13. Sustainability & LEED


1.1 Climate change, mitigation, and adaptation in NYC

New York City considers climate change a significant near-future risk to both its physical infrastructure (the buildings, roads, and utilities) and its communities (the social and cultural networks). This is based on the expert advice from climate scientists and risk management professionals. How soon is change anticipated and what are the experts expecting?

While climate change is frequently described as a problem for our grandchildren, consider these current near-future assumptions (NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, 2016):

Total annual precipitation in New York City will likely increase by mid-century. Mean annual precipitation increases as projected by GCMs are:

  • By the 2020s, the middle range of projections is 0 percent to 10 percent, and the high estimate is 10 percent
  • By the 2050s, the middle range of projections is 5 percent to 10 percent, and the high estimate is 15 percent

Higher sea levels are extremely likely by mid-century. Projections for sea level rise in New York City are:

  • By the 2020s, the middle range of projections is 4 to 8 inches, and the high estimate is 11 inches
  • By the 2050s, the middle range of projections is 11 to 24 inches, and the high estimate is 31 inches

By the 2050s, the NPCC projects the following changes in extreme events:

  • Heat waves are very likely to become more frequent, more intense, and longer in duration
  • Heavy downpours are very likely to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration
  • Coastal flooding is very likely to increase in frequency, extent, and height as a result of increased sea levels

Heat waves, heavy storms, and coastal flooding are already risks in New York City. Heat waves are the number one natural disaster killer in the United States; Hurricane Sandy cost the United States $65 billion in damages; and flooding is already reshaping New York City’s 520 miles of coastline. You can see that increased temperatures, precipitation, and flooding pose additional risk. This is the impact of climate risk.

In response to climate risks, two general strategies emerge: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation strategies include the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and other strategies thought to address the causes of climate change; thus reducing risk. Adaptive strategies include practical efforts to protect ourselves from the impacts of climate change, such as preparations for heat and flooding; again, reducing risk.

The Kennedy Space Center is one of several NASA centers vulnerable to potential damage from future sea level rise. NASA has begun to investigate potential damage to the cape’s launch and landing facilities, industrial and office buildings and recreation areas.

NASA and adaptation: The Kennedy Space Center is one of several NASA centers vulnerable to potential damage from future sea level rise. NASA has begun to investigate potential damage to the cape‚Äôs launch and landing facilities, industrial and office buildings and recreation areas. Read more about NASA’s adaptive responses.

Some strategies can be both mitigative and adaptive. Here is a visualization of some relevant strategies:



1.2 Sustainability, resiliency, and the building industry

Sustainability can be a confusing concept, particularly as it relates to the building industry, but generally, sustainability means our ability to continue doing something indefinitely. Energy usage, resource harvesting, and even polluting can be considered sustainable practices provided that these activities do not take place at a rate that compromises those activities in the future. Are we using a resource faster than it can be regenerated? That resource use is not sustainable. When losses caused by an activity are irreversible, that activity is unsustainable. If activities seriously compromise life or quality of life for humans and other species, those activities are unsustainable. Sustainability has come to generally include the linked concepts of environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability.

Environmental sustainability¬†refers to the indefinite maintenance of conditions that support life for humans and other species within a functional environment. Economic or financial sustainability refers to the practice of taking in more money than you spend, thus allowing for the continued functioning of an organization. ¬†Social sustainability, less well unerstood,¬†may refer to the conditions of a harmonious and civilized society that encourage a positive quality ¬†of live for all segments of the¬†population. (based on Polese, 2000). The Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) includes aspects of sustainability “related to community and human welfare and well-being, including quality of life, social justice, democratic process, education, and health and safety” in their definition¬†and notes that “environmental or economic sustainability may or may not correlate positively with social sustainability”!

Sustainable development refers to economic development that does not deplete natural resources, and sustainable construction refers to construction practices that do not damage the environment, and so on.

Resiliency, on the other hand, is the ability of a system to resist or absorb stress. The environment, a region, a city, a neighborhood, or a home may be considered resilient (or not) to different kinds of risks. Resiliency strategies can be generally summarized as accommodation (designs that accept risks and work with them, such as raised houses that allow flood waters to pass underneath), fortification (hardened defenses such as blast proof glazing), and retreat (moving away from a risk entirely).

See below for examples of accommodation and fortification.

It was October 30, 2012, the immediate aftermath of Sandy. Homes and businesses across the Rockaways lay in ruins, devastated by the storm’s surge. Yet a new oceanfront housing development named Arverne by the Sea stood as a stalwart survivor. While planning the development, the City had required the developer to install a wide, planted dune system on the beach in front of the site and to elevate homes, incorporating special drainage features. During Sandy, the dunes absorbed the storm’s destructive waves. The site’s elevation and drains kept water out of most homes. All of these measures protected property and possibly saved lives. Over in Southern Brooklyn, meanwhile, the Shorefront Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care was able to remain open, despite the area’s widespread inundation. Constructed to City standards intended to protect against storms just like Sandy, the facility not only was a safe haven for its residents, it also sheltered members of the wider community whose own homes were flooded. (A Stronger, More Resilient New York, 2013).

New York City’s resilience to climate risk has become a topic of interest to city government, planners, and industries. The New York Building Congress published the report, “Risk and Resiliency After Sandy,” saying that:

Superstorm Sandy’s assault on New York City revealed four glaring needs: stronger and more redundant power and telecommunications grids; expanded and more resilient infrastructure; better building performance and design standards; and improved emergency-planning oversight and protocols. Deficiencies in these four areas were enough to cause unacceptable delays in response and recovery for critical facilities, businesses, and residents ‚ÄĒ despite the considerable efforts of public and private entities.

In 2013, New York City released¬†‚ÄúA Stronger, More Resilient New York.‚ÄĚ This comprehensive plan “contains actionable recommendations both for rebuilding the communities impacted by Sandy and increasing the resilience of infrastructure and buildings citywide.” You can read the report here.

The Architecture Engineering Construction (AEC)  industry has not ignored these risks and the potential to serve its clients by addressing them. Several examples of engagement by the AEC industry are listed below and many more can be found.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) lists Energy & Environment among its Industry Priorities and provides latest news, forums and conferences for engagement, and compliance news for industry professionals.

The New York Building Congress (NYBC)¬†addresses “resource conserving design and construction” among its committee activities and generates reports on resiliency.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) ranks sustainability among its priorities and helping professionals incorporate sustainable practices into their daily work as part of its strategic initiatives. They offer courses, research, and conferences for industry professionals.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) provides a large variety or resources related to sustainability including best practices for designers, contract documents and code recommendations, studies related to building energy performance, and many other references and tools.

1.3 Human impacts on the environment

Now that you have familiarized yourself with concepts like sustainability, resilience, climate risk, and other related topics, it is time to explore human impacts on the environment.

NASA image: Shrinking Glacier, Alaska Alaska's Columbia Glacier descends through the Chugach Mountains into Prince William Sound. When British explorers surveyed the glacier in 1794, its nose extended to the northern edge of Heather Island, near the mouth of Columbia Bay. The glacier held that position until 1980, when it began a rapid retreat. The glacier has thinned so much that the up and down motion of the tides affects its flow as much as 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) upstream, until the glacier bed rises above sea level and the ice loses contact with the ocean.

NASA image: Shrinking Glacier, Alaska
Alaska’s Columbia Glacier descends through the Chugach Mountains into Prince William Sound. When British explorers surveyed the glacier in 1794, its nose extended to the northern edge of Heather Island, near the mouth of Columbia Bay. The glacier held that position until 1980, when it began a rapid retreat. The glacier has thinned so much that the up and down motion of the tides affects its flow as much as 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) upstream, until the glacier bed rises above sea level and the ice loses contact with the ocean.

The current situation is what Harvard Professor Michale McElroy calls “unique in the history of 4.5 billion years of the planet, certainly unique in human history.” (You can watch his¬†full 1/25/2016 lecture here:¬†http://matterhorn.dce.harvard.edu/engage/player/watch.html?id=0380610d-86e4-4ca3-8431-27a8d4bb8b5e¬†)

The climate is warming and the overwhelming global consensus is that it is extremely likely that this trend is due to human activities (see a summary from NASA of the scientific consensus). Anthropogenic climate change, or climate change caused by human greenhouse gas emmissions, is widely accepted and supported by significant research. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarized in its 2014 Fifth Assessment Report:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.


Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.

This is the current assessment of hundreds of scientists working with¬†current¬†data. However, we do not have to look as far as global climate change to understand our impact on the environment. Human activities (material extraction, deforestation, building and development) can threaten the environment or what is sometimes referred to as “natural capital” in immediate and obvious ways.

Review the following video for more information:

Q1: What are the four types of ecosystem services described?

Q2: What is the cascade effect?


Read more on ecosystem services from Earth & Space Science News: 2016.0103 Understanding Ecosystem Services from a Geosciences Perspective – Eos



Buildings cause a significant impact on the environment and human health. In the U.S (per USGBC):

  • 14% of potable water consumed
  • 25-40% of energy used
  • 30% of waste generated
  • 38% of CO2 emitted
  • 40% of raw materials used
  • 72% of electricity used

is by buildings. 

The concept of green building encompasses the whole life cycle of a building and the pursuit of¬†triple bottom line benefits: people, planet, and prosperity.¬†The description “Green Building” is used by many different groups to mean different things, but you should ¬†associate green building with a reduction in waste, energy and water efficiency, sustainable and environmentally friendly building materials, an emphasis on indoor environmental quality (air quality, thermal and light quality), transit access, a reduced impact on surrounding habitats, and an emphasis on maintaining or restoring ecosystems.

Green buildings themselves are more efficient and less wasteful than conventional construction and can therefore be seen as part of the solution to the problems generated by the building industry.

Other definitions that may be helpful:

According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), a Zero Energy Building (ZEB) is

an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.

Also sometimes called a Net Zero Energy Buildings, these structures do use energy like any other building (although typically more energy efficiently), but they generate all of the energy needed on site through renewable energy sources including biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action, or tidal action. DOE insists that a full year of actual measurements verify on-site renewable exported energy exceeds  delivered energy values before a building is considered a ZEB.

DOE also defines Zero Energy Campuses and Communities, places where renewable energy sources might be shared among multiple buildings.

3. USGBC, ILFI, SBIC  & Others

Many organizations work to guide the design and building communities towards sustainable building practices.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), formed in 1992 ‚Äúto transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.‚ÄĚ.

The USGBC’s Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) certifies

  • Projects seeking LEED
  • Professionals demonstrating understanding of LEED, among them earning:
    • LEED AP
    • LEED Green Associate
    • LEED Fellows.

Others focus on issues beyond sustainability to issues like accessibility, disaster resilience, ecological restoration, security, and social justice.

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) represents the¬†mission “to lead and support the transformation toward communities that are socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.” Proclaiming their ambitious¬†Living Building Challenge¬†with its 20 mandatory imperatives¬†“the world’s most rigorous performance standard,” ILFI challenges the design and building communities to answer the question “What does good look like?” rather than simply trying to identify and eliminate the bad from their projects. The projects promoted are socially and environmentally regenerative.

The Sustainable Buildings Industry Council (SBIC) is a council of the Washington DC-based National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). It focuses on achieving high-performance buildings through the efficient use of energy and resources.


Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a rating system developed by the USGBC. It originally consisted of one rating system for new construction, but is now (v4) a system of standards covering different aspects of design, development, and construction. View the LEED v4 Building Design + Construction (BD+C) guide (July 1, 2015). Refer also to the v4 Reference Guides.

In order to achieve LEED Certification, all projects must meet certain Minimum Program Requirements (MPS), the minimum characteristics for a project appropriate for LEED certification. These consist of the following:

  • Must be in a permanent location on existing land
  • Must use reasonable LEED boundaries (all project‚Äôs contiguous land that supports its typical operations)
  • Must comply with project size requirements

In addition, projects must achieve points for accomplishing certain goals for a project. A project’s¬†LEED certification level is determined on the basis of points¬†earned. Points earned are tallied on the LEED Scorecard. The Scorecard can be reviewed here (as a PDF file):¬†Scorecard.

The major categories in the LEED rating system:

  • Location and transportation
  • Sustainable site
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental air quality (IAQ)
  • Innovation.

Categories contain a variety of prerequisites (these must be completed to achieve LEED certification but do not carry any point value) and credits (these count towards a project’s points earned). The prerequisites and credits are meant by USGBC to be achievable goals that drive their agenda for the building industry. Refer to the LEED Credit Library for current information on every¬†credit by category.

For example, under the Location and Transportation category, we can see that one point is available for Bicycle Facilities. Using the LEED Credit Library’s page¬†for Bicycle Facilities, we can see the credit’s intent:

To promote bicycling and transportation efficiency and reduce vehicle distance traveled. To improve public health by encouraging utilitarian and recreational physical activity.

We can also see the Requirements a project must meet in order to earn this credit:

Bicycle network

Design or locate the project such that a functional entry and/or bicycle storage is within a 200-yard (180-meter)walking distance or bicycling distance from a bicycle network that connects to at least one of the following:

  • at least 10 diverse uses (see Appendix 1);
  • a school or employment center, if the project total floor area is 50% or more residential; or
  • a bus rapid transit stop, light or heavy rail station, commuter rail station, or ferry terminal.

All destinations must be within a 3-mile (4800-meter) bicycling distance of the project boundary.

Planned bicycle trails or lanes may be counted if they are fully funded by the date of the certificate of occupancy and are scheduled for completion within one year of that date.

Bicycle Storage and Shower Rooms
Case 1. commercial or institutional projects

Provide short-term bicycle storage for at least 2.5% of all peak visitors, but no fewer than four storage spaces per building.

Provide long-term bicycle storage for at least 5% of all regular building occupants, but no fewer than four storage spaces per building in addition to the short-term bicycle storage spaces.

Provide at least one on-site shower with changing facility for the first 100 regular building occupants and one additional shower for every 150 regular building occupants thereafter.

Case 2. residential projects

Provide short-term bicycle storage for at least 2.5% of all peak visitors but no fewer than four storage spaces per building.

Provide long-term bicycle storage for at least 30% of all regular building occupants, but no less than one storage space per residential unit in addition to the short-term bicycle storage spaces.

Case 3. mixed-use projects

Meet the Case 1 and Case 2 storage requirements for the nonresidential and residential portions of the project, respectively.

For all projects

Short-term bicycle storage must be within 100 feet (30 meters) walking distance of any main entrance. Long-term bicycle storage must be within 100 feet (30 meters) walking distance of any functional entry.

Bicycle storage capacity may not be double-counted: storage that is fully allocated to the occupants of non-project facilities cannot also serve project occupants.

Core & Shell projects should refer to Appendix 2, Default Occupancy Counts, for occupancy count requirements and guidance.

In addition to the credit categories, you should understand the seven Impact categories that guide the credits’ point value and emphasize the goals that USGBC wishes to see delivered by the building industry. These consist of the following:

4.1 Reverse Contribution to Global Climate Change

  • GHG Emissions Reduction from Building Operations Energy Use
  • GHG Emissions Reduction from Transportation Energy Use
  • GHG Emissions Reduction from Materials and Water Embodied Energy Use
  • GHG Emissions Reduction by Embodied Energy of Water Reduction
  • GHG Emissions Reduction from a Cleaner Energy Supply
  • Global Warming Potential Reduction from Non-Energy Related Drivers

4.2 Enhance Individual Human Health and Well-Being

  • Support Occupant Comfort & Well Being
  • Protect Human Health from Direct Exposure to Negative Health Impacts
  • Protect Human Health Globally and Across the Entire Built Environment Life Cycle

4.3 Protect and Restore Water Resources

  • Water Conservation
  • Water Quality Protection
  • Protection and Restoration of Water Regimes and Natural Hydrological Cycles

4.4 Protect, Enhance and Restore Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

  • Local Biodiversity, Habitat Protection & Open Spaces
  • Global Biodiversity, Habitat Protection and Land Preservation
  • Sustainable Use and Management of Ecosystem Services

4.5 Promote Sustainable and Regenerative Material Resources Cycles

  • Reduce Raw Material Resource Extraction
  • Move to Cyclical, Non-Depleting Material Cycles
  • Reduce Negative Environmental Impacts throughout the Materials Life-Cycle

4.6 Build a Greener Economy

  • Enhance the Value Proposition of Green Building
  • Strengthen the Green Building Industry and Supply Chain
  • Promote Innovation and Integration of Green Building Products and Services
  • Incentivize Long Term Growth and Investment Opportunities
  • Support Local Economies

4.7 Enhance Social Equity, Environmental Justice, Community Health and Quality of Life

  • Create a Strong Sense of Place
  • Provide Affordable, Equitable and Resilient Communities
  • Promote Access to Neighborhood Completeness Resources
  • Promote Human Rights and Environmental Justice

The seven categories and their goals listed have shaped and framed the current (v4) version of the LEED rating system and its prerequisites and credits.

Try the following overview for a review of green building and LEED and other rating systems (content begins at the 3:18 mark):


Try looking through as many sample LEED GA exam questions as you can while studying for your exam. I’ve compiled a few questions and a few sources for questions.

These questions from Mometrix are timed and provide explanations for the answers:

Try some of the following samples:

When applying for innovation credits, a project team
A. Cannot submit any previously awarded innovation credit.
B. May receive credit for performance that doubles a credit requirement threshold.*
C. May submit a product or strategy that is being used in an existing LEED credit.
D. May receive a credit for each LEED Accredited Professional that is on the project team.

A developer wants to make a profit by building a new office that maximizes daylighting and views. What actions might the developer take to fulfill all parts of the triple bottom line?
A. Restore habitat onsite
B. Purchase ergonomic furniture
C. Pursue local grants and incentives
D. Provide lighting controllability for occupants*


Read the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers. Read more from the IPCC.

See Images of Change from NASA.

Refer to the website of the USGBC: http://www.usgbc.org. And look through the LEED Credit Library: http://www.usgbc.org/credits/new-construction/v4

Consider reviewing some of the Crash Course videos on Ecology for overviews on pollution, human impacts on the environment, conservation, and other topics: