How can we build our homes and communities so that they co-exist harmoniously with Nature? What does it mean to create a sustainable house, a sustainable community, a sustainable city? For each additional day that we live, design and build unsustainably, we pull another fibre out of the fabric of Earth’s ecosystems.

Where is LEED Leading Us?

By Guy Dauncey

First published in Alternatives Magazine, Nov/Dec 2004

Whatever’s next? Green buildings? Gold buildings? ZEN buildings? (That would be "Zero Energy Net", which is dyslexican for zero net energy.)

Our buildings are changing, but scarcely anyone’s noticing. Don’t worry; you will soon. When you notice your neighbours talking about grass roofs and groundsource heating, and berating the carpenter if he or she doesn’t use a low-VOC glue, you’ll know it’s happening.

People have been building creative, eco-friendly homes ever since the 1960s, and earlier. There are passive solar homes, Earthships (using old tires), cob homes and straw bale homes scattered all across North America.

As the world slowly becomes more eco-aware, things seems to evolve in three stages. In Stage One, a few leaders step out, taking the slings and arrows as they come. In Stage Two, there’s enough public understanding to support the introduction of a voluntary labelling system, such as "certified organic food", or "FSC certified timber". By Stage Three, public support is strong enough that politicians can introduce legislation to guide us down a certain route, or phase out certain products or behaviours altogether, such as pesticides, clearcutting, and formaldehyde.

Thanks to the US Green Building Council and the newly formed Canada Green Building Council, buildings have just entered Stage Two, with a certification program the market has embraced. LEED (which stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design") is a green buildings rating and certification system. So far, it exists for commercial and institutional buildings, both new and rehabilitated. LEED for homes is in the pipeline, and a LEED for neighbourhoods is being discussed.

If you are an architect or developer who wants to be on the cutting edge of green design, LEED has a checklist of 69 points to guide your thinking. The primary goal is to design a beautiful green building that will minimize its impact on the Earth, for both the building and its occupants. The secondary goal is to score as many points as possible. If you score between 26 and 32 points, your building will be LEED Certified. 33 to 38 will give you LEED Silver, 39 to 51 LEED Gold, and for 52 or more, you’ll get LEED Platinum. I mean your building will. You’ll get a nice plaque, a lot of kudos, and a fair degree of pride.

But more to the point, you’ll also get some very satisfied tenants, who discover that living and working in a green building is … well .. wonderful! This is the feedback that green building owners have been receiving, and it’s nearly all down to just three of the many aspects that make a building green: natural ventilation, natural daylighting, and non-toxic building materials.

For the Earth, it’s great that a green, LEED certified building uses less energy and less water. It’s great that it may have solar PV, solar hot water, and maybe a grass roof. It’s great that some of its materials are made from recycled stock, some are re-used building materials, and almost all the construction wastes has been recycled. It’s great that the building may recycle its rainwater into water-efficient toilets, and collect its stormwater in natural swales or wetlands where it can seep back down into the earth. It’s great that there’s less parking, the best facilities for cyclists, transit stops nearby, and maybe a recharging post for electric vehicles. It’s great that the lights from the building don’t pollute the darkness of the night sky.

For its human occupants, however, the most remarkable discovery is that fresh air feels so good. We have grown sadly accustomed to the stale polluted air that lingers in so many buildings, pumped through the often dirty pipes of heating and ventilation systems. Fancy that! After so many million years of living in the open, in bodies and with senses that have evolved biologically to need and appreciate and fresh air, it is remarkably refreshing to discover what fresh air feels like. Green building occupants love it.

And they also love the daylight. Daylight! What a change, after growing accustomed to artificial lighting, and the invisible background flicker of overhead strip lighting. A major study done for the California Sustainable Buildings Task force showed that LEED certified green buildings cost on average $4 more per square foot to build, but that they return a dividend ten to fifteen times greater, $49 to $68 a square foot, primarily because of the increased productivity and health of their occupants. In green built schools, kids learn faster. In green built hospitals, patients heal faster. In green built sports arenas, home teams win more games. (Just kidding).

It’s for this kind of reason that there are now over 1500 LEED registered projects underway (113 LEED certified), representing over 168 million square feet of building that will have a much reduced Earth-impact and a much improved human impact. This green building revolution is here to stay.

So what might LEED look like when it hits the home-building market? Expect to see many more passive solar design homes, more use of renewable home energy systems, the elimination of paints, glues, sealants and varnishes that smell like a chemical factory, more use of native planting, more rainwater recycling and composting toilets, and more use of materials such as bamboo, strawboard, and insulation made from recycled bluejeans. Expect to see those dyslexican ZEN homes, that generate all the energy they need from a mixture of groundsource heat and solar heat and power, combined with a super-efficient envelope and ultra efficient appliances.

The biggest challenge to the design team for the "LEED for Homes" rating system will be deciding whether to award points for building small. A house that is 1,000 square feet will have three times less impact on the Earth than a house that is 3,000 square feet. A downtown terrace of small rowhomes, within easy walking distance of local bus-routes and shops, will have much less impact that a subdivision of single family homes, however green, out in the suburbs.

And what about "LEED for Neighbourhoods"? When this emerges, expect to see points for car-free designs, bicycle and walking trails, habitat protection, and neighbourhood village centres. Farewell, boring bland subdivisions! Welcome, traditional old-fashioned villages, newly reborn as… ecovillages!

Guy Dauncey

Guy Dauncey is an author, activist, green buildings consultant, and President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association ( He is author of "Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change" and other titles. His personal website is

Toyota’s new 624,000 square feet sales centre in Torrance, California, won LEED Gold in April 2003.

It includes:

  • 95% recycled content, including 250 miles of reinforced steel in the framework, mostly from recycled cars
  • 24% less energy use than California’s energy efficiency target
  • Direct-indirect lighting, high efficiency insulation and thermally insulated glass
  • Recycled water for landscaping, cooling towers, and toilets
  • Waterless urinals used throughout, saving 70,000 gallons of water a year
  • Drought-resistant native plants
  • Recycled carpet, and other low-emitting materials
  • 53,000 square feet of solar panels (536 kW) that should pay for themselves in seven years
  • 95% of all construction waste recycled or reused. Concrete slabs used as casts for building walls crushed to pave the parking lots
  • Refueling stations for hydrogen cars
  • Vegetable oil used in hydraulic elevators