How health factors into green building rating systems: LEED v4

Mesa Court Towers - LEED v4 health

Mesa Court Towers at University of California, Irvine, a project designed by Mithun under LEED 2009 that aligns with the new Integrative Process for Health Promotion credit.

The first in a series on green building rating systems and human health examines the latest iteration of LEED

The sustainability conversation in the building industry is broadening from an intense focus on energy and resource consumption to a dialogue that actively engages individual health impacts and outcomes. Public health practitioners typically consider issues relating to social equity, community, environmental justice, and quality of life when talking about public health. Green building conversations are starting to move in that direction, as well.

While health has always been included in the green building conversation, it’s been somewhat difficult to quantify when compared to energy and water consumption. But as the relationship between climate change and human health is further demonstrated—along with an interest in living healthy lives—both business owners and individuals are more mindful of fostering holistic health and well-being in their built environments. As the most well-known green building rating system, the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system is the first stop in exploring how health and well-being are being incorporated into the green building dialogue.

Since its conception, LEED has included several strategies and metrics addressing health issues, though the health benefits at first were not as well-documented as they are now. LEED credits directly addressing physical health resided mostly in the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) category and included opportunities that were obviously targeted at mitigating harmful practices, such as the Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control prerequisite and credits like Low-Emitting Materials and Indoor Chemical and Pollutant Source Control, all of which deal with the inhalation of documented noxious, harmful chemicals.

Other credits—including Thermal Comfort, Daylight and Views, Public Transportation Access, and Open Space—have also addressed health and well-being, though the impacts are often seen as “softer” than those associated with the inhalation of harmful chemicals. These credits focused more on well-being than on measurable physical health impacts, though the conversation now has almost fully integrated physical and mental health issues. Both types of credits, addressing mental and physical well-being, have been included in each of the subsequent iterations of LEED.

A project pursuing LEED certification will not get a specific focus on the health and well-being of the user, as you would from newer systems such as the WELL Building Standard.

The LEED rating system has evolved over the years to continue to help drive the market and the movement. With the implementation of LEED 2009, USGBC developed and integrated an analytical framework across the rating system to allocate points in accordance with the credits’ abilities to reduce environmental problems. These impact categories were based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s TRACI (Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts) categories, and were adopted to include issues of health and issues particular to the built environment and the green building movement. With LEED v4, released in late 2017, this framework was updated to address social, environmental, and economic goals, resulting in the following LEED v4 Impact Categories:

  • Reverse Contribution to Climate Change
  • Enhance Human Health and Well-being
  • Protect and Restore Water Resources
  • Protect Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
  • Promote Sustainable and Regenerative Resource Cycles
  • Build a Greener Economy
  • Enhance Community, Social Equity, Environmental Justice and Quality of Life

While only one of the seven LEED v4 Impact Categories specifically calls out a reference to human health, it can be easily argued that an improvement in each of the other six would provide better environments, which would then lead to improved levels of health. Enhancing the quality of life and social equity over all would certainly lead to a healthier population. Reversing climate change would absolutely improve health, as major weather events are mitigated and air quality improves. Protecting and restoring water resources would undoubtedly improve the both quality of life and health outcomes for the human population, across urban and rural, developed and underdeveloped areas.

Additionally, USGBC has developed a new Integrative Process for Health Promotion pilot credit for the LEED v4 BD+C rating system. This pilot credit encourages project teams to systematically consider the relationships between health and traditional environmental outcomes in their projects, starting in pre-design. The overall goal of the credit is for teams to systematically assess how a project’s design and construction can holistically impact physical, mental, and social health. The credit requires a partnership with a public health professional, and includes analysis strategies addressing community health needs and health inequalities.  

LEED is still the front-runner across the green building rating systems, and as such is the easiest to engage. However, a project pursuing LEED certification will not get a specific focus on the health and well-being of the user, as you would from newer systems such as the WELL Building Standard. It should be noted, though, that USGBC is a close friend of WELL, particularly with Rick Fedrizzi—CEO and founding chair of USGBC since 2001—recently stepping down from the helm of USGBC and becoming chairman and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute. The newer system could, ultimately, become the new IEQ section for LEED after it becomes more established, providing a stronger emphasis on health in the built environment within the familiar LEED structure.  

Traci Rose Rider, Ph.D., Assoc. AIA, is the research associate at North Carolina State University’s Design Initiative for Sustainability & Health and a research assistant professor of architecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design.

Image credits

Mesa Court Towers - LEED v4 health

Bruce Damonte

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