Planning for Environmental Sustainability: Learning from LEED and the USGBC

Article excerpt

The author analyzes the relationship between the US Green Building Council and higher education by examining campus use of LEED credits over time, and also suggests that the USGBC provides a model for large-scale learning organizations.

Since its founding in 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has made noteworthy strides toward its stated goal of transforming the nation's construction industry. The Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization created the LEED[R] Green Building Rating system to support environmentally sustainable construction. The system spurs demand for green knowledge and green technologies in an overarching effort to grow the nation's capacity to produce green buildings. In this quest, LEED also provides building owners with an incentive for participating and for providing "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design."

A critical aspect of LEED is that it uses principles of encouragement rather than enforcement (McDonough and Braungart 2002). Participation in LEED is voluntary and carries a level of social prestige. LEED also uses an incremental approach that grows out of what we already know how to do. As innovative techniques are tested and then integrated into mainstream practice, the USGBC raises the bar by requiring new registrants to seek more rigorous standards and higher point thresholds.

The LEED system engages interested parties in providing the resources of time, money, research, and development that are necessary to foster innovation. Thus, those who elect to participate help carry the up-front cost of innovation. These investments help make new approaches viable for widespread use.

The cost of constructing to a higher standard makes good sense on college campuses, where buildings need to last 60 years or more and operating costs are notoriously high (Palmese 2009). Today the USGBC offers an ever-expanding range of programs tailored to specific user groups, including higher education. As one of LEED's largest user groups, higher education has helped the system evolve (Fedrizzi 2009). However, there is ample room to expand higher education's contribution to the green construction knowledge base. Addressing pressing social issues is a core purpose of academe, and this issue warrants increased and immediate attention (Kerr 1995; Levin 2003; Rhodes 2001).

Higher education's role in LEED has concentrated on two main areas: using LEED in the construction of campus buildings and serving as USGBC members. Members of the USGBC (2009a) represent all segments of the construction industry, and their various forms of engagement help refine the system. Changes are "consensus-based and market-driven" (USGBC 2009a, p. xi). Together, the USGBC's members define targets, goals, and agendas for the organization to meet. Members volunteer time, effort, and expertise to help establish and cultivate LEED programs. Gauging how well LEED works for members and for users of the system is critical to protecting the investments they are making.

This article investigates the popularity of the system among universities--probing strengths, weaknesses, and issues of cost--and identifies trends in universities' use of LEED. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the system can help LEED users and the USGBC as they refine the system and their use of it. Moreover, since the USGBC represents a successful "learning organization," it provides an effective model of planning for transformational change (Birnbaum 1988; Goleman 2009). Universities stand to benefit from using it as a precedent.

USGBC'S TRANSFORMATIVE PRACTICES

Statistical analyses indicate that universities' LEED ratings and point totals have increased over time (Chance 2010b). They also indicate that the category of "Energy and Atmosphere" has been most important in determining the ratings universities have achieved. These findings suggest that the ranking system is true to its name (by rewarding focus on "Energy and Environmental Design"), and that there is some level of organizational learning occurring. …