxy criteria that were needed to make LEED palatable to a broader market weren’t necessarily great indicators of best practice. The decision to bring it to market as a tool for market transformation despite those flaws was brilliant.

But now, 40-plus iterations later (if you count all the market-sector variants, international adaptions, and ballot drafts), LEED has arrived. The way carbon emissions are now integrated into the energy points and addressed in the materials credits, for example, creates a strong incentive to make decisions that were previously just hinted at. WSP’s Josh Radoff shares my excitement about the changes in a LEEDuser blog post, and we highlight the major changes in our news analysis.

The materials credits maybe the biggest story here. LEED v4 took a bold step forward with incentives for using products with environmental product declarations (EPDs) and ingredient transparency at a time when that kind of reporting was nascent in the U.S. It helped jump-start a whole cottage industry around those reports, but it had unrealistic thresholds and extra requirements that put some of those points out of reach for most projects. Version 4.1 fixes all that with thresholds that are much lower in some cases and more flexible in others. It removes entirely a couple of reporting pathways that the market still hasn’t figured out, like the idea of transparency in raw material extraction practices. I’m sad to see that last one disappear entirely; hopefully it will be back in the future.

Not yet built to perform

Version 4.1 is still not perfect—far from it. It’s still just a design and construction assessment, for one thing. We have yet to effectively connect BD+C and ID+C certification to a measure of actual performance, something that the current Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance (EBOM) and recertification via the Arc platform have yet to solve. But it’s pushing in that direction, with more and better credits for installing water use meters, for example. And the new LEED Zero certifications are a promising new approach.

Is it too late?

It’s sadly ironic that this great rating system has emerged at a time when interest in LEED seems to be flagging, at least in North America. The combination of a frustration with some parts of LEED v4 and the fact that LEED is no longer a shiny new object attracting media attention have taken their toll.

I hope that owners and designers working on new buildings and renovations will give it a fresh look. And that the program’s administrators at Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) will dedicate the resources needed to train and engage highly qualified reviewers, to ensure a good user experience.

LEED is back, and it’s better than ever. Now we just have to get the mainstream building industry using it, before it’s too late for the planet … and for the people who call this planet home.

For more information:

U.S. Green Building Council



Published February 4, 2019

Malin, N. (2019, February 4). LEED Finally Lives Up to Its Promise. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/leed-finally-lives-its-promise

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February 5, 2019 - 7:19 pm

Well put Nadav - as so many of us contributed to the v4 draft development process with "too far, too fast", and "institutions will walk away" over and over I could feel a little bit of satisfaction right about now. But honestly this is just a huge relief to those of us who work in these ratings all day every day and have not been able to fight all the way to the top of this hill. Kudos, and thanks for however this terrific revision came about. Already using it to demonstrate the feasibility to go full LEED!

February 5, 2019 - 7:41 pm

Version 4.1 really is a great improvement. We have 2 questions: 

1. When will projects be able to register for LEED-BD+C v4.1 as a standard version, not a Beta?

2. Is it possible to substitute out v4.1 versions of credits for v4 if you are already registered for the latter?


February 5, 2019 - 8:13 pm


Well said - I echo your sentiments on LEEDv4.1 and looking forward to revisiting LEED with clients who were turned off by the original v4.  Improving the Rating System is a big step, although I think arguably the most poignant observation you made was:

"I hope that the program’s administrators at (GBCI) will dedicate the resources . . . to ensure a good user experience."

GBCI Reviewers are in many ways the face of LEED and I hope to see a more streamlined, common-sense review process with v4.1

- Alex

February 6, 2019 - 10:47 am

Let's be realistic: after 20 years in the marketplace, no new set of criteria is going to make LEED palatable to the broad base of building owners without a major revamp of the entire certification process. I have long advocated for self-certification with software-based random audits, similar to the US income tax system. Without a major change in process, the product has no chance of gaining greater market share. We'd be better off using the Energy Star approach, where the simple sign-off by a registered architect or engineer is enough for submittal. That would get the legions of consultants focused on generating value for building owners not just managing an arcane submittal process. That said, there is still no recent evidence (i.e., independent third-party research) that LEED-certified buildings are performing any better (or enough better) than conventional buildings, in generating the significant reductions in carbon emissions from buildings that we all need. If they're not, then aren't we just "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?"

April 9, 2019 - 10:54 am

As stated by our LEEDv4 coach: 

A new project can be registered under v4 or v4.1 beta. It's your choice. V4 projects can use v4.1 requirements as an option for most credits, so it's a good introduction. With no v4.1 credit forms yet, I'd avoid it.

Our LEEDcoach for our LEEDv4 registered project offered the following comment to the same question:    To choose the v4.1 option, click on a button on the right side of the credit to indicate your choice. This guidance <https://www.usgbc.org/resources/leed-v41-credit-substitutions-v4-projects> provides more detail. The alternative can be used for as few or as many credits as you wish.

April 10, 2019 - 2:08 pm

No need to wait for new forms or worksheets to choose to substitute. You have the option in newer registered projects to click the little round double arrow icon on the right of each eligible credit to tell the reviewers you are documenting to v4.1 requirements. Then state in the special circumstances that you have substituted and just upload the documentation that applies to the new requirements. It has been very simple and the reviewers have apparently been educated on what to look for. We are subbing on every possible, reasonable option on all of our v4 (and even a 2009) projects.