EcoDistricts ’11: USGBC’s Scot Horst on LEED + Neighborhood Scale Sustainable Development

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When U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system was founded in 1994, the focus was on individual projects. But sustainable development has evolved since then, and today LEED encompasses singular projects and neighborhood development as well. Learn about how LEED is providing the common language and foundation for district scale development from U.S. Green Building Council Vice-President and EcoDistricts Summit featured speaker, Scot Horst.

EcoD: Can you put some context around LEED’s role in advancing the concept of an EcoDistrict? What kind of positive contributions can LEED buildings, or rather a group of LEED buildings, make towards the development of a district with sustainability at its core?
Scot Horst: The tendency within the environmental movement is to think there is competition between different programs or that various programs are stealing an amount of thinking from a very confined market and that they’re taking it from each other. But, in fact what we know is that if we are going to be successful, we need to leverage all of our different abilities and thinking between many varied programs and approaches. LEED does something very specific—that other programs have not been able to do—which is bringing to scale a level of understanding and a series of different environmental ideas that are very approachable. It helps people who haven’t done this work before figure out how to get into it and what they can do.

What we find is that people who have done LEED projects like to go further on the next one. They like to see if they can do more sustainable projects on their next building, which ultimately leads to a more integrated approach. That’s the point when we start seeing LEED Platinum buildings being pursued and really incredible things put into place. So it only makes sense that if you have an environment where a number of people that have consistently been thinking within this platform and have become well acquainted with all of the different concepts—which we call credits or Environmental Approaches & Ideas—that they start realizing how these concepts work together. You hit that point and it becomes very apparent how all the concepts work towards creating a community or a neighborhood that can be distinguished by the fact that it goes much further even than what our own credits system broaches.

LEED can help reach this result by plowing the ground—getting people interested, getting them involved, helping them understand that a shared language of ideas exists for them and that there are others who are trying to do similar things. Because, once you become a leader, you want to do much more and to expand the impact. That’s where EcoDistricts and sustainable neighborhoods really come to the foreground.

EcoD: How do we use this common language—the LEED system—to bring all of the different stakeholders to the table? Completing a single building has its own set of challenges, but to develop at a district scale makes things considerably more difficult. Does LEED have a role to play?
SH: Yes. What planners sometimes say is that LEED misses the mark because it’s just about a single building, but we know that if we don’t look at neighborhoods, we’ll never get where we need to be. What that perspective ignores is the fact that LEED is successful precisely because it touches the place where people make so many decisions. It gives a lot of people solid direction on all the small decisions that add up to a large thing called a building.

You’re right in that this is much more challenging working at the neighborhood scale, so I’ve been extremely impressed with what we’ve seen come out of the LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) program and the development of EcoDistricts, because you need a much broader set of stakeholder interest to be successful—many times in areas where people don’t have decision making power. That means you have to find ways to influence people who are the decision makers.

LEED plays an essential role at this intersection, because it’s a practical, well-defined tool that gets a number of people within a project actively engaged and on the same page. When you receive credits for a piece of your project, you know you’ve achieved something. Let’s say you have a neighborhood with 100 buildings and you want to get all of the developers to agree to elevate the energy efficiency in these buildings. You can do that much more easily when everyone is speaking the same language. I see that as the basis for how we build out an EcoDistrict. I’m not saying LEED is essential for us to do that, but I do believe it’s an incredibly valuable tool that can help the process.

EcoD: In terms of organizations making decisions at the district scale—municipalities for example—what do you think about cities using of the LEED system as a requirement for new buildings going forward. Some cities are upholding LEED standards as the minimum for all future commercial buildings. Do you think we need these kind of mandates? Or should the market/private section drive adoption of sustainable development choices?
SH: My personal opinion is that LEED is designed to be a leadership standard. It’s not designed to be a regulatory tool. Governments really do best when they use tools they know best—which are codes and other standards to set a minimum for they want their buildings to do. LEED is really about taking people from that point and saying, well, what else can we do that improves what we have.

The reason I’ve given my life to this system called LEED is because, when I was a consultant, I saw so many people, that had been doing work on buildings for most of their careers, have these moments where they’d go, “I’ve never thought about it that way before.” It’s that transformational moment where they realize that by working with other people they can do something that significantly alters their approach in a positive way and reduces their environmental impact at the same time. It’s a leadership transformation. Once people see that, it changes the way they work. And once they change the way they work, it’s simply not good enough to have a high-performing building, you also want an high-performing neighborhood. It’s the ability to achieve that transformation that’s at the core of whether or not we can create enough of sustainable neighborhoods at scale to make a difference.

EcoD: Can you tell us more about the LEED ND Program and how it works to scale up efforts that started in single buildings?
SH: What we are seeing with LEED ND is that things have changed. When the buildings market was going crazy and building all kinds of new neighborhoods all over the place, the rating system USGBC built made a huge amount of sense. Now what it shows is a series of incredibly good ideas that aren’t well aligned with the realities of the current market. The reality today is that we need to be thinking more about what existing neighborhoods need. We need to figure out ways we can approach achieving real performance in these neighborhoods and how we engage a larger stakeholder group. And this is where I’m so impressed by what EcoDistricts are doing, because there is an excellent confluence between what LEED is doing for existing neighborhoods and the EcoDistricts approach.

Scot Horst is Vice-President of U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and a featured speaker at the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit, October 26-28 in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about LEED and USGBC at usgbc.org. Get details on the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit and register at ecodistrictssummit.com

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