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Updating LEED
The U.S. Green Building Council is changing LEED requirements, and restaurants could benefit.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Seal

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is updating its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, and the changes proposed could make it easier for restaurants—including quick-serves—to achieve certification.

Currently, only about seven restaurant structures have met the LEED benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings developed by the nonprofit USGBC. Around 31 have started the registration process, signifying that they intend to build or update a facility to LEED standards. Though Ashley Katz, communications coordinator for the USGBC, says those numbers may not be an entirely accurate reflection of how many restaurants are actually certified, as restaurants may be contained in other structures such as hotels, the restaurant industry still represents a small number of the more than 10,000 projects currently seeking LEED certification.

"It's not a real large chunk of the registered project list," Katz says of the industry.

According to some, that might be because the current rating system doesn't favor restaurant footprints.

"The LEED program was originally better suited to larger buildings and was first applied to sites such as office buildings," explains Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education for the PG&E Food Service Technology Center, a San Ramon, California–based testing facility for benchmarking the energy efficiency of equipment used in commercial kitchens.

Michael Gordon, COO for Pizza Fusion, a Florida-based concept that has seven units registered on the LEED projects list and two in the final stages of certification, agrees.

"LEED never developed into a small restaurant format," he says.

In order to qualify as a LEED-certified facility, a building must adhere to the program's prerequisites and earn a certain number of points for completing various credits, such as providing access to public transportation, designing water-efficient landscaping, and using green power. One problem critics have pointed out, however, is that the point system is not weighted fairly. For instance, installing bicycle storage and changing rooms earns the same number of points as using green power under the current rating system.

"There's more time concentrated on points than there is on reducing energy and the expense," Gordon says.

But Katz says the new guidelines will help address some of those criticisms. On May 19, the USGBC opened public comment on LEED 2009, an update of the current rating system. LEED 2009 will change the process of certification in a number of ways, starting with aligning and harmonizing the prerequisite/credit system. Currently, there are separate prerequisites and credit systems for different industries, such as retail, healthcare, and schools. Under the new guidelines, the prerequisite systems will be consolidated to a "most effective common denominator." Projects can then choose from credits that are specific to their industry, which will open up the possibility to respond to underserved players, such as restaurants.

"The new version of LEED will make it a lot easier for different types of buildings to get certification," Katz says.

The USGBC is also working with regional partners to develop specific credits for different areas of the country. For instance, a rainwater collection system makes more sense for a building in Seattle than for one in Phoenix. A new weighting system has been developed, too.

"The point values will reflect environmental or human health impact," Katz says. "It will incentivize certain practices that can make the largest impact."

In addition, the development of the LEED system will follow a predictable cycle, so updates can be expected at regular intervals.

"That will help different building types, including [those serving] the restaurant industry, get on board for certification," Katz says. "They'll be able to do the new credits applicable for restaurants specifically."

Restaurants could also benefit from the USGBC's Portfolio Program, which allows companies to certify a prototype of a building they plan to use in multiple locations. The program is currently in pilot and is closed to additional participants.

"Once that is open to the public, I have a feeling that we're going to get a lot more restaurants coming on board, especially within the quick-service restaurant realm," Katz says. "It will allow larger companies, such as McDonald's or Burger King, to certify a large number of projects."

Ultimately, though, it will be up to players in the restaurant industry themselves to get involved.

"The LEED guidelines need to be finalized, and then it’s up to the industry to give it a try," Young says. "The biggest work will come in the form of applying these principals to the everyday nuts and bolts of designing and operating a building and then sharing these lessons back with the industry and the USGBC—so that the LEED process can be refined, and the LEED pathway can be as practical and realistic as possible. It means breaking the mold of business as usual, but we believe that the [quick-service restaurant] industry is up to the challenge and ultimately will prosper from owning more efficient and sustainable buildings."

Gordon seconds that. He says Pizza Fusion buildings seeking LEED certification have seen electric bills that are 35 percent lower than those of non-LEED buildings. For a 1,500-square-foot unit with air conditioning, he says the bill runs around just $900 per month.

"If that's not something that gets restaurant owners excited, I don't know what does," he says.

The public comment period for LEED 2009 will run through June 22. To view the entire summary of changes and offer input, click here.