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Since its inception, the LEED Green Building Rating System has been based on one overriding goal: To reduce negative environmental and human health impacts of the built environment by promoting innovation and transforming the marketplace. USGBC believes the built environment can be used as a positive force in our communities and for the planet as a whole. With each new version of LEED, the scope of the environmental and human health impacts addressed by the rating systems has grown as our understanding of these issues and their interrelationships has deepened.

LEED v4, the proposed version of LEED scheduled for member ballot in mid-2013, continues that upward momentum by calling on all professions within the building industry to use the best practices and materials available and to keep pushing the envelope to find new and better ways to improve our built environment. Nowhere is that clearer than in the proposed Materials and Resources (MR) credit additions and changes.

Why propose such significant changes? First, the materials we use to construct our homes and workplaces have impacts that reach far beyond the building itself—they are important. Many of the energy and environmental impacts of buildings comes from the materials used to construct them. In fact, it takes 20 to 30 years for the energy and emissions from building operations to outpace the embodied energy and emissions from the materials and construction of a building, according to the 2030 Challenge for Products. And energy use is just one of the negative impacts of the extraction, manufacturing, material ingredients, transportation and other life-cycle steps of building materials.

Second, we need better metrics for materials within LEED. LEED has always encouraged use of “environmentally preferable” materials through credits in the Materials and Resources category. Throughout the last decade, project teams have driven demand for more sustainable products and fostered market-driven innovation in the building products industry. From responsibly harvested wood to green cleaning products, the progress has been significant. These credits have used a common formula since LEED was introduced into the market—rewarding the use of products that perform well on a specific criterion, such as recycled content. But while these attributes are valuable, they only tell part of the story. A product could perform very well on one attribute but far lower on others. The LEED v4 approach paints a more complete picture of materials and products, enabling project teams to make more informed decisions that will have greater overall benefit for the environment, human health and our communities, while also encouraging manufacturers to improve their products through innovation.

And finally, as the market that LEED has addressed transforms, USGBC believes it is time to expand the conversation about materials in new directions. The market is ready for this expansion. Life-cycle approaches to assessment of materials have been available since the 1990s. Life-cycle thinking addresses major environmental impacts throughout the complete life cycle of a product, from extraction of raw materials, the processing of those materials, manufacturing of the product, transportation, use and final disposal, reuse or recycling. In Europe and a few other parts of the world, manufacturers, regulators, specifiers and consumers in many fields have used life-cycle information to improve their product selections and product environmental profiles. Until recently, the U.S. was not able to support wide-scale use of life-cycle thinking due to lack of data and tools. Now, however, the USGBC sees a growing number of manufacturers that are ready to document and publicly disclose the environmental profiles of their products, as well the emergence of programs to assist manufacturers in this effort and to enable users to easily understand the results.


Introducing Life-Cycle Thinking

Under LEED v4, project teams will find credits that support a life-cycle approach in their designs and building material choices, deliver improved performance, and provide for the most resource-efficient building overall and over time. Life-cycle thinking means that the entire life cycle of a product should be examined, the processes and constituents identified, and the impacts of those processes and constituents assessed—both upstream, from the point of manufacturing or use toward raw materials extraction, and downstream, from that point toward end of life. This type of thinking is sometimes called “cradle to grave” to illustrate the inclusion of the whole life cycle, or “cradle to cradle” to emphasize recycling and reuse at the end of life rather than disposal.

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a methodology for implementing life-cycle thinking. LCA methods have been developed by international standard-setting organizations and include rigorous requirements to ensure data quality, comparability and objectivity. LCA is data-intensive and generally requires a trained professional. LEED v4 is not asking project teams to conduct LCAs, to become LCA experts or to hire LCA experts. Instead, the proposed MR credits are similar in many ways to previous credits for the project team—for example, instead of obtaining certification of recycled content from a manufacturer, the project team now will request an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) or another approved form of reporting that discloses the required LCA-based information. USGBC is asking product manufacturers to gather life-cycle information on their products if they are not already doing so as part of their product development and innovation process, and to disclose relevant portions of that information in standard formats.

Life-cycle thinking also encourages using less materials and more efficient use of materials. In addition to awarding credits for reuse of all or part of an existing building, LEED v4 now allows project teams to use a whole building LCA to optimize decisions on structure and envelope. It provides the most points for reuse to account for the large environmental—and, in many cases, economic and social—benefits associated with reuse strategies. When reuse is not possible, projects are rewarded for using less material while maintaining building function, durability and reducing environmental impact.

Life-cycle assessment and various forms of Environmental Product Declarations do not address all environmental and human health impacts adequately. Therefore, LEED v4 includes credits that are intended to better address human and ecological health impacts of material extraction and the human health effects of constituents used in the product life cycle.

The new LEED rating system will encourage product manufacturers to begin with disclosing information about a variety of product attributes, which will influence the industry’s material selections and lead to more sustainable products in the marketplace. And, it will give project teams the tools and information to enable them to make product selections that are optimized across a broad range of impacts.


USGBC Strategies

Use of life-cycle thinking and the expanded approach proposed in LEED v4 requires reporting or disclosure of information, as well as tools for comparative evaluation of materials and products. Reporting allows for evaluation and comparison, which enables preferential selection, which drives further innovation to create more competitive products with improved profiles.


Encourage More Reporting and Disclosure

Specifying better materials is impossible without an understanding of what goes into the products themselves. The life-cycle approach to MR credits provides incentives for project teams to specify products from manufacturers that provide a product’s full backstory.

“Just like nutrition labels in the grocery store, project teams want to know what’s in the building products they are using,” says Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED, USGBC. “By providing this information, innovative manufacturers will gain a competitive advantage in the market, as they will be differentiated from ‘business as usual’ manufacturers.”

Both project teams and manufacturers benefit from the availability of good information in the marketplace. Project teams can improve their product choices to minimize negative impacts and encourage manufacturers to strive toward improving their production practices or highlighting their best-in-class innovations.

Product manufacturers that report on the environmental, human and ecological health impacts of their products demonstrate market leadership. With time, markets are expected to function more effectively and freely through the open sharing of this information.


Encourage Optimization of Product Choices

The disclosure credits encourage manufacturers to provide more information. The optimization credits encourage project teams to select products based on this information. Available programs will be used to identify products that have acceptable or optimized profiles. These programs are listed in the draft credits, and USGBC expects to approve other programs. In this fast-evolving world of product innovation, other programs that can be demonstrated by LEED users or manufacturers to accomplish the credit’s intent will be recognized. 

In each credit, use of domestic and local (within 100 miles of the project site) materials are given additional weighting. This extra weight for domestic and local material exists to enhance LEED’s influence related to local job creation and to support manufacturers who choose to continue to do business in areas with stringent environmental protection laws. The weighting also provides project teams with an incentive to purchase local and domestic materials by helping them to achieve the cost threshold necessary to meet the credit requirements.


New Credits in 5th Public Comment Building Product Disclosure and Optimization—Environmental Product Declaration

This credit rewards project teams for selecting building products and materials for which life-cycle information is available and from manufacturers that have verified reductions in environmental impact. In this credit, the tool providing the information is called an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). EPDs provide a standardized way of quantifying the environmental impact of a product or system. They include information on the environmental impact of raw material acquisition, energy use and efficiency, content of materials and chemical substances, emissions to air, soil and water, and waste generation. A variety of different EPD programs exist, some necessitating information be publicly available (accessible to the market), while others also provide a third-party verification that the information provided is accurate. Certification bodies and declaration processes conform to international ISO standards to ensure consistent reporting of information.

The first part of this credit, Option 1: Environmental Product Declaration, awards one point for using at least 20 permanently installed products whose manufacturers provide a declaration following an established process and set of rules. Currently, there are three levels of achievement in this option; other programs might be approved in the future:

  • Manufacturer’s self-declaration or product-specific declaration is publicly available (a project team could obtain the information) and critically reviewed (but not necessarily verified) by a third party to ensure that it conforms to the relevant rules and ISO standards.
  • Industry-wide or generic EPD has third-party certification (Type III), including verification. The declaration is generic to an entire industry of product, such as concrete, rather than a particular manufacturer or company. The manufacturer must be recognized as a participant by the EPD program operator as following the defined set of rules and standards associated with the declaration process.
  • Product-Specific Type III EPDs use third-party certification (Type III), including external verification. Unlike generic EPDs, product-specific declarations are specific to a particular manufacturer and do not necessarily reflect the practices of the rest of the industry.


These different thresholds have been created because different industries are at different stages in their development of EPDs. Before an EPD can be created, an industry must agree to the boundary of what is included in the scope of the declaration. These are called product category rules (PCR). The flooring industry has an established PCR and as a result, there are several carpet and resilient flooring companies with EPDs already available. For industries that do not yet have established PCRs, there is the option for manufacturers to provide their own information, but it is valued less because it is not third-party verified or necessarily comparable to other similar products. Generic EPDs are a good starting point for manufacturers. They provide a baseline of information for a specific product category, but are not specific to a company or manufacturing plant.

Option 2: Multi-Attribute Optimization rewards projects that use at least 50 percent (by cost) of permanently installed products from manufacturers participating in an extended producer responsibility program, or adhering to another USGBC-approved program that will certify verified reductions in at least three of the following: global warming potential, depletion of stratospheric ozone, acidification of land and water resources, eutrophication, formation of tropospheric ozone or depletion of non-renewable energy sources.

At this time, USGBC has not endorsed any specific programs, but expects programs like the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) level, Architecture 2030 Challenge for Products, and NSF/ANSI 140 to begin to base their certifications on data verified from EPDs. The first step is making the information available, and that is why disclosure is so highly valued. Then, with validated data, third-party programs can more rigorously assess product performance.


Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Sourcing of Raw Materials

This credit expands the principles of the successful LEED 2009 credit encouraging the use of sustainably harvested wood to all extracted materials. It’s meant to increase the demand for transparency in mining, quarrying, agricultural products and other industries. Extraction is the first step in a product’s life cycle, and it includes how materials are taken from the ground or sourced and what processes were used to protect humans, biodiversity, ecosystems and more.

Building materials and construction play a large role in the world’s deforestation. Timber logging is the largest source of deforestation in Latin American and subtropical Asia, accounting for more than 70 percent of the depletion of this critical resource. Mining operations are claiming increasingly large amounts of forest: 18 percent of the world’s “lungs” are now being cleared for mining operations. And, forests are only one of the many places resource extraction’s harmful impacts are felt. Air and water quality, indigenous homelands, and even modern settlements can be damaged if material extraction isn’t carefully and responsibly managed.

This new credit engages more parts of the extraction industry than ever before and provides opportunity for more industries to demonstrate leadership and innovation in sustainability.

The reporting component of this credit, Option 1:Raw Material Source and Extraction Reporting, rewards the use of at least 20 permanently installed building products from manufacturers that have made information available, such as supplier locations, commitment to long-term ecologically responsible land use, reducing environmental harms and meeting applicable responsible sourcing programs. Project teams receive credit depending on the type of report the manufacturer provides. For example, a third-party-verified corporate sustainability report is valued higher than a disclosure report that is not verified.

Existing reporting frameworks that contribute toward this credit are used by many Fortune 500 companies and include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the U.N. Global Compact Communication of Progress, and ISO 26000: 2010 Guidance on Social Responsibility. In the future, USGBC could identify and approve other programs.

Option 2: Leadership Extraction Practices rewards the use of products (25 percent of total products, by cost) that come from an extraction process showing leadership in minimizing environmental impact. USGBC-approved standards and certifications for this point are the Sustainable Agriculture Network’s Sustainable Agriculture Standard for bio-based materials and the Forest Stewardship Council for new wood products. Additionally, reuse and materials with recycled content contribute toward achievement of this credit, as the credit intent is met by avoiding extraction and the use of virgin materials altogether through the use of recycled feedstock.


Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Material Ingredients

The occupants of the average office building may have no idea what makes up the building products that surround them every day, and often, the project teams that specified them know just as little—unless that information is voluntarily made available by the manufacturer. This credit, which is optional like other LEED credits, aims to support manufacturers that disclose information about the ingredients in their products, allowing project teams to make more informed decisions.

Option 1: Material Ingredient Reporting is based on using at least 20 permanently installed products that provide a chemical inventory through one of a variety of third-party programs, such as a Health Product Declaration, a Manufacturer’s Inventory that must meet a number of criteria, or Cradle to Cradle v2 Silver certification.

Option 2: Material Ingredient Optimization involves using at least 25 percent by cost of products that have assessed and optimized their material ingredients against pre-approved USGBC programs such as GreenScreen v1.2 Benchmark, Cradle to Cradle v2 Gold or Platinum Certification or the REACH Authorization and Candidate lists.

USGBC will review and approve additional programs for reporting and optimization as they become available.

The goal, Owens says, is “to promote the availability of information that allows a project to make better decisions about what comes into their buildings. We understand that there is no current market incentive for product manufacturers to disclose this information, so our goal is to use LEED credits to reward project teams that preferentially select products for which information has been disclosed and optimization has occurred to catalyze this type of activity.”

The more we know about what’s in our building products and materials, the more we will understand about their impacts. The environmental and health safety of chemicals used in the manufacturing of building materials is not always tested. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates that only 4 percent of manmade chemicals have been fully tested for toxicity. 


The Big Picture

To sum up, if LEED is to remain a leadership system, the MR credits must be updated to reflect current thinking and information, while continuing to provide incentives for achieving even higher performance. The new credits proposed in the MR credit category of LEED v4 boost the incentives for selecting better products and innovation in building materials in a number of key ways. LEED v4 expands existing concepts to engage additional parts of the building industry—such as broadening extraction reporting beyond the wood industry. It introduces new incentives for concepts like life-cycle approach to building and product design, manufacturer leadership in disclosure of material ingredients, and project team leadership in making choices aimed at optimizing human and environmental health impacts of those ingredients. LEED rewards project teams for reusing as much as possible, designing to reduce material use, and for seeking out domestically and locally manufactured materials.

LEED always involves a careful balancing of technical rigor and market feasibility. USGBC has listened to feedback, heard users’ concerns about the feasibility of these credits, and is working hard to ensure a smooth transition from LEED 2009 credits to the new LEED v4 credits. And, there is evidence that just drafting and proposing the credits has already begun to have a transformative effect in the marketplace. Manufacturers that are market leaders are undertaking the disclosure steps outlined above or are poised to do so. They will be ready when LEED v4 launches. With increasing demand from project teams, more manufacturers will join the effort. Further, USGBC is working with programs that can be used in both disclosure and optimization components of the credits to ensure that resources will be available for project teams. The market initially reacted to commissioning credits—there was concern that the infrastructure would not be in place initially; but these credits have been enormously transformative. The new LEED v4 MR credits have the potential to have even greater impact.


701 Bishop St. is located in Honolulu, and is LEED Platinum for Commercial Interiors. More info:


 Bently Reserve is located in San Francisco, and is LEED Silver for Core and Shell. More info: