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A New Metaphor for LEED

We need to seize the moment, so that today's green edge is tomorrow's standard practice.


By Alex Zimmerman .

Successful sustainable design practice needs potent tools, ideas, products, and metaphors. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system is, without question, an extremely useful tool that embodies compelling sustainability ideas. As a product, LEED necessarily carries all the development and launch cycle attributes of other industrial or consumer “products,” including research, investment, production, brand identity, cost, price, marketing, and obsolescence—all of which imply a production-line metaphor that constrains our thinking about what LEED is and what it can become.

Sarah Susanka, Outside the not so big house
Photo © Sarah Susanka
Outside the not so big house
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Those of us in the U.S. and Canada Green Building Councils who are responsible for the development and maintenance of LEED, in all its versions and revisions, have been thinking of the system as something akin to a machine of sorts. The design is frozen at a point and turned over to the production line, with never as many features as the R&D department or the consumer would like. Out of the factory comes the new version, without, we hope, too many built-in flaws that would force a consumer recall. The moment it is launched, it begins to become obsolete. The pressure is then on to develop the next version and to get it “right” this time, although LEED, as with any other product, may never be an exact fit for a given market segment. It is a game that we may never be able to win.

As the USGBC and its partners work through the development process for the next generation of LEED, I would like to propose an alternate, parallel metaphor for the rating system. I believe this will help us to envision what LEED can accomplish and how it might develop in the future.

I propose that we also think of LEED as a garden. Immediately the imagery it brings to mind is different from that of a production line. A garden produces and nurtures life. Gardens are not wild; they are constructed by humans on different scales and for many different purposes, including making money. Gardens can be meticulously planned from the beginning, starting with foundational elements, such as major plantings, and moving on to smaller plots and beds, or they can come about more spontaneously. Gardens have natural cycles of growth, harvest, and renewal. They grow and evolve over time, with some plants thriving, others having to be replaced, and all of them needing to be protected from pests and predators. Gardens depend on pollinators, the worker bees. Gardening can be hard work, but it is also restorative. Gardeners come in all shapes and sizes, with many different motivations.

In the LEED garden, we should expend some effort in getting the foundational elements right (sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity, for example) so that we don’t have to bring in heavy equipment to move them around in the future. We are not striving for a monoculture, but for a mix of different species and crops suited to different climates, needs, and tastes that mature at different seasons. We needn’t seek perfection in every part of LEED all at once, but we can think about nurturing what thrives, replacing what doesn’t, and increasing yields constantly over time. Finally, all of us green building council members can start thinking of ourselves not as workers feeding the machine but as pollinators who are essential to maintaining the health and productivity of the LEED and sustainability gardens.

Feel free to take this seed of an idea and nurture it in your own way. Call on other gardeners to help. LEED can become a robust, organic, productive, profitable, and restorative garden for the benefit of us all in our pursuit of a sustainable built environment.

Alex Zimmerman is a director of the Canada Green Building Council, was its founding president, and is currently co-chair of its Product Steering Committee

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This article appeared in the January 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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