In a major boost to the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) system for rating the environmental performance of buildings, the General Services Administration (GSA) which operates as the federal government's landlord has issued a report that found the council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system to be the most credible among five systems evaluated.

That conclusion will likely have a major impact on the growing green building market because the federal government is one of the largest owners and operators of commercial buildings, so the government's endorsement of a particular ranking system could establish a de facto standard for the industry.

The report — submitted to Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO), who is chairman of an appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over GSA's budget — notes that the federal government is a "significant participant in the building industry" and that it is critical for the GSA to "evaluate the performance of projects." The report was requested by the fiscal year 2006 appropriations act. LEED has rapidly emerged as the most important force in the accelerating market for green buildings, a market that has been given added impetus by federal agencies committing to use LEED as the standard for federal buildings, as indicated in GSA's Sept. 15 cover letter to Bond accompanying the report.

In that green market, government and private builders apply standards for green buildings — including energy efficiency, materials used in the buildings, water use, and other environmental attributes — making green buildings a locus of sustainable products and processes that impact a wide range of industries, including forest and paper, steel, and chemicals.

Recently, the USGBC became a partner with the Clinton Climate Initiative and is now working with other groups to expand the number of energy efficient, sustainable buildings being constructed worldwide (see related story).

The GSA report was conducted under a contract with the U.S. Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) for an analysis of five green building rating systems. In a July report submitted by the laboratory to GSA, Sustainable Building Rating System Summary, the PNNL researchers compare the following five methods for rating whether a building design and construction is green: 1) Building Research Establishment's Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM); 2) Comprehensive Assessment System for Building Environmental Efficiency (CASBEE); 3) GBTool; 4) Green Globes US; and 5) LEED.

Although each of the rating systems has merits, "Based on the results [of the report], GSA finds that the [USGBC's] LEED rating system continues to be the most appropriate and credible sustainable building rating system available for evaluation of GSA projects."

GSA cites at least five reasons for its conclusions about the LEED system. First, LEED applies to all GSA project types, including new and existing buildings, interiors, and other areas covered by USGBC standards. Second, it "tracks the quantifiable aspects of sustainable design and building performance," a major focus of federal programs under the impetus of the Government Performance and Results Act and a general demand for performance measurement. Third, trained professionals verify LEED. Fourth, it has a "well-defined system for incorporating updates," which LEED is now undergoing through a far-reaching LEED 3.0 update. And fourth, LEED is "the most widely used rating system in the U.S. market," GSA writes.

In evaluating the five green building systems, the criteria were drawn from GSA "drivers for sustainable design," including a memorandum of understanding dated January 2006 on "federal leadership in high performance and sustainable buildings," according to the report. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, and Executive Order 13123, "greening the government through efficient energy management," were among other federal drivers that helped define the criteria for assessing green building rating systems.

At the time the report was written earlier this year, more than 400 U.S. buildings had received LEED ratings — which run from "certified" through silver, gold, and platinum — and more than 3,400 buildings were registered "and therefore potentially seeking certification" as green buildings, according to GSA.