In this Episode
The built environment represents one of society’s largest environmental impacts – contributing nearly one fifth of global GHG emissions, not to mention impacts on natural resources like air and water quality, local ecosystems, and quality of life for residents. Increasingly, policies and public opinion are concentrating on reducing those impacts – creating incentives for new construction and urban development to become more sustainable – to become more “green.”
But how do you define whether a building (or a city) is green? Tommy Linstroth is the founder and CEO of Green Badger, a company that provides sustainability accounting services for new construction projects, and Hilari Varnadore is the Vice President for Cities at the U.S. Green Building Council. The two joined Climate Now to explain the globally leading metric for quantifying sustainability of the built environment: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Tune in to hear how buildings, stadiums and cities can become LEED certified – what the process entails, what the criteria are, and why every new construction project and city planner should want to be certified as “green” through a process like LEED.
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James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the solutions that we’ll need to address the climate crisis and achieve a zero emissions future. I’m James Lawler, and if you like this episode, leave us a review, share it with your friends, or tell us what you think at email@example.com.
For today’s episode, cities across the United States and the world are trying to quote, go green. But what does that really mean? And where do you start with the cement and the rebar in the buildings? With the air conditioning and the heating systems? With fertilizer for parks and gardens? What about the carbon footprint of cranes and bulldozers?
Or what about disadvantaged communities that live within city borders? How do you measure and quantify all of those things? And how should cities prioritize one initiative over another in the real world with limited resources? In this episode, we’ll [00:01:00] hear from two people making the somewhat nebulous concept of a green city, a concrete reality.
One is Tommy Linstroth of Green Badger, which is a company that helps planners and builders meet sustainability standards, specifically standard set by the United States Green Building Council, which Tommy calls in our interview the Green IRS. Next, we’ll hear from an agent from that Green IRS Hilari Varnadore, who manages large scale programs for the US Green Building Council.
She’ll explain how entire cities are working to reduce their impact on the planet and the people who live there. But first, our new segment this week in Climate News….
Now on to our interview. It’s Tommy Linstroth’s job to help architects and builders make new structures more sustainable. His company, Green Badger, has developed a software platform to determine the specific materials, the equipment, the supply chains, the building plans, and dozens of other factors [00:02:00] that will allow new buildings to meet sustainability and environmental, social and governance standards.
They can help building developers make choices from the brand of glass to use in the windows to picking subcontractors with strong ESG rankings. Here’s Tommy.
Tommy Linstroth: We’re really working to be a one stop shop for anything that the construction industry runs into from a sustainability perspective. So we work with the construction industry to help them navigate how do you build and verify a green construction project over, you know, months or sometimes years or even decades of construction to track, to verify products, to help suggest products that are green, to manage and reduce waste, and then to track broader ESG metrics or environmental social governance metrics.
James Lawler: All right. So maybe you could explain what green construction means. So is this a well-defined concept at this point?
Tommy Linstroth: Sure. [00:03:00] So historically, green is in the eye of the beholder, right? And a developer could put in one energy efficient light bulb and say, hey, I’ve designed and built a green building. So to counteract those claims, there’s a number of third-party rating systems that have evolved over the past 20 years to really help as you said, codify it. To standardize it, to make it measurable, and to make it definable.
James Lawler: The rating system that Green Badger uses is called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED launched by the United States Green Building Council in the late 1990s. LEED is a point-based system. It’s lowest rank is certified, followed by silver, gold, and platinum.
Lead uses criteria such as energy efficiency, carbon footprint, water use, the sustainability of building materials, and many other factors depending on what’s being ranked homes, buildings, neighborhoods, and even entire cities can earn a LEED certification.
Tommy Linstroth: It’s really been the gold standard for third party building certification over the past [00:04:00] 20 years. It’s required for almost every federally funded project. It’s used as the basis of design for two thirds of state funded projects. Then you’ve got thousands of municipalities and institutions of higher education that have just said, you know, of all of the third-party rating systems, this is the one we are going to hold ourselves accountable to.
James Lawler: Now break down the criteria a little bit for us. So what are the different components of achieving a strong LEEDs rating and what is a strong LEEDs rating?
Tommy Linstroth: It’s a point-based rating system. So buildings in an urban core are gonna perform different than, you know, a suburban or a rural building. Um, buildings that are two stories and have lots of roof space for solar are gonna perform different than a skyscraper that um solar renewables is much more difficult.
So it’s set up to be a flexible framework so that you can get rewarded for strategies that make sense for your project, no matter what size or scope it is. And so they look at a number of different categories. You know, people always tend to think of [00:05:00] energy efficiency as green and, and it is true energy plays a huge component in, in your LEED rating system, but also looks at things like water efficiency, both inside your building and for your site.
It looks at your location. Is it accessible by transit? Is it accessible by bike? Can you, do you have alternative or electrical vehicle charging stations? How are you managing your site? Is there green space? Is there native vegetation? Are you able to manage storm water on site?
James Lawler: Okay, so you’ve just, when you, you’re describing the LEED sort of system and all of the inputs to determine that point-based rating. It sounds like, you know, potentially hundreds or even thousands of, of inputs from the materials that your rugs are made out of to the dimensions of the building and how efficient that envelope is, how one would possibly, um, organize All of this stuff is kind of mind boggling.
So, so you guys are positioning to solve that problem. So talk about what is the solution that Green [00:06:00] Badger offers to address that?
Tommy Linstroth: Sure. So it tends to fall into two buckets. You have the whole upfront design side of things, which happens static, right in the architects, in the engineer’s office, and they put pen to paper. Now it’s all obviously digitized. And they say, you know, here’s the footprint, here’s what we wanna do. And then that process stops. And then that gets handed over to the construction team, and then they are the ones responsible for implementation.
Like, you can’t just say you’re doing these things, it’s like filing your taxes. You’ve gotta compile all of this information, submit it to, you know, the Green IRS, if you will, which is the US Green Building Council, and they’re gonna give a very rigorous overview because this certification, again, it’s, it’s mandated, it’s in contracts, there’s a lot of value behind it, and so then you’ve gotta prove that you have done all of the green things you said you were gonna do.
James Lawler: And so do you submit your actual planning documents to the US Green Buildings Council?
Tommy Linstroth: Yeah, so once you have your, your building designed, then you basically submit all of the design related things. So if you say, hey, we’re gonna [00:07:00] have this much green space, you’ll document that in the construction documents, and then as long as that doesn’t change, you check the box and you get awarded those points. And then you go through, the challenge that we see is then you go through years of construction and it’s like everybody forgets what happened back then, and now it’s only well, what was going on on site over the past two years? And you don’t wanna get to the end and find out, oops, we used the wrong product, or we didn’t recycle enough waste.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
Tommy Linstroth: And now when we go to submit the, the review says, nope, you didn’t earn it. Because now the building’s built, you can’t go back and, you know, take, take anything outta the landfill.
James Lawler: So hearing, hearing you describe all of that stuff, it’s almost like an accounting system. I mean, you’re tracking every single purchase and. And, and tying that to a plan effectively that’s been approved.
Tommy Linstroth: Yeah. The analogy I use, it’s, it’s right up that alley. I call us a TurboTax of LEED, like we are taking your 1040 and your W2 and your receipts and your, you know, deductions and we are tracking all [00:08:00] that and piling all of that.
And then so that we can present it in the format it needs to go to that certifying agency. Well, along the way, providing transparency so that the team always knows are we tracking how we should be tracking? Are we at risk of missing? Do we need to do a mid-course correction? Or what products should we, we don’t know which ones to use, well we can suggest to you, and the system can provide you all of the information you need to find those products that comply and that have lower environmental impact.
James Lawler: And who’s buying your software? Who are your customers?
Tommy Linstroth: Predominantly, we work general contractors. So we’re working with the actual builders that we do work with. A number of design teams who use this to help identify those products. And a number of consulting teams who are oftentimes just brought in to manage because as, as you just described, it is complex.
So a lot of times teams will just bring in a, a complete third party back to your accounting. Instead of using Concur or QuickBooks, they’re bringing in an actual accountant. So sometimes teams do that on the LEED side of things as well, but they’ve still gotta manage all this and they still find that same value in [00:09:00] Green Badger.
James Lawler: So you, you alluded to the value of a LEED certification or a LEED rating, commercial value. How is that value expressed in the market?
Tommy Linstroth: There’s a number of ways, and so it depends where you are sort of in the market chain. So there’s a lot of, you know, sometimes it’s just a requirement. So if you’re building in the city of Boston, they have a requirement that anything you construct must be LEED certified or equivalent.
James Lawler: That’s just the basic level, right?
Tommy Linstroth: Uh, I think it’s LEED silver, I think it’s LEED silver there, but either way, they’re basically saying, look, you’ve got to go above and beyond building code if you wanna play ball. If you wanna be in this city doing business, building buildings, you’ve gotta do this.
So you’ve, you see in some places it’s just a market driver, others, it’s the value proposition and it falls into a number of 50 areas. One is if you’re occupying the building or managing it, you, you will have lower utility rates, right? You’re, you’re building this to be an energy efficient building, a water efficient building that should translate into lower operating costs.
Two, if you’re leasing that space [00:10:00] out, it just becomes more attractive. So you don’t have vacancy as long.
James Lawler: A marketing tool.
Tommy Linstroth: Exactly. I mean, if you’re trying to, I mean, frankly, there’s plenty of people and they don’t care about the sustainability of it, and they wanna use it for marketing. From my perspective, it’s still a green building. Go for it. I don’t care why you’re doing it, just do it because it’s better than the alternative. And if you’re a leasing space, do you wanna go in, again, a low performing unhealthy space, or do you wanna go into a green space?
James Lawler: If you were to characterize the, the building industry as a whole and kind of indicate, you know, what percentage of developers are really leaning into green building practices and lead certification versus folks who just don’t see the value in that or, you know. How would you characterize the overall market right now?
Tommy Linstroth: Sure. It’s grown to be about by dollar value of like the total construction market in the US to about 40%. So it’s, which is up from 20 in the 90, uh, in the 2000s it got up to, [00:11:00] you know, about 30% in the 2010s, and now it’s close to 40%.
So you’ve seen it almost double in the last 20 years. So there’s still a ways to go. You still have 60% of the projects that are, you know, pull ’em out of a set of plans and they’re code compliant, which is, you know, not great, but it, it has made significant headway.
James Lawler: Do you happen to know, or is there, is there any published information on, let’s say two buildings?
Like the, the use parameters of these buildings are EQ are equivalent and let’s say the footprint, you know, physical footprint, square footage is roughly equivalent, where they are in the, in the world is the same. So sort of all else being equal, one is LEED certified, the other is just code compliant.
Do you have a sense of the delta in cost? What it costs generally all else being equal to make a project LEED certified versus not?
Tommy Linstroth: Sure. So there’s plenty of stats on that. I think if somebody said, give me a, a total, [00:12:00] gimme a number, it’s like less than 1%. And that’s, you know, again, there’s, if you’re doing a platinum building, is it more? Probably, because you’re putting renewables, you’re doing things.
To me it comes back to tradeoffs, right? When I built my house, it was lead platinum certified. At the time it was built for, you know, 130 bucks a square foot, which was pretty inexpensive for the market. And it’s, okay, well where do we, where do we trade off? And it was well, We used really, you know, cost effective exterior finishes on the backs and sides where no one saw them.
I didn’t have to put brick and hardwood, you know, all over the place. It’s like, we’re gonna really save money here and we’re gonna spend it on things that matter to me, like a tight building envelope and a super efficient HVAC. So, you know, if you just took a code compliant building and said, how do I slap LEED on it?
Yeah, there’s gonna be a cost because you’re talking about doing the absolute bare minimum of a, a building. But it’s not like you’re saying, hey, if I’m driving a, you know, a Toyota, a Prius and I want to drive a, you know a Tesla, those are two different things. You’re not comparing [00:13:00] apples to apples.
James Lawler: Right. That makes sense. Where could sort of specific changes be made to most rapidly accelerate, you know, low carbon, green building development?
Tommy Linstroth: Sure. So, um, that could go a number of ways. I’ll use one example. And again, I think it, the, the jury’s still out on the reductions it’s causing, but if you take New York City, they passed a law a couple years ago that requires every building, every building in the city to measure and disclose their carbon emissions from the building. And if it’s over, whatever they said is their baseline. You’re paying, you have to pay.
James Lawler: That’s local law 97, I believe, right?
Tommy Linstroth: There you go. Local law 97. So what did that do? That forced every single building in the entire city of New York to audit their emissions. And then they’ve gotta make that decision. Is it cheaper for me to pay the fine, or is it cheaper for me to decarbonize my building?
And our sense is that it becomes cheaper pretty quick to start decarbonizing your building. So call it a heavy handed [00:14:00] policy approach, but if you wanna start getting everyone playing ball awfully quick, they were able to do that in a very, you know, that didn’t take 50 years of negotiation that came together and is gonna be impacting the buildings and reducing the carbon for an entire, uh, the entire city, the largest city in the country for, for a very long time.
James Lawler: Green Badger handles specific construction projects, individual homes, buildings, or complexes. But I mentioned earlier that entire cities can earn a LEED certification. There are more than 125 cities in the United States that are lead certified and more still in other countries, Chicago, Las Vegas, Dubai, and Surat, India are all LEED certified.
But what exactly does that mean for a municipality, neighborhoods, skyscrapers, parks, road, sewers, and all to be officially green by any metric? And what are the reasons that cities might want to pursue LEED certifications in the first place? I had a chance to discuss all this with Hilari Varnadore:, who’s [00:15:00] Vice President for cities at the US Green Building Council.
She helps manage the LEED for Cities and Communities program for which USGBC partnered with a number of organizations, including the National League of Cities and the Center for American Progress. Hilari said their first step was simply to figure out what they meant by sustainability.
Hilari Varnadore: There truly was a time when we were sitting around a table saying, what is sustainability? What do we mean by that? Right? How do we measure it? What’s included, what’s not included? But that is absolutely where we were in 2008, 2009, when this program was beginning.
James Lawler: So the body of these, you know, diverse perspectives came together and kind of formed a definition of what sustainable cities means. So what does it mean?
Hilari Varnadore: So our rating system has a variety of categories. They’re touching on things like natural systems, water, waste, we call it materials and resources. [00:16:00] There’s a transportation and land use category. There’s an energy and emissions category. There’s quality of life where we touch on education, the economy. All the social equity issues, health and safety are in there.
And then we have a couple of other like special categories that aren’t so focused on content areas, but we have an integrative process category, which is about getting your team organized. So that’s this big scorecard of topics. But we also weave equity throughout the rating system.
We do a number of things, like we don’t just ask how, how much acreage of green space do you have? But we wanna know do people have equitable access to the green space?
James Lawler: Right. And how long does it take from a, a city approaching US Green Building Council with, with the desire to become LEED City certified to actually either obtaining the certification or not obtaining the certification.
Hilari Varnadore: Everybody that’s started has been able to certify. We haven’t had to turn anyone away yet, [00:17:00] which is good. But in terms of timeline, there’s certainly places that have been done in around six to nine months, but some places get a little off track. Particularly if, you know the federal government comes up with this amazing legislation with grants and funding, and your mayor asks you to start working on that at the same time.
James Lawler: Yeah, that makes sense.
Hilari Varnadore: So that’s happening right now. You know, there’s the capacity of local governments to get this work done is certainly impacted by all the other things, all the attention, you know, when they have to shift attention to other things. So it’s a busy time right now in the US market, at least, with all of the federal money.
James Lawler: I’m sure. When I think of sustainability, I think about like, recycling and I think about emissions, I think about green energy, which I understand are factors within LEED, but not, but it’s much bigger than that ultimately. So I guess, what are the more highly weighted components of the [00:18:00] system?
Hilari Varnadore: So there’s a document, the foundations of LEED that establishes that criteria and LEED’s impact categories specifically.
But currently the energy and emissions category is the highest rated, you know, in terms of point value in the rating system. And that goes back to the impact categories and the foundations of LEED, you know, that we’re all a part of.
James Lawler: Right. Makes sense. So from, from what you’ve described, I guess I’ve gotten- I’m thinking about what is the value to cities to obtaining a certification, and I think you’ve described a couple of points of value.
Number one, the certification framework kind of gives the city a management framework. Like it’s like, you know, these are the points that are important in this framework, so let’s adopt them as sort of goals for our city.
Hilari Varnadore: Exactly.
James Lawler: And so that makes a lot of sense. So what are some of the other reasons that becoming LEED certified as a city is valuable for the city? Why should they spend the resources? If you’re pitching it, [00:19:00] why should a city that with all these other priorities, things they need to do, why should they go through the trouble of becoming LEED certified?
Hilari Varnadore: It’s a good question. And we work with everybody, anybody and everybody. So very small places, very large cities, counties as well. So they’re obviously coming at it for different reasons, right? Just based on where they are and you know, how long they’ve been doing this work. So just a couple examples to make sense of that.
So like Santa Monica, California, they’ve been, they’ve been really reporting on sustainability data metrics 25, 30 years, right? They didn’t need us to tell them today, at least what, what sustainability is. However, you know, it’s really important for them to show that like all the actions that they’ve been taking, all, all the investment that they’ve made, that it truly is getting them to sustainable outcomes.
They’re getting the community conditions, you know, that they were aiming to, to meet. But then for the place that’s really just getting [00:20:00] started, many cities that we’ve worked with, um, Tampa was a great example. They’d hired a chief resilience officer, the guy, Whit Remer, like first day on the job, he shows up and there’s this thing on his desk, it says, you’re gonna get us certified in LEED for Cities.
And he’s like, okay. In his case, you know, it was a great opportunity to, as a new CRO, meet all of the people across, not just the city government, but all the other entities that are tied into these categories.
James Lawler: But for something like that, for the Tampa example, why did his boss, whoever put that document on his desk, why did that person want Tampa to be LEED certified?
Hilari Varnadore: So in the case of Florida, we do have, um, quite the activity going in the state of Florida. You know, climate change is at everyone’s front door, but you know, it’s very obvious the work that they need to be doing at the local level. And so there were some large counties that [00:21:00] have been working on this stuff with us.
Places that really got going early and then they supported the municipalities within their boundaries. So, you know, the, the competition and the, hey, you know, everybody’s doing it, you know, that’s really spread across Florida and has come up the, up the coast.
James Lawler: So what you’re describing is, is just basically like social pressure and sort of a status.
Hilari Varnadore: Yeah, yeah.
James Lawler: You know, a symbol that it’s come to represent.
Hilari Varnadore: And not just that too, I mean, I think there’s a recognition that accreditation is important in this space. Right? That like we do third party verification. And so this isn’t just self-reported, it’s not disclosure. I mean, they’re actually-
James Lawler: I was gonna ask you about that.
Hilari Varnadore: Yeah. They’re specifically achieving rigorous standards and rigorous thresholds that are then vetted and reviewed by a third party verification team. So this is, you know, much like a public health department gets accredited, you know, we’re [00:22:00] accrediting their sustainability program.
James Lawler: Right.
Hilari Varnadore: And so that is, um, that’s a, that’s a level of sophistication that certainly like the city county manager or the mayor’s office, you know, they’re looking for right.
James Lawler: Right.
Hilari Varnadore: Besides just an accolade, it’s a, it’s a true, like, like this is an accomplishment and it’s something that we can, like, work off of and, and improve over time.
James Lawler: So, so essentially it really is, it, it’s something that. As LEED for Cities becomes more widely known, there’s also sort of a bottom up effect, where people are demanding that of their cities-
Hilari Varnadore: Yeah, yeah.
James Lawler: And that’s where there’s interest in doing this. Very interesting. So you mentioned a moment ago that the data is verified, that it’s, and I would imagine that that could get kind of expensive for a city if you’re, you know, you’re reviewing all of this data and you have to presumably hire auditors of some sort to review and audit all this, or how does that piece work?
Hilari Varnadore: Well, so we, I mean, we have a certification review team. The [00:23:00] review team, you know, reviews all the applications. Everybody gets an initial or like a preliminary review, they get a report back that’s like, you’re good to go here. These are areas you need to fix. And then they get final review. But, so it’s on our side, right?
It’s on our side. On there’s they need a person at the city to like physically go get the data and then report it. And that is, that is the time consuming part of this, right?
James Lawler: Yeah.
Hilari Varnadore: Some of this is, you know, it’s just a matter of like getting it on paper. And you know, if you’re- I was talking about a chief resilience officer earlier. You can imagine that that individual has a lot going on and so to really like sit and focus and write out the narratives and get the data reports done, it can be tough.
James Lawler: Yeah, I can imagine that. That makes sense. What have you seen as some of the most encouraging or exciting, you know, sort of fulfilling even, consequences of this LEED for Cities [00:24:00] system?
You know, like, is it- does it cause any, does it sort of, have you noticed change in cities as a result of this process, and what, what can that look like? Any specific examples that come to mind?
Hilari Varnadore: Yeah. Oh my gosh, there’s like millions. Just a huge one was Las Vegas a couple of years ago, got certified and Marco Velotta is a planner for the city and he was managing LEED for city certification alongside the Las Vegas 2050 master plan process. No small job there.
Well, he was able to advance the 2050 master plan completely consistent with LEED for City. So that as they’re working on plan implementation, they’re also advancing these broader outcomes, these sustainability and resilience outcomes from LEED for City, so that they can be improving their certification as they’re making just improvements on the ground all across Las Vegas.
James Lawler: Cool. So last question for you. I’m a [00:25:00] mayor, let’s say. I’ve never heard of Lead for Cities and- I have no idea if this actually happens- and maybe it doesn’t, but let’s say that I’m a sort of a skeptical mayor and I say, well, my residents only care about jobs and crime or something. You know?
Hilari Varnadore: Yeah.
James Lawler: My hands are full.
Hilari Varnadore: Yeah. Okay. Well, if they want jobs, I would say, well, Denver got Panasonic thanks to LEED for Cities. And Arlington and Washington, DC they sure did use LEED for Cities in their bid for Amazon. And where did it go? So branding your city as a sustainable city, a place that has high quality of life, that values, like you said, this is just a good city, right?
Well, do we want this to be a good city? Um, and not just a good city for some people, but for everybody, right? We need to really uncover those areas that have had disinvestment or haven’t had the same level of service or assets.
James Lawler: Is there any, have you guys studied at all the connection between economic [00:26:00] growth or job growth or any of these sort of basic indicators and LEED certification?
Hilari Varnadore: That’s a great question. We do have a brand new innovation and research team that’s expanding here and our organization to really do that. And we’re actually this year really intentionally starting to pull more of the stories, um, the threads across all of the cities and counties that we work with together because we, you know, we have more than 125 places that are certified, many of which have re-certified over the years as we evolve the rating system.
We’re working with about 200 across the world. They have a lot to offer each other and then to inquire others to come along. I mean, I know LEED for Cities it, it does take time. You have to have somebody to like physically go through it.
I’ve been working on this program for a long time now, and I haven’t figured out like a way to just like snap your fingers and you have the results. Like, but the work, the work [00:27:00] is what’s transformative. Like it is the process that brings people together, that gets them talking, helps you institutionalize sustainability in your, in your city or in your county.
James Lawler: Yeah. Hilari, thanks again for talking to me about LEED for Cities. This was really interesting.
Hilari Varnadore: Yeah, thank you so much. It’s really great talking with you.
James Lawler: That’s it for this episode of the Climate Now Podcast. To learn more about green infrastructure and urban policy, check out our other podcast conversations at climatenow.com. And if you’d like to get in touch with us, please email us at contactclimatenow.com or tweet us @weareclimatenow. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation.
Climate Now is made possible, in part, by our science partners at the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the Foundation’s climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.