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L is for LEED-ership

Mahesh Ramanujam, President and CEO of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), speaks exclusively with Hannah Jo Uy of Climate Control Middle East on the Council’s mission to cultivate a well-balanced built-environment worldwide and the importance of engaging stakeholders to develop a more holistic design approach and optimise building performance. Excerpts from the interview…

| | Jun 27, 2018 | 9:55 am
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Could you tell us about the uptake in the acceptance of the LEED programme over the years and the strategy of USGBC, moving forward?

Mahesh Ramanujam

This is going to be the 25th year of the US Green Building Council. We were established in 1993 and our vision is “everyone in a Green Building within a generation”. We established this LEED programme in 2000. By 2002, [there were] 38 projects. Today, we have 93,000 projects, and close to 46,000 projects that are certified. We are present in 167 countries.

What we are seeing, very consistently, is that the broad market has adopted “Green”. “Green” is no longer an applied strategy, it is almost an integrated strategy and LEED, our green building rating system, has become the de facto language across the world about how new construction should happen. [Stakeholders] know, by default, if you are not building a LEED building, then you are not building a good building. Currently, we are shifting the same amount of energy and focus to the existing building sector, which is predominantly the larger part [of the built-environment] – I call it the 95%. Many buildings were designed and operated before all these programmes evolved. Some of these buildings have never been certified, so we will try to bring them into this new programme, the LEED existing building programme. We recently announced a version 4.1 to help them actually make progress.

By focusing its attention on both new and existing buildings, would you say this is the two-pronged strategy USGBC is pursuing worldwide?

We are also expanding the vision of buildings to communities and cities. There are big agreements being made by various cities, including Dubai and various Middle East cities. How are they going to track their contributions or reductions in emissions? That’s why it’s important to take the building sector, which contributes 40-45% of carbon emissions, and integrate it with a city-level story. I would call it a three-pronged approach, new and existing buildings and an overarching community and city vision. So, there is an integrated data set where we are able to track [how] we are making progress in the green strategies.

Could you comment what makes LEED, as a rating system, so universally accepted?

I think the single line we consistently repeat is the L part of LEED, which is ‘leadership’. Leaders know they can go above and beyond what is possible. We are dealing with business communities, largely, we are dealing with government leaders. They’re trying to differentiate themselves to show they’re going above regulation, above things that are seen as simplistic.

The second aspect of LEED is that it is holistic. It is integrated, so when it comes to new construction we don’t want energy to be saved at the cost of comfort. We don’t want comfort to be compromised at the cost of daylight. We don’t want health to not be part of the conversation. When you think of balancing all the components of a complex building and really [driving] it through an initiated process to optimise design, construction, operations and eventually, performance – I think that methodology is very powerful.

The third one is that LEED is about leaders, which means that there are leaders around the world, millions of people, advocating for LEED on a daily basis, so what I always say to our team is follow the leaders… We have made this very fundamental that we have actually not taken ownership of the platform or the tool but we have taken ownership or accountability for supporting the leaders, developers, government leaders and educators. Go through the entire ecosystem, each and every person is advocating for LEED and I think that’s special because LEED is a global movement and a language.

Building on this holistic approach, there is a lot of emphasis placed on choosing energy-efficient equipment. However, is the same importance being placed on promoting best practices in installation and operations?

Definitely, equipment has a larger role. We don’t specify products, but we tell them the type of products and technology to be deployed. But what we repeatedly say is that there is a big difference between commissioning and not commissioning, installation and non-installation, verification, monitoring and implementation. Recently, we had a case study where they installed best technology in 85% of the equipment, everything under the sky and roof is there, because [they] are building the fanciest building [but] none of those controls are commissioned, none of those things were verified. LEED integrates one of the unique actors, which is commissioning and all these things fall under that. So, did you design right? Did you commission it right? Are you watching the operational characteristics? [It’s about] design to construction and construction to operations. I think that is a very important focus, otherwise it’s like buying a great car and driving it poorly and how good is that?

Does this makes a case for greater recognition of, and appreciation for, specialised MEP representatives?

Correct. Earlier, I talked about integrated process design. The other part of LEED is integrated project teams. When you talk about integrated project teams, an architect has to pull the structural engineer, the mechanical engineer, the electrical engineer, the construction manager, the facilities manager and be able to actually sit and talk about design and design intentions; because in LEED the biggest thing is intentions, not strategies. What are you intending to do? What is the goal? Then strategies, then operational characteristics. We believe very strongly that LEED already advocates for it and we are also absolutely clear that MEP consultants in this particular case are very critical players and [we are] engaging them in a proactive manner.

As well as stakeholders from the Facilities Management industry?

Yes. FM, MEP engineers – name the ecosystem of the building composition and it is important to bring those players to the room during the design stage and embed them throughout the process so that they know their job is about rightsizing, commissioning, implementation and long-term operation. That is how you will be able to deliver.

Do you believe USGBC’s Arc tool would also help towards a more inclusive dialogue?

That is the next step. LEED recommends an integrated approach but that’s from a strategist’s point of view. With LEED version 4.1, we have integrated the Arc platform… An MEP engineer will be able to step in and look at the data, [assess] performance and say, ‘This is the design, this is the operational aspect, either you didn’t commission or design it right or you oversized or undersized the equipment’… I believe data is the new natural resource. Data is the new mirror, data is the new scale and data is the new accountability tool. Arc is all about that.

Data today is a conversation. Data is not typically numbers, cents and dollars – it’s a dialogue. For us, its transactional data and content data. Both go in together because the conversation creates the context, so you can come back and say the building should perform at this level, says who? In what context? Is it in context of UAE’s particular challenges? You have to have context and the context comes from those conversations.

As I understand, USGBC’s Arc tool aims to address the issue of buildings certified as Platinum or Gold failing to sustain the status, performance-wise, across their lifecycle?

Why did we design Arc? I went around the world, and everybody was saying ‘Mahesh, you have to bring the LEED police, take the plaque away, they didn’t perform’… [LEED is] a market-driven voluntary management tool, that is why it’s not regulation… It is a behavioural transformation. That is the whole point of LEED… ownership is transferred to you, not to me. The reason why we came back with this vision for Arc is because there is no way we can go around the buildings and take away the plaque, we are going to create a bad experience for everybody. It’s your tool and plaque, if we come and take it away, we become the police and the regulator, and then we’ve lost the point behind why LEED was created in the first place.

And it’s not like it was not deserving at the time, right?

Exactly. They say, “Green building should perform.” I said, “What tools have we given them?” For me, it is about providing solutions and tools to continue to push the market to be leaders, challenge them to reach the highest levels of environmental performance and human health and to, ultimately, change behaviour.

Hannah Jo Uy is Assistant Editor at Climate Control Middle East magazine. She may be contacted at hannah@cpi-industry.com

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