Architecture & Design, Focus, and Sustainability

Has USGBC shifted its focus?

Local design firm feels council is more concerned about profits than its core mission.

June 14, 2013
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Has USGBC shifted its focus?
Greg Metz, left, and Ted Lott, of Lott3Metz Architecture in Grand Rapids, would like to see the U.S. Green Building Council promote “what’s next” in environmentally friendly building. Photo by Alissa Lane

Building projects aren’t the only thing the U.S. Green Building Council certifies for LEED. The agency also provides LEED accreditation for the professionals who design and build the developments.

Greg Metz and Ted Lott, partners in Lott3Metz Architecture in Grand Rapids, have held those credentials for quite a while. Metz earned his USGBC professional certification nine years ago, while Lott was certified in 2009. Back then, when the USGBC wasn’t as prominent in the field as it is now, the process to become a LEED-accredited professional was cleaner and simpler.

“When I got my credential, that was when you had to take one test, and if you passed that test you were LEED certified. The assumption was then — and there was no other reason to think otherwise — you were credentialed for life,” said Metz.

“Well, zoom ahead to a couple of years ago (when) they changed the whole process. Why? To make money,” he added.

After the USGBC changed the accreditation process, Metz said it reported that those who already held the credential could keep it but that, after a period of time, certified designers like him would no longer have the same privileges as those who passed the new test.

“That, of course, upset us because they’re kind of changing the game. That was the straw that broke our back, and we said forget LEED and we’re going to do everything we can to try to deter clients from using it. We’ll follow the (LEED) principles, but there is no way we want to give them any money (for the certification process),” he said.

“It was an obvious ploy for them to step up the game,” he said of the new testing process.

Despite the changes the USGBC made to its credentialing process, Lott3Metz has continued to established itself as a firm that designs environmentally sound and sustainable projects — as have many other local architectural companies such as Progressive AE, Cornerstone Architects, Integrated Architecture and DTS Winkelmann, to name a few.

“As a firm, we already design all of our projects to meet sustainability goals. So LEED kind of has lost its luster. People don’t care as much if they don’t have a shiny plaque. They do want to have a sustainable building, but having that ‘badge’ is not as important as it used to be,” said Metz.

The USGBC now requires professionals to take at least two exams to become accredited for design. The first is a two-hour, computer-based exam with 100 randomly delivered multiple-choice questions that leads to becoming a LEED Green Associate. The council also offers exams for five specialty areas ranging from building design to neighborhood development, and another test to reach the green pinnacle as a LEED Fellow. And the USGBC charges test takers at every level.

The application cost to take the Green Associate’s exam is $50, while the test fee is $150 for members and $200 for nonmembers. The council also offers a study guide for $117 to members and $140 to nonmembers, and there is a $50 maintenance fee Green Associates pay every two years.

There is a $100 fee to apply for a specialty credential such as building and design. Members pay $300 to take the full exam and nonmembers $450. Associates are charged $150 if they’re only taking the specialty test. The USGBC charges nonmembers $243 for the study and reference guide, while members pay $198. Again, there is a $50 maintenance fee every two years.

An applicant has to be nominated for the crème-de-la-crème credential — the LEED Fellow — and a nominee must pay a $250 application fee to be considered.

Metz took his exam nearly a decade ago at the Sylvan Learning Center on Burton Street SE, and the exam lasted less than two hours. He said he spent about 15 hours a week for a month to prepare for it and remembers the test as costing $150. He passed it on the first try, but he said others didn’t and were charged $150 each time they re-took the test.

“It was a tough test. It was what I considered a well-written, multiple-choice exam with four answers to each question. You could always eliminate two answers. Then there was the correct answer and one that was pretty close, so you had to know your stuff, or you had to be one damn-good guesser,” he said.

“It was challenging, but I knew the material. It made you think.”

Metz felt some of the questions went a bit too far, like asking about which journal published a story on a specific topic such as using natural lighting in a design. “You had to know the exact journal. You had to know everything tangential to sustainability. They had some bizarre questions like that,” he said.

“But it was a pretty holistic test and you had to have a wide range of knowledge, which made it harder to study for it because you couldn’t focus on any one thing. You kind of had to know a little bit about everything.”

Still, Metz felt getting his LEED credential in 2004 was worth the effort.

“Back when I got LEED accredited, it was a big thing. It was new — especially in West Michigan, and that was important for clients to know, that you knew what that meant. Many people back then wanted to have a LEED-accredited project — that was a big deal in West Michigan. So to have that credential helped me to market what Ted and I knew,” he said.

“Well, zoom ahead to today, LEED succeeded and people are designing projects, for the most part, that are more sustainable than they ever were. Why? Partly because of what LEED did, and that’s why I think LEED is becoming kind of irrelevant now. They know that and that’s why they’ve started to change and now they have to find a new way to make money.”

Metz said what the USGBC began as an educational effort is becoming a profit center. “Now they seem to be focusing more on that than on what they really should be doing, and that’s unfortunate. It’s frustrating. It’s still a great thing — don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying LEED is bad. It’s still good. But I think they’ve lost their way a little bit.”

Metz clearly felt the USGBC needs to refocus. “They were pioneers in this one area, so now become a pioneer in the next one. What’s the next thing? Where should we go from here? Maybe that’s not their focus, but what I’d like to see is what is the next thing? What’s the next ‘LEED’ that everybody is going to want to have?”

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