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Designing sustainable communities with LEED-ND

One big shortcoming of the LEED green building code is its focus almost entirely on the building rather than the location. A building could get high marks in LEED with a green roof, cutting-edge stormwater management, effective heat insulation, electricity-saving equipment, and more, but be located in the middle of a former forest where the average employee drives 30 miles to work. Is that really saving the environment?

Conneectivity diagram for LEED Neighborhood Development.

Enter LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), a new type of LEED for new large-scale developments. LEED just opened up their draft for public comment. It's fascinating to read. They have to quantify every element, like whether a site has good linkage to the surrounding neighborhood, or too many dead-end streets within.

The draft also gives points for the bicycle network, buildings fronting onto the street, avoiding blank walls, mixed-income housing, unbundling parking, car sharing, historic preservation, and of course green building practices in the structures themselves.

LEED-ND isn't replacing the regular building LEED, but it's bringing good urban design practices into the LEED system. Next, LEED should adapt some of the concepts of LEED-ND into their code for individual buildings, giving more credit to developers who locate their office buildings near transit.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Exactly the point that I made here about that boondoggle stadium

by Douglas Willinger on Nov 18, 2008 12:47 pm • linkreport

LEED for individual buildings does give credit for good site selection, with credits for Development Density + Community Connectivity as well as for proximity to Alternative Transportation (public transportation access, bicycle storage and changing rooms, alternative fuel vehicles, lower parking capacity).

by DG-rad on Nov 18, 2008 1:01 pm • linkreport

but you are right on about the potential for being certified and being totally suburban.

by DG-rad on Nov 18, 2008 1:04 pm • linkreport

You might want to take a look at some of the claims that developers have made about how they anticipate earning LEED certification at DC sites. Based on the location and features such as underground parking which are standard for urban buidlings, they claim a significant number of points, and very few additional points are necessary. Other points are earned by simply hiring someone who is LEED accredited, by claiming that condominium owners will use environmentally friendly cleaning products and by providing information on car-pools or buses to future residential tenants. You will even find one developer who said that they would earn two of their required 28 LEED credits by not having an irrigation system. That project, which occupied the entire site, included no landscaping--thus no need for irrigation. They also claimed to restore open space and address the heat island effect by having a green roof which was smaller than the required open space that they eliminated on the ground.

The 28 points necessary for LEED certification does not result in a building that is any better for the environment than the average new building in DC.

by Andy on Nov 18, 2008 1:52 pm • linkreport

LEED gives buildings credit for site selection that take into account community connectivity, proximity to transit, bike use, surrounding density, parking, etc. But they're not all that hard to obtain, you could create a more stringent credit for all of them. Instead of 10 services in a 1/2 mile radius, make it 15 or something like that. And you could increase the density and transit requirements. B/c I echo what's already been said, you could conceivably have a new building that had all gained all these credits, but due to layout or whatever, it's not urban or pedestrian friendly at all. Hopefully the new LEED for neighborhood development helps with this. The should market this like they did w/ LEED for Schools which was very popular.

by Vik on Nov 18, 2008 2:06 pm • linkreport

LEED seems to be a decent start to a worthy cause. However, it seems that its standards need to be tightened in order for it to mean anything more than an unintentional marketing tool.

It is nice to see that they are starting to consider location since transportation is such a large portion of energy consumption/waste.

by Cavan on Nov 18, 2008 2:25 pm • linkreport

I've said before and I will say again: LEED without good urban design is like cutting down the rainforest using a hybrid bulldozer. You're still missing the point.

by BeyondDC on Nov 18, 2008 2:34 pm • linkreport

Next, LEED should adapt some of the concepts of LEED-ND into their code for individual buildings

This is on track to happen. Eventually, there will be a single pool of credits, and the only difference between the various LEED rating systems will be the specific set of credits that are drawn from the pool.

Even though incorporating LEED-ND into the other LEED systems is in the works, it can only help matters if comments are sent in support of that.

@BeyondDC: How should LEED-ND include and measure good urban design? It would help enormously if the system could use human judgment, like (say) figure skating judges do. Given the constraint of being 100% objective and quantifiable, the LEED ND draft does reasonably well. But the draft standards still are no guarantee that a LEED certified development will be pleasant, comfortable or attractive -- and I say that as a contributor to LEED-ND.

by Laurence Aurbach on Nov 18, 2008 3:59 pm • linkreport

For an urban site, the criteria for LEED certification is already so lax that it simply seems to be a marketing tool, or a way for developers to hoodwink environmental groups and sympathetic, but naïve, individuals into testifying in support of projects that have no environmental benefits, and probably significant environmental harm. Many of the 28 credits are obtained simply by being in the urban area and having features that are standard for buildings in that area. Are you suggesting that the standards be made even more lax with the addition of more credits which are likely to be gimmes in an urban area, so that the developers automatically get their 28 credits without any green features whatsoever?

by Andy on Nov 18, 2008 4:22 pm • linkreport

The New Urbanists have been struggling for years to come up with an objective set of standards. I think such standards for LEED purposes are actually a little easier.

If we take it as a given that walkable urbanism is important, then how can we define walkable urbanism in a measurable way? Start with the ingredients. To get walkable urbanism you need adequate density, access to a mix of uses, and a street/building layout that supports walking.

Density is easy. We know, for example, that it takes a minimum of about 12 units per acre to support a decent bus line. Units per acre of the project and of the project's surrounding neighborhood can be a criteria.

Mixed use is also easy. Draw a 1/4 mile radius around the project and count the uses. Compare to a checklist of important necessities such as convenience stores, and lower the score if your radius is missing a necessity.

Walkable layout is harder to quantify, but you could make a close approximation by looking at setbacks, % of land that isn't covered by building, size of block, entrances per block, average width of facade per block, presence of transit/biking, and maybe a few other indicators.

Combine and refine these suggestions and I think you'd have a pretty accurate measure of good urbanism. It would be time consuming and not perfect, but I think you could do it.

by BeyondDC on Nov 18, 2008 4:23 pm • linkreport

>Are you suggesting that the standards be made even more lax with the addition of more credits which are likely to be gimmes in an urban area

Honesetly, I don't have a problem with that. It *should* be *much* easier to get a LEED rating on an urban site than a non-urban site. If the majority of your patrons are driving to get there, it should be virtually impossible to achieve LEED.

by BeyondDC on Nov 18, 2008 4:26 pm • linkreport

Beyond, So you are actually suggesting that buildings in an urban setting should get LEED certification, even if they do not have a single “green” feature that would not also be incorporated into any standard design for an urban setting. Perhaps you should actually check some of the actual worksheets for credits that are claimed for buildings in DC, including the condominium that didn’t even have energy-saving appliances, but still claimed 28 credits, with two credits for not having irrigation (saving water)because there was no landscaping. It isn’t necessary to be green at all to get 28 credits in DC. But don’t let the facts get in the way.

by Andy on Nov 18, 2008 5:06 pm • linkreport

>are (you) actually suggesting that buildings in an urban setting should get LEED certification, even if they do not have a single “green” feature

Being in an urban setting *IS* a green feature, and an extremely important one at that. Locating in a place that makes the most efficient use of land and existing infrastructure makes a far greater difference to the environment than putting in low-energy light bulbs.

Are you actually suggesting that we ignore the most important factor in green design? Are you actually suggesting that we reward suburban buildings for spending lots of money and energy on fancy systems to solve problems (like run-off) that could be solved simply by locating in a city?

28 credits gets you to the very low-end of basic certification. You need more to reach Silver level, and much more to reach Gold or Platinum. Since locating in an urban area is by far the single most important factor in green architecture, I have absolutely no problem with saying that successfully doing the single most important thing is enough to get you low-level certification.

If you want high-level certification, do extra stuff, sure. Anyone who cares about LEED will know that basic certification is easy to get, and that only the higher-levels are really special. But I have no problem with rewarding buildings that start off by getting the big question right, and punishing buildings that start off by getting it wrong.

by BeyondDC on Nov 18, 2008 6:15 pm • linkreport

Here's an analogy:

Back when ZipCar and FlexCar were separate companies, one of the big differences between them was that FlexCar used mostly hybrid cars, while ZipCar used mostly regular ones.

So let's say there are four people:

Flint lives in a walkable neighborhood. He doesn't own a car, and only uses his FlexCar membership once a month to rent a hybrid.

Zebulon lives in a walkable neighborhood. He doesn't own a car, and only uses his ZipCar membership once a month to rent a non-hybrid.

Heidi lives in the suburbs and drives her hybrid Prius everywhere she goes.

Norm lives in the suburbs and drives his non-hybrid SUV everywhere he goes.

... By virtue of living in the city and only using a car once a month, Zebulon is living a much more environmentally friendly life than Heidi, who drives everywhere. The fact that Heidi drives a hybrid does make a difference, enough that she is out-greening Norm, but regardless of her hybrid car, Zebulon is doing much better.

Zeb is like the urban building without a lot of other "goodies", and Heidi is like the suburban building with lots of fancy green features. No matter how great Heidi's gas mileage is, she's still polluting more than the guy who only gets in a car once per month.

Flint, who got everything right, of course wins overall.

by BeyondDC on Nov 18, 2008 6:31 pm • linkreport

"Combine and refine these suggestions and I think you'd have a pretty accurate measure of good urbanism."

@BeyondDC, what you've described is a fair outline of the current LEED-ND draft. And I'm sure the LEED-ND committee would appreciate your suggestions for refinements or even a complete re-framing, if you think it might be warranted.

@Andy: There's no question that past LEED systems have deserved criticism. But all LEED systems are steadily being tightened, year by year. The eventual performance goal is for top rated buildings to be net carbon neutral or even carbon positive.

by Laurence Aurbach on Nov 18, 2008 6:40 pm • linkreport

All criticisms aside, the fact that these guidelines now exist ought to help fight through zoning regulations (such as parking minimums, street widths, etc) that plague the developers that are actually trying to build smart towns.

by Dave Murphy on Nov 19, 2008 12:19 am • linkreport

Shouldn't the zoning documents be changed to mandate such an outcome rather than relegate it to some award or certification? Furthermore, it wouldn't hurt if architecture and planning schools taught these principles to better be able to influence clients towards the pecuniary benefits of this kind of building. I know it's easier said than done, but it would go a long way towards establishing a new paradigm.

by Thayer-D on Nov 19, 2008 7:41 am • linkreport

>Shouldn't the zoning documents be changed

Absolutely. Which brings up an interesting question. Why is there no LEED-like rating system for zoning codes?

We should be calling out jurisdictions with bad codes, and rewarding those with good ones.

by BeyondDC on Nov 19, 2008 10:45 am • linkreport

Documents such as LEED ND are not meant to replace zoning codes, but they can provide a framework within which jurisdictions can contemplate and implement zoning changes. There are a myriad of scorecards, worksheets etc out there for this very purpose.

However, it is up to the politicians and the people who put them there, to demand that such rules are eventually adopted.

That is part of the purpose of the blog!

by Andrew on Nov 19, 2008 1:46 pm • linkreport

>Documents such as LEED ND are not meant to replace zoning codes

Of course not. Nor is regular LEED meant to replace BOCA codes. But it would be nice if there were a LEED-like certification that communities could apply for that reviewed the greenness of their zoning regulations.

by BeyondDC on Nov 19, 2008 7:28 pm • linkreport

Here is an initiative that communities can use to gauge their sustainability: STAR Community Index. It is much broader than zoning regs alone, and is aiming to rate natural systems and energy & climate along with planning & design. The initiative is just getting launched now, so this is a good time to get involved if you are interested.

by Laurence Aurbach on Nov 19, 2008 10:00 pm • linkreport

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