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LEED, other building certification systems, look to adjust to COVID-19 era

July 21, 2020

Building standards such as LEED, RELi and WELL are piloting tweaks to respond to the spread of COVID-19.

When Minneapolis architect Doug Pierce first envisioned a few years ago a new building standard that could help measure the resiliency of a structure or community, he had imagined design that could help structures withstand extreme weather, economic upheaval and even sea-level rise. But worldwide pandemics weren't high on his list.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has shifted Pierce's way of thinking on how building resilience, sustainability and general wellness can address the current crisis and those in the future.

“COVID-19 has really had a huge impact on the way I see resiliency and sustainability. … What was it in the system that we were not prepared for this?” Pierce said in an interview Wednesday.

Pierce's RELi (pronounced rely) design rating and certification system and similar systems like the popular LEED and WELL building standards are all in the process of being re-evaluated for short-term as well as long-term changes in the face of the coronavirus emergency.

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and administered by its sister organization Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system is the most widely used green-building rating system in the world. LEED standards focus on numerous factors including energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction and health.

This month, Minnesota was announced to have reached 100 million square feet of LEED-certified space.

Last year, the state ranked eighth nationally in terms of the amount of LEED-certified gross square feet per capita.

As a way to address the building-safety concerns raised in the current health crisis, the USGBC is updating LEED strategies to address factors that can affect the spread of the coronavirus such as indoor environmental quality, cleaning and risk management.

LEED, which operates on a certification system so building owners can earn credits to reach higher LEED levels, has launched new pilot credits that focus on social distancing, nontoxic surface cleaning, air quality and infection monitoring.

“What our strategy is, is to upgrade and strengthen and evolve our existing standard to make sure that it responds to the global health crisis that we are facing,” said Sarah Merricks, chief of staff for the USGBC.

USGBC is also asking for ideas on how LEED can continue to evolve.

“I do believe that LEED buildings are definitely in a much better place to respond to this crisis than traditional construction would do because of the simple reason that a LEED certified building is in a much better place in terms of its design, construction and operations,” said Mahesh Ramanujam, chief executive of the U.S. Green Building Council.

In 2017, the RELi standard was adopted by GBCI. In collaboration with USGBC, GBCI is working to further refine RELi, which is in its second round of pilots, said Pierce, who developed RELi and is the chairman of a national steering committee to develop the RELi system.

Pierce is also the lead of design firm Perkins and Will's Living Design resilience and sustainability initiative.

RELi is working on pilot credits for things building operators should be thinking about when people are returning back to work as well as gathering ideas for how to enhance its standards, Pierce said.

For example, a new factor could be making mechanical systems more flexible so that the amount of fresh air going through a building can be changed easily, he said.

“As architects and designers when you are faced with a problem like this you automatically start trying to solve for that,” Pierce said.

The WELL building standard, which is led by the International WELL Building Institute, focuses on features that support and advance human health and wellness.

The institute is forming a task force on coronavirus that will inform new enhancements to the WELL building standard as well.

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