LEED’s International Impact: An Insider’s View
Vice President of International Operations,
Jennivine Kwan joined USGBC in 2010 as Vice President of International Operations. She previously held regional responsibilities in energy and green solutions for Johnson Controls, working in China and Chile.
The US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED program is the world’s most widely followed green building rating system for commercial real estate, as owners, developers and tenants in more than 30 countries have sought and received LEED certification; however, it is not the only system. Countries around the world have their own rating systems designed to address their national priorities, and owners seeking green building certification must decide whether to pursue the national system, LEED or both. Those that choose LEED may face special challenges in interpreting and applying the system.
The USGBC is the first to recognize the need for guidance to practitioners outside the US, and has a dedicated International Operations Division not only to work with its own members and LEED Accredited Professionals (AP) throughout the world, but also to provide cooperative support for non-affiliated green building organizations at national and regional levels.
Global Sustainability Perspective recently asked USGBC Vice President of International Operations Jennivine Kwan to share her insights on LEED’s relationship to other certification initiatives throughout the world, and how different organizations can work together toward common green building goals. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Q. How would you characterize USGBC and LEED’s accord with other green building groups and systems in different parts of the world?
A.We definitely see our relationship as symbiotic, not competitive. All the groups coexist toward the same end result of increasing green building initiatives, regardless of the impetus. Our own goal is to enable LEED to be a catalyst for sustainability however it can best be utilized in any particular location throughout the world. If that’s determined to be LEED certification, fine, but if LEED can be used as a benchmark or facilitator for another group’s effort, that’s just as valuable as far as we’re concerned.
For example, the measurement tool preferred by China’s government is its Three Star System, with One Star and Two Star versions geared to regional and local markets. We support that system in any way we can, because it encourages the entire green building industry to grow in China. From my perspective of working in China for several years, I think that LEED’s international reputation as an effective tool helped the China Green Building Council in developing its own preferred system. And it’s notable that over 300 Chinese buildings have received or applied for LEED certification, which demonstrates how LEED and USGBC can contribute to and learn from sister initiatives throughout the world.
Q. USGBC has some chapters in other countries, but it seems to be somewhat limited, even though LEED is internationally recognized. Is this your preferred approach, and why?
A. Our international strategy is not really to develop as many chapters as possible. It is to make LEED the common language of green building; to provide a sense of unity, community and a common way to talk about the same thing. We know that there are different regional characteristics and issues, and we try to make LEED adaptable for use itself, or as a benchmark for a nation’s own system.
By the same token, our overall strategy behind forming international USGBC chapters is that we want to support the local green leaders as effectively as we can, while making the best use of our resources. We take a case-by-case approach. If the local interest is high but the organization level is not, than a new chapter might be in order. If the area already has a strong green building network, it makes more sense to support their efforts than to devote our time and resources toward forming a chapter that, instead of helping the overall effort, may even be seen as divisive by the local leaders. Most often, the most productive path for us seems to be supporting the local infrastructure with LEED and other assistance we can provide.
Q. Is there confusion internationally about the difference between USGBC, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) and other worldwide councils and green building organizations?
A. You bet. And the confusion extends beyond USGBC to LEED itself. A surprising number of outsiders think that both LEED and the USGBC are run by the US government, and as such are biased toward “American” interests. Needless to say, one of the most important tasks is to remove that type of misconception, and convince them that we are totally transparent in partnering toward whatever best serves their sustainable goals.
And yes, we do get confused with WGBC. As the name infers, WGBC is an umbrella organization for green building councils at national, regional and local levels throughout the world. USGBC did have an important development role as one of the eight national councils that launched WGBC in 1999, and we’re gratified that with the support of WGBC, green building councils are on the ground partnering with industry and government in more than 80 countries. I think that as the market matures, so will the understanding of distinctions among LEED, USGBC, WGBC and other green building councils.
Q. How do LEED practitioners share ideas in countries where LEED is not the primary system?
A. Until a couple of years ago, even though we had LEED chapter members and APs in many countries, the personal motivation and sense of urgency to bond together to share information wasn’t always there. The situation has changed a lot in recent years. Sustainability has proven to be more than a fad, and it is becoming government mandated in many places. Though some markets are more mature than others, there’s a hunger for green building information at some level almost everywhere in the developed world.
LEED interest has always been very much a grassroots movement. It’s a voluntary system and its practitioners are in it for their passion for sustainable living. Increasingly, I’m seeing LEED APs getting together informally with non-LEED people with green interests as professional colleagues, or just groups of friends with a shared environmental commitment. They talk about LEED and other green facilitators, sharing ideas and experiences and discussing how sustainable building can best move forward in their part of the world. It really mirrors the scenario in the US that led to the USGBC and LEED, and it’s very satisfying to see that initial enthusiasm rekindled in so many new places.
Q. Many LEED credits are based on standards set by other organizations, such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which may not be the applicable standards in every country. How adaptable is your system in allowing standards other than ASHRAE to be used in LEED certifications?
A. That’s a complex issue that USGBC is discussing right now. We really want to make LEED as flexible as possible, and one way we’re doing that is by establishing alternative paths for LEED pursuits outside the US. The challenge is to achieve this without either raising or lowering the measurement bar, because LEED’s utility is based on its consistency everywhere it is used. We look at the outcome and what we want the building to do in the end through LEED certification, rather than try to micromanage the steps in getting there. For some of the LEED credits, it’s a simple matter of a change in the credit language that enables people to use something that is an apples-to-apples equivalent.
With ASHRAE, that might not be so easy. LEED is not a standard itself, but a measurement tool that relies on other standards USGBC has chosen as benchmarks for sustainable building excellence. ASHRAE is a great standard that predates the development of LEED. A lot of work went into creating the ASHRAE standards, and we don’t need to re-create it. If people want to use another standard for measurements covered by ASHRAE like the energy credits, we have to make sure that it is fully compatible with the ASHRAE standard requirements; otherwise LEED loses its validity as a measurement tool. That’s not saying that other standards might not be as demanding as ASHRAE, some may indeed be more stringent. LEED is neither the easiest nor the toughest measurement system around. What is critical is that any other international standard used must really align with the LEED standard it is replacing for our tool to remain consistent.
Q. Are LEED materials available in multiple languages?
A. Currently much of our information is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, French and Italian versions. These cover a large percentage of the world’s population, especially where there is green building going on. We’ll certainly consider other languages as the demand occurs.
Q. Our LEED APs in countries with other systems sometimes run into difficulty getting construction and design professionals to guarantee compliance with LEED criteria. The same issues arose in the US at first when LEED was not well-known. Overall, how has the international reception toward LEED compared to that of the US?
A. The initial reception is almost the same. When people in both the US and other nations are getting acquainted with LEED, there are some enthusiastic supporters and, quite frankly, a larger number of skeptics. There are always those who say that it just can’t be done in their organization; that the necessary green products and technologies cost too much, or are not adequate for their operational needs; that they’ll be over budget and in trouble with their executive leadership; that they don’t have time to spend learning and fulfilling LEED requirements.
USGBC faced the same hurdles when they introduced LEED into the US in 1999 because people were doubtful of the unknown. Now we have a strong American track record, and we can demonstrate as proof that LEED certification can be achieved by almost anyone if they make the commitment, and it’s not a budget breaker. It’s the same story elsewhere in the world as green building emerges. We try to communicate with and educate people to help them make the right decisions upfront for the green building process. If they do, it is possible, for little extra effort and often no extra expense, to create a green building that will save money in reduced energy costs, and be a marketing tool in satisfying tenants or employees.
What we need in every new region is that first success story. I worked in Chile for a company that originally stonewalled green building, except for one charismatic leader who kept championing a LEED pursuit for a new facility until it became a reality. This company has since become one of the biggest leaders of sustainable building in that region and a leader of the emerging Chile Green Building Council.
Q. What’s ahead internationally for USGBC and LEED?
A. Our tangible goals include a greater outreach toward our existing USGBC members and LEED APs throughout the world. We want to bridge any gaps, assure our international stakeholders that they are valued, and set up channels such as a forum for their insights and questions to make sure this happens. On the technical side, we’re working on making LEED more user-friendly for people of all nations. And since China is surging in LEED interest and applications, we are hiring someone who will focus specifically on our member and AP base in that nation. We also want to integrate the entire life cycle of a building more fully into our process, so LEED more automatically becomes the first step of an ongoing sustainability effort where it is used.
Beyond outreach, we are trying to become more international ourselves by learning from our colleagues in other nations, and trying to create a more international voice for everything we do. We want to effectively connect with green building advocates everywhere so they can understand the thought and complexity that goes into developing the LEED system. We want to help them understand that LEED is not a tool to push American interests, but a system developed by volunteers who care very deeply about sustainability. We hope to augment our world-class tool with insights from those with an international point of view to make LEED as valuable as possible for everyone in the green building community, all around the world.