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Green GraphsThere seems to be an increasing number of green building projects that are adopting the design and construction principles of the U.S. Green Building Council’s® LEED® green building program while opting to forgo pursuing actual certification.  From a purely environmental perspective, this is great news.  More buildings are being designed and built to have a reduced negative impact on the natural environment.  From a marketing standpoint, these project teams could be shooting themselves in the foot, or worse, violating trademark and branding policies set forth by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

USGBC has clear and explicit guidelines for using the LEED acronym and the accompanying logos.  USGBC’s Trademark Policy and Branding Guidelines outline just how to word references to LEED registered and certified projects, sizing and color specifications for logo use, and proper acknowledgment of trademark ownership and permissions.  The violation that appears to be most common, however, is not related to projects that have achieved or hope to achieve LEED certification.  Many projects are being referred to as LEED Certifiable, LEED Compliant, LEED Qualified, LEED Equivalent, or some variation that attempts to indicate that the building was designed and constructed in accordance to the LEED green building program without claiming to have achieved official certification.  These claims and phrases are in direct violation to USGBC’s trademark and branding policies.  That alone should be reason enough to stop using them.

There are other notable considerations, however, when it comes to using the LEED name and brand in marketing a green building project.  When marketing a building project as “LEED Certifiable”, the message is that the LEED program is great, but not great enough.  The standards, principles, and guidelines are top notch, so much so that the team feels confident in using them to design and construct their building.  Furthermore, the project team is so confident in the LEED green building program that it has decided to attach the LEED brand to the project by calling the project “LEED Certifiable”.  But the LEED program has not been deemed worthy of follow through in the form of project certification.  This sends a mixed message to the project team, the building owner, and the owner’s stakeholders.  A potentially slippery slope is set up when the team works under the understanding that certification will never be pursued.  It is easy to value engineer away, one-by-one, aspects of the project that directly or indirectly contribute to the overall sustainability strategy in the design.  One architect is quoted as saying “How do you lose a green building?  One VE at a time…”  Achieving LEED certification assures that these characteristics of the project are protected to a greater extent.  Aside from the dangerous precedence that is set when a project team intentionally decides to “do LEED but not really do LEED”, there is the issue of credibility.  The LEED plaque that a building obtains when certification is achieved has been likened to a higher education degree.  It is the verification that the project team has achieved what they claim.  How much credibility is given to a person who claims to have been educated to an MBA standard but does not have the MBA degree to show for it?

Ok, so this decision is usually made as an attempt to save costs.  It is true that registering and certifying a project comes with fees.  However, architects that use the LEED program regularly explain that the added costs of a green building are actually found in documenting, modeling, meetings, and coordination – all of which are inherent in the much appropriate integrative approach to a high-performance building regardless of LEED status, and are, in fact, becoming standard practice among many designers even for non-green projects.  The fees paid to USGBC are often relatively minimal in the grand scheme of overall project costs.  Registration fees start at just $900 and certification fees start at $2,250.  Certification fees can be as high as $22,500, but this is for projects that are larger than 500,000 square feet.*

Some building designers explain that their project teams occasionally opt out of pursuing official certification with the LEED program because the building owner is confident that the outcome of the design and construction will be a high-performance building but that the actual plaque is a “frivolous gesture.”  This is simply a debate of what is important to the owner and project team, and if the plaque is truly unimportant then the plaque should not be pursued.  Costs can certainly be saved here and it is a valid and understandable decision.  However, if the team has decided that obtaining third party validation that the sustainability goals of the owner were truly achieved, then the LEED trademark, name, and logos should not be used in describing the project’s design and construction.

*These figures are current as of original publish of this article.  Changes to fee structures may not be reflected.