June 17, 2021

Addressing the LEED learning curve: do you speak LEED submittal?

By Garrett Ferguson, Sustainable Building Advisor at Perkins&Will

By Garrett Ferguson
Sustainable Building Advisor at Perkins&Will

Garrett focuses on whole-scale implementation of sustainable efforts across various projects and has worked on more than 30 LEED projects across a wide variety of rating systems. He burns off his LEED energy by mountain biking and spending time with his wife and four kids.

Address the LEED learning curve of starting your first LEED project and managing the LEED submittal process

This post is an excerpt from a recent webinar hosted by Green Badger. We encourage you to view the entire on-demand webinar on Nailing Your LEED Submittals where our distinguished panel of sustainability experts including Emily Moody (Sustainability Director, Certifications & Compliance for Jacobs), Emily Purcell (Green Building Specialist for Solomon Cordwell Buenz, of Chicago), and Garrett Ferguson (Sustainable Building Advisor at Perkins&Will) offer a host of practical tips for managing the LEED submittal process. For an overview of the webinar, check out this blog post.

The LEED Learning Curve

Especially with the emergence of LEED v4, LEED has taken on its own language and has some vernacular that everyone will have to learn if they’re working on a LEED project. The learning curve of speaking the LEED language happens pretty quickly because you don’t have much of a choice. Terms like Red List Free, Declare Label, Product Specific EPD – if you’re not familiar with LEED v4 it’s really like learning another language and you need to have someone explain it to you or get the training to be able to understand.

One of the things I like to focus on first is the WHY. Why is the process so important? Why are we doing this? The reason we want to go through this process and the reason we’re interested in all of these materials and getting this product information is because we’re trying to make the world a better place. It’s because we care about the environmental impacts of these materials. It’s something that we hold deep in our core as something that’s important to us and we believe that we can make the planet a better place for future generations. It’s important to remember why we’re going through all this extra effort to track all of this information.

Sustainable Submittal Form

Having a sustainable submittal form is crucial, and every form is a little different. I’ve worked on developing my own form because at Perkins&Will we track a lot of things that aren’t just necessarily about LEED, but something that we care about tracking as well. When we have this filled out and they’re complete, these submittals can get approved so much faster. Having a submittal form up-front and combining LEED submittals with the regular submittals so that everything is combined is a key to the process. You can download Green Badger’s LEED submittal cover sheet here.

LEED Construction Kick-off

1. Finding your point person

You have to know who on the construction team is going to own the LEED submittal process from both the construction side and the design side. Who is going to be responsible? This person can range from an experienced, LEED expert with years of experience – or the most recent intern who has never done a LEED project before. Even if you specify the need for someone with LEED experience on the construction side, you might not get one. The most important thing, in this case, is to find someone on the team who is passionate about doing the work required because they are already going to have a leg up in having enough interest to learn about the process. 

2. LEED Scorecard

During the construction kick-off, you’ll need to finalize all the goals that have been set with the LEED scorecard and the targets. Typically, once you get to the construction kick-off the scorecard has already been set, it’s in the specifications, and you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Make sure that the contractor understands what each of the goals means, and have the conversation and whether the contractor thinks they can achieve them. Not every project can achieve every credit – and that’s okay! We just need to make sure we can replace it with another credit. You can massage those and work on them. Having that flexibility is key.

3. When to reject a submittal

When a submittal isn’t filled out or the documentation is missing information altogether, that is not something that should be sent to an architect or sustainability consultant for review. When this happens, the submittal should be rejected by the contractor and sent back to the subcontractor saying, “We need more information.” We know it takes some effort, but it’s something that’s required in the LEED process.

4. Verifying submittals

The first reviews are a little bumpy as you’re learning how to work with each other and the contract is learning what information is required. In this DECLARE label example, it has a lot of great information and is third-party verified, but is missing other required information like recycled content or where it’s sourced. There’s not an EPD here because that’s a separate document that would need to be included with this product submittal.

5. LEED Submittal Party!

Have the architect and the contractor get together once a week or once a month to review the submittal together so that everyone is on the same page. This is especially useful for people who have never worked on a LEED project before. 

6. LEED Learning Curve Crash Course

Sometimes we’ll get to construction kick-off and then we’ll hear, “Oh, I’ve never actually worked on a LEED project before” or “I took a class in school – does that count?” When this happens, we need to do a deep crash course and help everyone understand the language or the credits, the differences between EPDs and HPDs, which sound similar but are completely different documents with different goals. We help them understand what Material Ingredients is actually tracking and how to track them. This is one of the things that Green Badger is really helpful for – it helps you track and automate everything. I was talking to a contractor recently who said there was no one he could have understood all the LEED language if Green Badger wasn’t around to automate that for him.

One of the other things we hear often is, “Can’t I just put all of this in a folder and track it at the end when the project is over?” This is a terrible idea! If your team does this, someone will have to spend 2-3 weeks focused only on tracking down documentation. Plus, the client will want updates on LEED credit progress along the way.

Example: you’ve already paid your subcontractor, but you still need one little document from them that you can’t get from the manufacturer directly or you need to nail down exactly what product model number something was and they’ve just gone off the map entirely.

Know the credit goals and learn how to track them. LEED has provided ways to do it including the LEED calculators, and Green Badger obviously does this as well.

7. Submitting your Plans

We also need to talk about submittals, and plans specifically. The contractor has to submit an indoor air quality management plan, construction waste management plan, what the material tracking plan will look like – and don’t forget commissioning! Having plans in place means that when issues arise, we already have something established to address them. Many of these are required by LEED as a part of the documentation showing that you’ve created the plan and that you’ve implemented it. Know what’s required and what’s flexible. Some things are hard requirements if you’re going to pursue the LEED rating system, and other things are more flexible.

8. What if I missed something?

Section 01 81 13: Make sure your Spec Section 1 has really clear goals and requirements, about what the project goals are.

Flexibility: LEED v4 is still new to a lot of people – be willing to work and learn with each other

Have contingencies in place: From project schedule to project funding. When product substitutions come in, having that little bucket of money to pull from makes all the difference.

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