Climate and Construction: A hybrid solution to project certification

Project developments today are expected to address reduced carbon emissions, embodied carbon and overall energy use in response to the global climate crisis.

As a result, the term “sustainability” has been expanded to include more than community amenities and overall good intentions. Furthermore, insight provided by firms such as SEEFAR Building Analytics confirms improved building performance pays off as a measure of ROI over the life expectancy of a new building.

Where does that position LEED?

Many certification standards have been created since LEED arrived. The best are performance-based rather than prescriptive. It raises questions regarding the value of LEED’s prescriptive sustainable attributes at a time when carbon and energy are today’s focus.

Some expert observers also believe the proliferation of standards and certifications in Canada, over 19 in use today, result from the National Building Code’s failure to set high outcome objectives and instead, set a low bar that is relatively easy to achieve. Consequently, larger jurisdictions wanting to do better have initiated their own building programs, such as the BC Step Code and the Toronto Green Standard.

However, in fairness to LEED, it remains a popular and attractive label that provides a relatively quick and easy path to environmental respectability. As of September 2021, more than 110,000 commercial projects were registered and certified to the LEED standard worldwide, according to the USGBC.

“I still believe LEED has a place,” Alan Murphy told the Daily Commercial News.

Murphy is the co-founder of Greenreason, a Toronto-based sustainable building consulting and project management firm. He’s had years of experience with the standards and certification programs as they apply in Canada.

“LEED gave us a bit of a soap box. It gave us some credibility to say, ‘Look, this really is the way of the future.’ LEED was always about trying to transform an industry on a broader scale. It gave clear guidelines as to how to do it, it gave suggestions, and it had internal references.”

In 2003, LEED Canada created its own version outside of the USGBC. However, after struggling to keep up with evolving demands in the market, registrations for LEED Canada closed in 2016, leaving Canada reintegrated with the USGBC version of LEED.

Meanwhile, LEED’s recent Version 4.1 O&M has upgraded its focus on energy use, rewarding projects “for benchmarking and reducing actual energy use via the performance score, which measures the intended outcomes of energy efficiency strategies”.

Even so, Murphy feels energy remains LEED’s weakest point. Combining PassivHaus within a LEED certification employs the best of both.

Another standard that could be integrated into the mix with LEED and PassivHaus is WELL certification.

“WELL is about the interior environment. It’s like putting LEED on steroids,” says Murphy.

Particularly appealing to Murphy is WELL’s requirement for recertification every three years. Together, these three standards blend the best of prescriptive and performance standards with recurrency.

“People ask, ‘Should we do LEED, should we do PassivHaus or should we do WELL?’ I don’t think there’s a simple answer. It really has a lot to do with the developer’s goals and what matters to them.”

Murphy’s comments suggest that in terms of today’s focus on liveability, carbons and GHGs in all their forms, there’s no single solution for project developers.

However, there are also growing concerns that much of today’s demand for certification stems from forces beyond the high-minded objective of building better buildings, specifically ESGs (Environmental Social and Governance policies) and certification brand marketing.

While ESG requirements and certification programs might be driving value for owners and satisfying regulatory requirements, they all cost money for memberships, subscriptions and validation processes.

This creates questions concerning which certifications actually facilitate change or simply provide revenue streams for host organizations, the quality and transparency of third party validation, whether any measurements taken are important and relevant, and how many certification programs are really needed.

Overriding everything is the fact that certification labels offer marketing and investor attraction, whether as verifiable measures of achievement or just greenwashing.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Climate and Construction column ideas to

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