Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Historic Preservation and LEED for Neighborhood Development 

12-09-2015 17:35

Last year I moderated a session at the 2008 National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, Okla., titled “How Green Is Your Historic Neighborhood?” The session description stated that “Most green building efforts have focused on commercial construction, but this is about to change with the recent introduction of rating systems for green neighborhoods.”

The session featured a panel of experts who discussed how best to incorporate sustainable and green neighborhood values into new and established community-based preservation plans. One of the panelists at the Tulsa session was Sophie Cantell Lambert, director of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in Washington, D.C. (LEED is the acronym for the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating systems.)

The LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System (LEED-ND) integrates the principles of smart growth, new urbanism, and green building into the first national system for smart, green, and healthy neighborhood design. Among the many expected benefits of LEED-ND projects will be the preservation of natural habitat and farmland, improved public health (since inhabitants and workers will have safe options for walking and biking), and the protection of natural resources, with reduced air pollution, water protection, and reduced energy use. LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a development’s location and design meet accepted high levels of environmentally responsible, sustainable development. LEED-ND is a collaboration among USGBC, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The pilot program has been underway since the summer of 2007 and includes nearly 240 projects, with most located in the United States and Canada. The pilot experience and further discussion about the rating system led to the creation of a 1st Public Comment Period Draft. The period to comment on this draft ran from November 17, 2008, through January 5, 2009, and garnered more than 5,000 comments. A second public comment period will be held this spring. The post-pilot version of the rating system, which will be available to the public, is expected to launch in late 2009.

I recently met with Sophie Lambert at USGBC’s Platinum LEED-certified headquarters to discuss how the new LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system will affect future historic preservation efforts in urban and suburban areas.

How would you define LEED-ND to a preservationist with no background in sustainable development?

LEED-ND is a rating system that combines the principles of smart growth, new urbanism, and green building into a rating system for green neighborhood development. While primarily geared toward new construction and infill development, the rating system does provide incentives for the adaptive use of existing historic buildings.

The latest version of the LEED-ND rating system is based on points awarded in five categories: Smart Location & Linkage Neighborhood Pattern & Design, Green Infrastructure & Buildings, Innovation & Design Process, and Regional Priority Credits. “Existing Building Reuse” and “Historic Building Preservation & Adaptive Use” are credits 5 and 6, respectively, in Green Infrastructure & Buildings. The total number of points possible under LEED-ND is 100, with 10 additional points available for innovation and exemplary performance. Projects can be rated as Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59 points), Gold (60-79 points), or Platinum (80+ points).

How is LEED-ND beneficial to historic preservation?

LEED-ND has several prerequisites related to project location, including smart location, proximity to water and wastewater infrastructure, floodplain avoidance, etc. These location prerequisites encourage LEED-ND projects in previously developed areas, such as infill locations and brownfields. While access to transit is not a prerequisite, it is also incentivized through a few credits. These close-in, transit-served locations are often the parts of a region where historic resources traditionally have been located. In addition, 2 points are available through credits, and additional points available through the Innovation & Design Process (IDP) category. The IDP category recognizes exceptional and innovative performance above and beyond the requirements set by LEED-ND. Projects that incorporate historic structures can choose to submit either “Innovation in Design” points or “Exemplary Performance” points or both within the 5 points available in this category. We hope that LEED-ND will encourage teams to retain and rehabilitate historic resources, both buildings and cultural landscapes, in their projects.

How did the three founding organizations (USGBC, CNU, and NRDC) come to work together on LEED-ND?

About six years ago, CNU and NRDC had a conversation about the need for a rating system for neighborhood development because there was no third-party system that quantified the claims of sustainable neighborhood developers. Both organizations recognized USGBC for its leadership in developing the LEED rating system.

USGBC recognized early on that the context and location of a green building was important— sustainability cannot happen in a void, but must occur across differing levels of construction and development. Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO, and founding chair of USGBC, stated that “The LEED for Neighborhood Development program goes beyond individual green buildings and focuses on communitywide design and development.” It was a natural fit for the USGBC to incorporate aspects of smart growth into the LEED-ND rating system.

How is LEED-ND similar to new urbanism?

New urbanist design tenets informed and shaped LEED-ND through attributes such as walkable streets, building facades that front sidewalks, and the emphasis on the public realm and its importance to community development. LEED-ND is really a program that draws from the principles of all three organizations (USGBC, CNU, and NRDC).

What types of projects are eligible for LEED-ND certification?

There is no limit to the type of project that can be certified: Residential, commercial, and mixed-use projects are all eligible. Projects can range from one building to large multi-block urban areas. In the pilot, we had projects that were smaller than 1.4 acres all the way up to larger than 1,500 acres. For example, the New Songdo City International Business District in South Korea is one of the pilot projects; it is unusual in that it is seeking LEED-ND certification for an entire city. Based upon experiences with the pilot projects, the LEED-ND Core Committee is currently evaluating if the rating system should have a maximum project size. Ultimately, the market will determine the minimum size of projects submitted for certification.

What is the benefit in certifying one building in LEED-ND?

It’s a generally accepted planning principle that one building can be the catalyst in positively changing a neighborhood or even completing it. Also, there are some mixed use buildings of a certain scale that act in
many ways as vertical, rather than horizontal, neighborhoods. These buildings contain a variety of residential and commercial facilities and are often self-contained or economically self-sufficient. In the post-pilot version of the LEED-ND rating system, at least one building within the project boundary must be LEED-certified.

What is the process for finalizing the LEED-ND rating system and when will it become effective?

As with all LEED rating systems, LEED-ND will go through a rigorous, consensus-based development cycle before it is officially launched. USGBC recently received more than 5,000 public comments for the current version of LEED-ND. All of the comments will be addressed within the context of the LEED-ND corresponding committee. Final changes to LEED-ND will be made during mid-2009, and the final rating system will go before USGBC’s diverse membership for a vote. Our two partner organizations will also vote on the rating system at this point. After LEED-ND passes that ballot, a roll-out of the final LEED-ND rating system is expected to occur in late 2009. At that point, registration for LEED-ND certification will be opened to new projects (other than those already under consideration in the ongoing pilot program).

Some preservationists think that green building proponents have been slow to recognize the inherent sustainable qualities in historic buildings, and this has resulted in preservation being overlooked in the discussions on sustainable development and green building. Do you think that this is true? Do you think that historic preservation is becoming more of a consideration in the movement to make the nation’s building stock more energy efficient and sustainable?

I believe that those in the green building world are recognizing the social and cultural benefits of preservation, more and more.  In the past, there may have been a lack of education or understanding about the benefits of reusing existing buildings as part of an overall sustainability plan. Also, green building professionals need to consider the value of embodied energy—the energy used to create and transport building materials and assemblies, as well as the energy used to construct buildings. This energy is lost when a building is demolished. USGBC is currently working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) credit calculator that will quantify the life cycle impact of historic building fabric and will ultimately serve as an Alternative Compliance Path in the design and construction of LEED rating systems. LCA is a good way for preservationists to help make the case for saving the embodied energy associated with building construction by determining the overall lifespan of materials.

LEED-ND has a prerequisite for walkable streets in the section called Neighborhood Pattern & Design. Is it possible that this credit might someday have a quantifiable aspect that deals with many of the attributes associated with historic districts: ornamentation, enclosure, sense of place, etc.?

The current version of LEED-ND does not include design guidelines, but the walkable streets prerequisite and credit do give prescriptive form-based guidelines for the public realm. Although not impossible, it is very difficult to quantify aesthetics in a rating system. It is certainly possible that public spaces and thoroughfares could be evaluated using criteria that are evocative of some of the attributes associated with historic preservation. Governing jurisdictions also have to play a role in shaping and encouraging the positive development of public spaces and streets in LEED-certified neighborhoods.

Overall, is LEED-ND better for new and/or infill development versus older historic urban areas?

That’s hard to answer—a lot of infill construction can be introduced into historic urban areas. Infill construction can achieve high scores in LEED-ND. It’s difficult to put entire existing historic neighborhoods through the LEED-ND rating process. LEED-ND was designed to work best when a development project includes some new construction. In the new version of LEED-ND, you cannot tear down historic buildings if you are pursuing the two building reuse credits (“Existing Building Reuse” and “Historic Building Preservation & Adaptive Use” in the Green Infrastructure & Buildings category), but it is not a prerequisite of the entire rating system. This may change in future versions of LEED-ND.

Are there any tax and/or other incentives associated with LEED-ND?

In conjunction with the pilot launch, some jurisdictions offered expedited review periods for LEED-ND plans, as well as reduced permitting fees. Increasingly, municipalities are considering reductions in fees and/or waiting periods associated with the approval process for community projects that can demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. For example, LEED-ND pilot projects in Illinois were eligible for a state tax return of 1.5 percent of the development cost of the project. The Cleveland Foundation is working with Neighborhood Progress, Inc., and the City of Cleveland’s sustainability director to underwrite sustainability training and LEED Accredited Professional exam fees for the program managers and city staff working on three pilot projects in that city. The City of Sarasota offers expedited review of sustainable neighborhood revitalization projects.

Additionally, LEED-ND is starting to have some effect on zoning regulations around the country. We are beginning to see the incorporation of some aspects of LEED-ND, for example Smart Location & Linkage, into local planning processes or as an evaluative tool to see how well existing zoning encourages LEED-ND–eligible projects. We hope that LEED-ND will be seen as one of many tools, by both developers and local planning agencies, to encourage smart, walkable communities.

Currently, there are two points available in LEED-ND for historic preservation: the credits for “Existing Building Reuse” and “Historic Building Preservation & Adaptive Use.” Wouldn’t more points in these categories encourage preservation?

In addition to the two points for preserving and reusing buildings, it is also possible to get additional points for exemplary features of a LEED-ND project under the Innovation & Design Process category. The Currie Barracks project was awarded an additional point for exemplary performance. Would additional points encourage preservation? It’s hard to say—points are obviously good carrots. It’s important to remember that there are a number of worthy credits that have been allocated one point. The point system may change down the road as the rating system is re-weighted against important environmental impact categories every two years.

As you know, the president of the National Trust, Richard Moe, has committed the National Trust to promoting sustainable preservation as an important part of the nation’s push toward a greener future. Do you think that LEED-ND will be a part of this effort?

I certainly hope so—we are cognizant of historic preservation and have been mindful of this constituency as we work through changes to the rating system. Importantly, LEED-ND is the first LEED rating system to specifically reference historic buildings.

Will LEED-ND foster and promote preservation?

Insofar as it will encourage development in historic areas, we certainly hope that LEED-ND will encourage developers to retain historic buildings. Local jurisdictions must work with residents to identify potential historic districts and individual landmarks eligible for protection, as well. Green Infrastructure & Buildings credit 5, “Historic Building Preservation & Adaptive Use,” applies specifically to locally or nationally listed buildings. An interesting statistic is that four of the 22 certified pilot projects for LEED-ND earned credit 5, which was then named “Reuse of Historic Building.” So 18 percent of the certified pilot projects included historic buildings.

One of the goals of LEED-ND is to encourage development in existing areas rather than in rural and ecologically sensitive areas, and I believe this will bode well for historic resources. We hope to continue reaching out to the historic preservation community to help us make changes to LEED-ND in the future and possibly develop an alternate compliance path or different rating system for existing neighborhoods. 

Publication Date: Spring 2009


Subtitle:An Interview with Director Sophie Cantell Lambert
Author(s):Matthew Nowakowski