LEED Architecture

Jan 8, 2021

Materials and Practices to Ensure a LEED Certified Building is Energy Efficient

As society becomes increasingly environmentally conscious, there seems to be a never-ending list of abbreviations to describe environmentally-friendly practices: GMO-free in agriculture, BPA-free in plastics manufacturing–and LEED-certified in construction.

Many people accept these labels, certifications, and ratings without having a real idea of what they mean. To this effect, many people automatically assume that a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification means that a building saves money and is energy efficient.

While LEED buildings can be environmentally friendly, the certification itself does not necessarily mean anything to the discerning architectural professional. LEED certifications are handed out using a points system that consists of four levels:

  • Certified (40-49 points)
  • Silver (50-59 points)
  • Gold (60-79 points)
  • Platinum (80 or more points)

The problem is that points are handed out using a rather arbitrary set of criteria, with a certification being obtained without really saying what environmental benefits the building achieves. For example, including a bike rack and minimizing the number of parking spaces earns a building LEED point. So does construction that utilizes “recycled” materials.

While there is no denying that encouraging people to walk or bike and using repurposed steel rebar to reinforce the sidewalk concrete are all noble pursuits in the battle against climate change, it is easy to see how a building can sneak a LEED certification without producing an energy-efficient building. In fact, some findings suggest that more labor-intensive construction methods required to reach LEED certification can actually make some LEED-certified buildings less energy efficient than their uncertified peers.

Therefore, in order to make a LEED-certified building energy-efficient, construction with the correct materials and best practices are necessary to ensure that the certification lives up to its billing.

Look for Active Uses of Solar Energy

The ultimate goal of an energy-efficient building is to have net-zero energy consumption. This means that a building replaces any energy it uses, essentially making the building independent of the energy grid.

No matter how well a building is designed, it will need to use some electricity to meet its energy needs. As such, a building cannot achieve net-zero energy efficiency without manufacturing electricity on-site.

Fortunately, modern photovoltaic (PV) cell technology has advanced to the point that buildings are able to efficiently convert sunlight into electricity. Through this active application of solar energy, in which sunlight is used to create electricity that augments and/or replaces the nonrenewable energy used to power fans, lights, appliances, and technology, buildings can go a long way toward lowering their energy bill and reducing their carbon footprint.

Therefore, if a modern LEED-certified building claims to be energy efficient but does not feature any active uses of solar energy, such as PV roofing tiles, walls, or panels, then the claims should be considered dubious without further investigation of the building’s construction.

Determine if the Building Materials Support Passive Solar Energy Use

While creating renewable energy on-site is a critical component of an energy-efficient building, it is equally important that the building take steps to lower its overall energy needs.

Through the passive application of solar energy, a building bypasses electricity altogether and lets the sun do the work itself. Some examples of the passive use of solar energy include building a house with a south-facing living room to avoid having to use the heater and employing a solar oven to trap the heat needed for culinary endeavors.

For most commercial and residential structures, the best way to passively use solar energy is to build with products high in thermal mass that readily absorb and radiate heat. Some high-thermal-mass materials include stone, brick, concrete, and ceramic tiles. When framing an energy-efficient building, insulated concrete forms make for an outstanding choice as the high thermal mass supports the passive use of solar energy. Furthermore, by using tilt up construction to frame the building, significantly fewer resources are required throughout the construction process.

Another way to capitalize on passive solar energy is by creatively designing the building to make use of the sun’s light. Modern schools and commercial offices have expansive windows throughout the building to allow sunlight into the structure at all hours of the day, minimizing the need for electric lights. In addition, interior walls and other barriers that let light flow are increasingly being eschewed in favor of modular glass office walls that provide partition without creating dark recesses that require artificial light.

Modern energy-efficient buildings should be designed with materials that can effectively capitalize on these passive uses of solar energy. They can become LEED certified by using recycled materials or products that require less energy during fabrication, but if they do not significantly reduce a building’s energy needs, they will not truly be energy efficient in the long run.

Conclusion

Many people think that a LEED certification is proof that a building is energy efficient. While many LEED-certified structures are, there are ways to get to the lowest certification threshold without doing much to reduce a building’s future energy consumption. Therefore, in order to be sure that a LEED-certified building is truly energy-efficient, it is essential to build with materials that capitalize on both active (PV cells) and passive (high thermal mass products) forms of solar energy.

Skylar Ross is a contributor to the Innovative Materials blog. He is a content writer for the construction and home improvement industries with an interest in landscaping, outdoor remodeling, and interior design. Skylar is focused on educating homeowners, contractors, and architects on innovative materials and methods of construction that increase property value, improve sustainability, and create a warm and welcoming ambiance.