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LEED program trying to change the course of building design

Destiny USA (US Embassy Canada, Flickr)
An aerial shot of Destiny USA.

More and more buildings are making the push to become LEED certified, a voluntary system that rates the environmental sustainability of projects. But what is LEED and how is it used to determine how green a building is?

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program was started in 1998. Since then, it has evolved into a multi-level system that awards buildings different designations, ranging from LEED Certified up to LEED Platinum, based on a point structure. Points are awarded to building developers for everything from adding bike racks and walkable areas to using water-efficient landscaping. Most of the points include using green materials and measures to reduce pollution and energy usage, though emphasis is also placed on being close to public spaces and transportation.

Scot Horst, senior vice president of the U.S. Green Building Council, says the voluntary program covers a variety of environmental concerns.

"It's really our way of establishing the definition of what a green building is," Horst said. "We say that it's not just energy or water. It's actually energy, water, site issues, materials issues and indoor environmental quality issues, so human health issues as well."

Horst also says LEED takes a more holistic approach to building.

"What LEED does is really help people think much more caringly about what it is that they want to surround themselves by and how their values -- what they infuse into the space that they live in - how that carries on through other generations," Horst said.

Horst says about 140 countries take part in the program. Locally, one of the most well known projects is Destiny USA. The shopping complex earned LEED Gold, the second highest designation, in 2012, and is encouraging each of its stores to strive for LEED certification. The newly completed Richard S. Shineman Center on the SUNY Oswego campus is also built to LEED Gold certification, though the campus is still waiting to receive the designation.

Horst says building to LEED specifications doesn't have to be expensive, even with long-term investments like solar panels.

"You can do those things that cost more in the beginning if you want to take a life cycle approach to your budgeting," Horst said. "But you don't have to in order to build a high quality LEED building."

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, as of June 2013, nearly 18,000 commercial projects are LEED certified.