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05.25.2010
Q+A> Sophie Lambert
How the USGBC's neighborhood program, LEED-ND, could reshape architecture and urban design
The Olympic Village in Vancouver, masterplanned by HBBH Architects, is a pilot project for LEED-ND.
Courtesy City of Vancouver

On April 29, the United States Green Building Council unveiled new standards for LEED for Neighborhood Design at a ceremony in Chicago. While pilot projects have been in the works since 2007, the USGBC hopes LEED-ND will push the green accreditation program from the scale of individual buildings to neighborhoods, an expansion that could have vast implications for the way the country uses energy, manages waste and water, and gets from place to place. Developed in partnership with the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), LEED-ND is a guideline to evaluate projects and establish minimum standards. AN spoke with the director of LEED-ND, Sophie Lambert, about the evolution and potential impacts of the new standards. The first examination materials for certification become available on June 11.

The Architect’s Newspaper: LEED has typically been applied to individual or small collections of buildings. Why did USGBC decide to tackle the neighborhood scale?

Sophie Lambert: The creation of LEED-ND was really a collaborative effort. CNU and NRDC approached USGBC. The CNU knew there weren’t a lot of examples of New Urbanism with green buildings, and we were aware that a lot of green buildings are in locations that aren’t very sustainable. Over the years, USGBC has given more weight to location in the way we evaluate individual buildings. The guidelines were drafted by a committee of 15, with five members from each organization. Everyone’s interests were well represented. We really hope it ties together connectivity, density, and building performance with strong minimum standards.

Who is the target audience for LEED-ND guidelines?

We hope that it really brings together the value of connectivity, density, and building performance for developers. We recognize that land-use planning is different from building a single building. We’ve seen from a lot of the pilot projects that these kinds of projects can be very hard for developers to get off the ground. Getting community support, approvals, changes in zoning, and financing are all very complex. We hope LEED-ND will be similar to a stamp of approval.

So it’s really a tool for developers?

An owner-developer is usually the one who will decide to pursue LEED-ND, but architects and landscape architects have a big role in terms of green building and landscape planning on these projects.

Architects have a love/hate relationship with the CNU. Or I guess I should say some architects love New Urbanism and some hate it.

Obviously, there are principles of New Urbanism that are important in LEED-ND, especially in terms of connectivity. We had a Garden City–type development in the pilot project that isn’t what you typically think of as New Urbanist. It’s really about street patterns and making connections. We have minimum density of seven people per acre, or 12 if your site is near transit, but more density earns you more points. Projects in New York or Chicago could be rewarded at a higher level. It’s not prescriptive in terms of highrise versus lowrise. We had a debate among the committee about whether there are diminishing returns for too much density at a certain point. I’m not sure that that was ever completely settled. I should say that we use the word “compact.” Certain community groups are concerned about the word “density.” For many people, that immediately implies traffic.

The major problem a lot of architects have with New Urbanism is the notion of mandating historical styles.

The LEED-ND rating system doesn’t talk about style. That was a very deliberate outcome. That’s the choice of the design team. Several of our pilot projects were very cutting-edge. If people look at these projects, they’ll think, “Wow! There’s a whole lot of things you can do with LEED-ND.”

What about landscape design? How is it treated in the ratings system?

We have a stormwater management credit to promote innovative ways of dealing with stormwater, like rain gardens. We encourage shade along streets. There’s also wastewater management. But as I said, we’re not prescriptive in how you design the project. There are credits for open space, plazas, and passive spaces. Existing parks also count. You can also get credits for uncovering buried streams to encourage wildlife.

Same question for infrastructure.

We look at all different types of infrastructure. LEED-ND doesn’t require access to transit, but projects receive credits for it. You can also earn points for recycled content in public-realm infrastructure. Alleys, for example, are in the street hierarchy. They get points for connectivity. Street widths are always one of the toughest issues that developers and communities struggle with. That’s something CNU has been passionate about for years. LEED-ND has a minimum number of intersections per square mile—150 intersections per square mile—rather than arterial roads.

That seems like a lot.

It’s relative. Portland, Oregon has 400 intersections per square mile. Central Rome has 700 per square mile. The area around Lincoln Center in Manhattan has 150. New York has large blocks, and the area around Lincoln Center is a superblock, but it’s still very connected. Any place with alleys will score well.

Are you talking only about roads that allow cars? Do pedestrian streets count?

Trails and pedestrian-only streets also count. They definitely count.

Do you hope LEED-ND becomes adopted as zoning code?

We do not want LEED-ND to be mandated. Land use is very locally based. Much of LEED-ND is illegal in many parts of the country, due to existing zoning regulations. We want them to be incentivizing use of LEED-ND rather than mandating it. Jurisdictions need to be careful in how it is used. LEED has always been a voluntary leadership standard.

What about green buildings within a LEED-ND development?

We encourage LEED-certified buildings, but only one is required for a LEED-ND development. We did have some pilot projects that didn’t have good green buildings. Construction waste management was the only element that was initially required. We added minimum energy and water standards, and a certified green building.

How has LEED-ND changed since you started the pilot projects, and how do you see it changing in the future?

LEED is always evolving. We are now in a three-year evaluation process. That said, I don’t anticipate major changes by 2012. But look for bigger changes by 2015. The standards will be tougher.