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Six Things LEED Consultants Do Wrong in Specs

Mark Kalin

LEED consultants are paid to lend their expertise to achieve a project’s LEED certification goals. Their decisions focus on achieving credits and their participation is absolutely vital to the project, but some can actually work against the project's sustainability goals. Here are the top six problems I see.

#1 Discouraging bidding by specifying unrealistic LEED requirements

When a specification requires a regional source, a recycled content percentage, and certain certifications for a product, the specifier has to be certain that conforming products exist. On a recent project, the only bidder for the doors couldn’t actually meet all the requirements and put in a premium price. Other bidders declined to bid citing the requirements of the specifications. The worst outcome was a project that decided to abandon certification because of unnecessary requirements in the specifications that pushed the project over budget.

Solution: Don’t use the specifications as a research tool. Either find out what’s available and specify what you want the contractor to purchase, or give the contractor options and flexibility to meet the LEED requirements, using a mix of products.

#2 Not recognizing that performance is a sustainable attribute

There is a roofing product that has 100 percent recycled content, is 100 percent recyclable, and is made from 100 percent regional materials. Unfortunately, it is only guaranteed until the first rain, since it’s made out of papier-mâché.

Solution: Performance is more important than recycled content for roofing. Always seek the highest-performing roofing material with a 20-year track record (which includes PVC). If you’re not going to keep PVC out of the inside of your building, why be concerned about PVC on the roof? Personally, I doubt that either PVC, TPO, EPDM, or modified bitumen are edible, and am more concerned about the damage that water intrusion can have on the inside of a building when the roofing fails.

#3: Adding ‘their’ language to the specifications.

Sorry, poetic language doesn’t buy products, nor does repeating all the VOC levels in every spec section make sense. The specifications are contract documents that contain the qualitative requirements for materials and assemblies. Subcontractors must put in bids with only a few hours to evaluate a project.

Solution: Specify products that comply with LEED requirements and require the submittals necessary to document the required credits.

#4: Believing manufacturer’s product literature

Not too long ago a flooring manufacturer overstated its sourcing and FSC claims. The product as promised was not the product as delivered—they never had a source for FSC wood. …And then there was that article in the magazine that claimed brick would earn 26 LEED points. …And then there was that insulation manufacturer that was fined $155,000. by the FTC for false R-value claims.

Solution: Ask the manufacturer to submit a sample of LEED documentation from a previous project as an example, instead of relying on marketing literature.

#5: Issuing a LEED Scorecard with “maybe” as an option

We all recognize that achieving some credits is uncertain until construction is well underway. However, “maybe” means “no” to a subcontractor if extra expense is involved.

Solution: At least one LEED consultant will not include a scorecard in the project manual. Others will reissue the scorecard monthly. The important thing is to hold the contractor accountable for making sure that the overall target is achieved, with a little cushion to allow for missing or faulty documentation.

#6: Calling LEED “good enough”

LEED is intended to point the project in the right direction and open up conversations about sustainability goals, but too often its goals are adopted without critical review.

Solution: The consultant should engage with the client about their intentions and priorities, and then revisit those throughout. That gives them the tools to answer questions like: Do you abandon the requirement for FSC wood once you achieve 50%? Is it the scorecard or sustainability that governs?

Mark Kalin is President of Kalin Associates Specifications and currently Chair of CSI’s National Technical Committee. The firm has completed specs for over 200 LEED projects. Free spec downloads and position papers at www.kalinassociates.com.

Posted by Mark Kalin, FAIA FCSI LEED BD+C on June 1, 2012


LEED Consultants and Specifications

I have dealt with at least one LEED consultant who was fundamentally ignorant about basic contract issues and intent of a LEED Certified project.  This particular consulant wanted me to insert into every specification section a requirement that the Contractor would be solely responsible for LEED certification.  They could not understand why I thought this was a serious problem.  One of the things I really like about LEED certification is that there is an attempt to enforce a higher level of collaboration between all parties and shared responsibility. 

This same consultant (based in another city) was also unaware of regional material possibilites for the project and wanted me to specify a product manufactured almost 1000 miles from the project location when the manufacturer had a facility making the exact same product less than 25 miles from the project location.

I was told that I did not know what I was talking about and almost withdrew from the project

Do not get too carried away

In my experience I have found that most architects and developers already have some awareness on green buildings and are more often than not doing the right thing. I prefer to let them do what they are doing but just make a few suggestions and changes that are essential for the certification per meeting, this ensures no stake holder feels they are being sidelined. And then add more suggestions and changes in each meeting before formalising the strategy.

For materials we simply give them a sheet with a list of items, minimum specifications, the use and at least 3 different product suggestions that comply with these specifications. We ask contractors to stick to the specifications but not necessarily to the products listed.

Its important to let the architects and owner's to have the maximum say. LEED consultants should speak only if things are going horribly wrong and if changes are required to meet the targets.

Nice article!

Nice job Mark! I especially like #5. You can't bid on a "maybe".


You are correct that we can not keep PVC out of our buildings at this point. That does not mean that we can not attempt to minimize the amount that is used. Vinyl chloride, a component of PVC, is a known carcinogen and is linked to cancers in workers in the PVC industry. Dioxin, produced by the incineration of PVC, is extremely toxic and significantly increases the dangers while fighting fires with high concentrations of PVC. With so many other roofing options available it seems better to choose a less toxic material than exposing others, actually or potentially, to PVC.

LEED Checklists in the Project Manual

As both a specifier and a LEED consultant, I have no problem with including the LEED Checklist in the Project Manual, for two main reasons:

1.  Creating a Team for the Project:  One of the general goals of LEED is to encourage a team approach to the project and include the Contractor as a primary member of that team.  Nobody is asking the Contractor to bid on a 'maybe', and most of the Credits are the responsibility of the design team and the owner anyway.  Including the Checklist is similar to 'information available to bidders' - it doesn't directly relate to the Contractor's work, but it may help them to understand the sustainable goals of the project.  The Contractor's sustainable responsiblities are addressed within the specifications.

2.  You Never Know:  I've had more than one instance of a Contractor seeing the Regional Credit as a 'maybe' and taking it upon themselves to make and effort to buy out the materials locally, and then we get the Credit because the Contractor took the initiative and wants the reward of contributing to the sustainable goals.  Also, I always note this Credit as a 'maybe' because I don't want to dictate where the materials are purchased - they need to get the best deal possible.

Score Cards and Regional Materials

We always include the Score Card in the Project Manual in Division 01. We want the contractor to know what our plan of action is and what the Contractor is expected to attain. We generally leave how the materials credits will be obtained up to the contractor. We always include the Regional Credit as a yes. In our area, steel and concrete can be obtained locally and generaly those two sections are all that is needed to obtain the credit.

Great Article!

RE #3:  I trust that model green spec language is phasing out words like "consider" or unsupported terms like "environmentally preferable".  As you say, contract documents must tell the bidder /contractor exactly what to do or not do and leave good intentions out of it.  This remains true even in more integrated design, with regular team meetings and continuous pricing. It's why we use "shall" instead of "should!"

RE #5, :  Even without a "maybe"column, including the LEED Scorecard in the CDs can create conflicts if the credit is not fully established in the balance of the spec.  The front end of most CD specs address conflicts by requiring the more stringent of the two specs in conflict to govern.  In my experience that has been unenforceable (unless somehow the more stringent one was bid anyway!) and puts Owner is on the hook for a change order. Claiming a "yes" will not help you if the means of achiving the credit has not been covered elsewhere.

We found that the maybe column (or, as I preferred, a "probably yes" and "probably no"!) was useful as part of the design process -- as a communication tool -- but only when we also tracked the reasoning.  By the time CDs roll around there shall be no "maybe"s.


Sticking to the LEED checklist

Re #5: This is an option learned to remove. It caused conflict all parties as to whether a certain credit was being worked on. We made it a policy to talk about every aspect of the credit in the pre-design phase to determine if the credit should be pursued, and then followed it throughout the construction of the building. Resposibilities have been placed on all parties to see that each credit was being executed. Of course during the process, some credits could not be achieved and were removed from the LEED checklist. In the end we had a better understanding of the points we were going to achieve.

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