There are few things I can think of that change as fast as the green building industry. Even the regular iPhone updates don’t seem to keep pace with all of the new technologies, design tools, best practices and expanding areas of emphasis that make green building as much of a moving target as anything else out there.

In the past year, we’ve seen architects specify LED lights as if it was the easiest no-brainer when only a few years ago they would be scoffed at as expensive futurism. Others are using glass that can change tint and hue when the sun is upon it; while still others are replacing energy-intensive concrete with sustainable wood for floor decking and support columns. Meanwhile, building owners are targeting the net-zero energy and water goals and have become increasingly aware of the impact of health and the built environment.

The only thing that has lagged in green building is the standard that gave it shape in the first place: the LEED rating system.

If you work on LEED projects, whether new construction, existing buildings or anything in between, you have likely been stuck using the same tired version (LEED 2009) for the last four years, and likely going through the same routine paces with those projects: checking off points for bike racks, for having enough windows to see out of, for using low-flow water fixtures that aren’t all that low-flow anymore. Working with LEED 2009 has become a worn out relationship, empty of any enthusiasm and vigor or fresh things to talk about.

But at long last – after a year or two of U.S. Congress-like gridlock and inability to gain enough member consensus to support the passage of the updated version – this past November the U.S. Green Building Council finally released the newest LEED: LEED v4, for all rating systems in the vast constellation of building types. These include new construction, existing buildings, core and shell, interiors, schools, retail, health care and so on. They even added new building types like warehouses and data centers to bring more structures into the LEED universe.

Use of the new rating system isn’t required until June of 2015, so most practitioners still don’t have much of an idea about what’s actually inside, but if a makeover was needed to get LEED back in pace with the green building industry, we’ve certainly got one.

Highlights of the new code include:

•    Performance thresholds are up across the board (no more points for basic business as usual stuff). Most notably, LEED now references the ASHRAE 90.1 2010 energy standard (as opposed to the lumpy old 2007 version). This is a significant bump in energy efficiency, requiring as much as a 26 percent improvement over the last version.
•    Water efficiency is expanded to include water metering and cooling tower water and process use (a painful oversight in the previous version and a big source of criticism).
•    The creation of better metrics for evaluating things like access to transportation (no more “a quarter mile from two bus lines,” but introducing the concept of transit rides per day and access to “quality transit”).
•    Daylight (including my favorite new metrics of Spatial Daylight Autonomy), and interior lighting quality – including glare and color rendering index.
•    And of course adding a few credits to reflect industry best practices, like acoustics for all new construction projects (not just schools), energy demand response and removing old credits that didn’t make sense anymore, like innovative wastewater technologies.

But in the end, LEED v4 will likely be known for making it’s mark on improving dimensions of health in the built environment, and specifically, by placing an emphasis on materials.

In the building industry, there has been a momentous shift toward the desire for transparency in materials. From the early days when Environmental Building News first published the Green Spec Directory, through the development of The Pharos Project by the Healthy Building Network, the role out of the Living Building Challenge Materials Red List, Declare and Health Product Declarations, the approach to “sustainable materials” has been rapidly evolving and LEED v4 radically changes its approach to the materials credits. This will no doubt be the most confusing (although arguably the most needed) and most contentious update in the new rating system.

The new LEED v4 Materials & Resource credits include:
•    Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction
•    Building Product and Disclosure
•    Optimization for Environmental Product Declarations
•    Sourcing of Raw Materials
•    Material Ingredients.

Credits were added for:
•    PBT (persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic)
•    Source Reductions for mercury, lead, cadmium and copper

In other words, if you thought that the pinnacle of sophistication in materials specification was the requirement for recycled content or rapidly renewable materials, think again.

As a green building practitioner, I recognize it is no easy thing to keep up with this industry: it is broad, fast-paced and covers so many disciplines and technologies, but the need to update the go-to standard for green building has been imminent for a long time.

Like it or hate it, LEED v4 is fresh, challenging and will hopefully help push the bar higher. And now that it’s here, it’s worth getting to know LEED all over again.

About Joshua Radoff

Joshua Radoff, the co-founder and Principal of YR&G sustainability consultants, has a background in sustainable energy engineering and works at the intersection of the energy, climate, and green building fields. He is a regular speaker on sustainability issues and the LEED rating systems and has consulted on hundreds of sustainability projects for both public and private sector clients, nationally and internationally. Radoff brings a broad knowledge of waste reduction methods, water efficiency programs, green site and building exterior maintenance, recyclable products and renewable energy offsets.