LEEDing the Way

By Molly J. Parris, Assoc. A.I.A.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design®, commonly known across building and construction industries as LEED®, is a well-recognized rating system by which buildings are awarded points for various criteria related to systems performance.  The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) developed this points method to accelerate the adoption of conceptual and technical design practices that promote decreased energy use, water consumption, solid waste, and air, ground and water pollution.  It is also intended to increase professional responsibility in environmentally sensitive design, and public awareness of the burden that buildings impose on natural systems. 
Since its inception, designers, suppliers and manufacturers have responded strongly, and LEED certification has become a valuable selling point and marketing tool.  While LEED has contributed to the mass production, marketability and accessibility of “green” building products, USGBC has been criticized for misplaced motivations and reliance on high level funding.  The LEED rating system is also limited to the scope of one building project and the boundaries of its specific site.  A building is assessed apart from its interaction with local human and natural ecologies.  Professional planners urged the USGBC to develop a rating system that takes the systemic function of an entire neighborhood into account.  In 2009, the council published a new schedule of criteria termed LEED ND, or LEED for Neighborhood Development.  On their website, the USBGC explains that this rating system “integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism and green building into the first national system for neighborhood design.”[1]

By approaching the design of a high-performance design from an urban planning perspective, the same goals of reduction of natural resource consumption can be targeted and enhanced as walkability, water and utilities distribution, community function, historic and cultural patterns, and land use patterns are addressed in addition to technical building systems.  The scope of a project that can be considered to achieve LEED ND accreditation typically include multiple buildings, but the principles are easy translatable to individual buildings whose designers and owners desire to promote sustainable neighborhood lifestyles.

LEED ND is broken down into categories for which proposed designs may achieve points.  The first major category is Smart Location and Linkage, which deals with positioning a development project within existing urban infrastructures, and in locations that limit vehicle-miles-travelled (VMT) to cultural resources and jobs, protect natural resources, preserve valuable agricultural land, maintain natural topographies, restore wildlife habitat, and that avoid unsuitable sites such as floodplains.  The second major category is Neighborhood Pattern and Design, and is intended to establish walkability, increase density, connect community members to each other and to open space, and to make public transportation, local food sources, and civic spaces easily accessible.  This category also addresses psychologically nourishing public spaces and streetscapes.  The third major category, Green Infrastructure and Buildings, introduces criteria most resembling original LEED requirements for buildings, which including high energy performance, renewable material selection, storm water management, on-site resources, and waste management at the individual building scale.  Innovation and Design Process and Regional Priority Credit follow and are worth up to 6 and 4 points respectively.

While LEED ND may be an adaptation of the original LEED rating system, and is in early phases of testing, it demonstrates a comprehensive and quantifiable approach that developers, designers and policy makers can use as a realistic guideline for healthy development of existing communities.  Many of the Smart Locations and Neighborhood Patterns criteria are translatable to any project where the designer or owner has an opportunity to advocate for environmental responsibility. 

In the period since its inception, LEED has changed the design and building industry for the good.  Recognizing that no one system can be adopted and implemented immediately by all, LEED continues to pave the way and set the standard for high performance, responsible design.

To access the LEED ND guide and checklist, visit

[1] LEED for Neighborhood Development, last modified 2013,