There is no doubt that LEED is gaining momentum: North America has more than 44,270 USGBC LEED registered or certified projects, according to the US Green Building Council’s 2013 study. The LEED rating program has global recognition and provides leadership in creating high-performing and environmentally responsible buildings, yet the LEED community can do more. In my work on more than 150 sustainable development projects, I’m constantly encountering the gap between successful LEED programs and early phase decision-making by the client, architect and integrated project team. LEED APs need to strengthen their focus on engagement earlier in the design process

Early design decisions such as siting, orientation and massing have an enormous impact on a project’s sustainable performance, yet LEED design professionals are generally called in after these decisions have been made. For the most part, LEED professionals are brought into a project with the task of making an already-created design perform better.

LEED professionals continue to do a great job of helping projects meet LEED certification targets, but we should be trying to make them even better from the start. Before pencil hits paper, or fingers touch the keyboard, the integrated design team can have an enormous impact on sustainability, LEED certification, and overall project performance and costs.

Part of the challenge is that we’ve become comfortable with incremental improvement, and our clients have become equally satisfied with our late entry into the decision-making process. We’ve enjoyed a renaissance of design and analytic technologies, including BIM tools, which have made it much easier to take a design and make it LEED-friendly. Simultaneously, it has become increasingly difficult to gather, store and effectively use the masses of information and ideas needed to create, analyze and validate “green” designs. In this respect, we remain in the dark ages with a lack of advanced technologies to improve the pre-concept and programming phase. In many ways, ensuring a high performance, green design is a “big data” problem. Early design architectural programming tools that enable the integrated design team to effectively manage massive amounts of data at the outset of a project will drive a new renaissance of sustainable development.

Here are some reasons why it’s so important for LEED APs and the integrated design team to be involved at the outset of the design process:

Many projects don’t achieve desired LEED certification. I was recently involved in a project that missed Platinum certification by just one point. While the project team made all of the changes we could to the design and engineering of the 60-story office tower, we certainly could have made Platinum if we were just brought in earlier during the programming, concept and design phases.
Many projects could achieve higher LEED ratings. Why be satisfied with Silver when you can earn Gold or Platinum? By getting the integrated design team involved earlier, green design and sustainability decisions can be influenced much sooner, and embedded into the design for far less than the price of numerous and costly change orders.
Early design decisions can save clients money. Making validated, data-based decisions early in the process not only saves on design time and fees, it can positively impact capital expenditure costs and ongoing operating expenses. I have achieved savings of between 15 and 25 percent on overall project CAPEX and OPEX costs simply by better-informed design decisions earlier in the process.
Early design can improve the financial health of your firm. The programming and design phases critically impact project costs both directly and indirectly. Many customers are not convinced that an integrated project delivery (IPD) team is cost effective, so when LEED professionals are engaged early, much of their time is either unbillable or must be absorbed into Preliminary Design Phase fees. Indirectly, later design or building change orders increase initial project budgets and may even lead to litigation. We need to convince the client and/or architect that early engagement of LEED or green-building professionals will save the client money in the long run, reduce design and construction time, minimize litigation and result in a higher performance building. This case can be established with better tools that assist in early decision-making and big data management. In other words, we need to emerge out of the Dark Ages where it matters most.

The time is long overdue for LEED APs and members of the integrated design team to re-position their roles in the key early decision-making phase. This will improve project outcomes, better manage costs and will also create a new competitive advantage for firms. More importantly, it will enable us to push the entire industry forward into a new era of well-informed decision-making.