LEED User Groups share challenges, opportunities, and best practices in sustainability.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

The Mars Petcare Innovation Center in Thompson Station, Tennessee, is a LEED Gold facility. Photo courtesy Mars, Incorporated

Good news or bad news first? Actually, it doesn’t matter. “The good news is, green building has become huge,” says Rhiannon Jacobsen, vice president of strategic relationships at U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “The bad news is … green building has become huge.”


The green building boom is obviously good for the planet, but it has also created challenges, as organizations across a number of different industries struggle to apply sustainability principles to their own distinctive sets of needs.”


That’s where LEED User Groups come in. The groups—USGBC-hosted peer collaboratives where stakeholders from organizations within a single industry can share challenges, opportunities, and best practices around green building—are driving greater adoption of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system and spurring new thinking about sector-specific innovations.


“If you’re designing a green industrial manufacturing plant, it is not the same as an office space,” says Jacobsen, who oversees the user group program for USGBC. “It is not the same as a retail space, it is not the same as a hotel. We needed to meet organizations where they were, and they needed to meet each other where they were. They’re able to talk to their peers and collaborate directly with USGBC and [Green Business Certification, Inc.], and we’re able to build out a leadership bench within various markets.”


The LEED User Groups started in 2012 with the Industrial Facilities group. Based on that group’s success, the program has expanded to include half a dozen industries. The User Groups meet via conference call each month, and get together in person once or twice each year. Participants say the groups help them form new bonds within their industry, solve nagging problems, and amplify their voice.


“These are companies that are excited to be getting on the phone and talking with us, sometimes twice a month,” says Stephanie Mitchell, strategic relationships specialist at USGBC. “They’re excited to meet in person. They’re excited to participate in Greenbuild and participate in sessions that are directed to individuals in their sectors. It’s a different level of engagement.”


Intel has 12.5 million square feet of LEED-certified space globally, and is constantly striving to improve the performance of its facilities. Photos: Fawn DeViney

Intel has 12.5 million square feet of LEED-certified space globally, and is constantly striving to improve the performance of its facilities. Photos: Fawn DeViney


Around a decade ago, when Intel was first exploring ways to get its manufacturing facilities LEED certified, Taimur Burki says he had “no idea” what he was doing in regard to LEED: “I had taken some classes and read through the rating systems but the reality of trying to certify a semiconductor manufacturing campus, there was a huge learning curve.”


“It was much different than solely the normal focus of environmental engineering and compliance of focusing on air emissions, waste reduction and recycling, and water conservation and permitting, there was this huge section on energy and air flows which was not my background and I had to learn so much it was extremely humbling,” says Burki, now the global green building program manager for Intel.


At the same time, when project administrators came back to Burki with questions, he realized there were things they didn’t know, as well. Namely, Burki thought they seemed unaccustomed to working with industrial facilities. For example, Intel’s water conservation concerns centered mostly on things like wastewater reclamation and reuse, but LEED standards at the time were more focused on the efficiency of faucets and toilets.


“It was an ‘a-ha’ moment,” Burki says. “I realized they hadn’t dealt with semiconductor campuses that much.”


Taimur Burki of Intel, has long prioritized sustainability in its facilities.

Taimur Burki of Intel, has long prioritized sustainability in its facilities.

The experience gave Burki an idea. Perhaps the best way to learn about green practices for industrial facilities, he realized, was to talk to other organizations that built and operated similar buildings. At the 2011 Greenbuild conference in Toronto, Intel organized a dinner with around a dozen other organizations, hoping to kick off those conversations.


Now formalized as the LEED User Group: Industrial Facilities, the collective has been talking, learning, and sharing ever since. “The idea was, let’s share information and get better together,” Burki says. “One of the hardest things is getting hold of real data, real case studies, and being able to ask somebody, ‘Did that work as intended?’ We tend to know what we know, and we know how to do it well. But there’s all sorts of great information and new technology that other people try. If we all get together and share information, we can all get better together. That was the idea.”


Sector-Specific Sharing

Jefferson Thomas, director of Architecture and Technical Services for Virgin Hotels, says that participating in the LEED User Group: Hospitality and Venues is like having a “mini Greenbuild” every month, tailored specifically for the company’s industry.


Jacquelynn Henke of TD Bank North.

Jacquelynn Henke of TD Bank.

“The USGBC staff members are out there to help you. They’re not trying to make it hard. Having direct contacts within USGBC that I feel I can call, and if they don’t know the answer, they can connect me to the right person. That’s invaluable,” says Thomas.


Thomas says he was also intrigued by a recent presentation on parking garage design. While attached parking is a necessity for most hotels being built today, Thomas says, those facilities may become obsolete long before the end of the useful life of a new hotel, depending how quickly car-sharing services and automation replace traditional car ownership. For this reason, some hotel chains are designing parking garages to eventually be adapted for other uses, or to serve many functions.


“If it’s incorporated into the hotel structure, you can’t demolish it, so you’d better put in the planning now,” says Thomas. “After that presentation, I’m changing our design standards. That’s the type of thing that a single corporation might not be thinking about, but the User Group opens you to new perspectives that would not typically come to mind.”


Collaborating with Competitors

One of the reasons that User Groups are unique is because organizations within a single sector typically see each other as competitors, and are reluctant to share insights with one another for fear of giving up a competitive advantage. But those walls begin to crumble when the conversation turns to sustainability, says Jacquelynn Henke, sustainability and innovation director for TD Bank, which participates in the LEED User Group: Retail and Restaurant.


“If we really all are working toward slowing climate change, why would I want to keep that a secret?” says Henke. “If I can share my lessons so someone else can scale their impact faster, that’s fabulous. We’re all working to reduce our environmental impact. If I can learn from you, and you can learn from me, that’s even better. I definitely feel a collaborative spirit.”


Sara Neff of Kilroy Realty.

Sara Neff of Kilroy Realty.

Thomas says that User Groups create a “common ground” for otherwise competitive companies. “When you have that common denominator,” he says, “it’s actually quite beneficial for us to learn from each other, rather than compete with each other.”


“When we did a kickoff event at Intel, our CEO came down to talk to us,” Burki recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t consider green technology to be intellectual property. We should all share and get better.’ I think all of us have that philosophy.”


“If you were going to ask us, ‘How do you make your products?’, no one’s going to give you that information,” Burki adds. “But if you say, ‘Have you tried off-grid solar light poles in your parking lots?’, we’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ve tried them out, and it’s been great!’”


Solving Specific Problems

“Peer-to-peer learning is the only way the industry really moves forward,” says Sara Neff, senior vice president of sustainability for Kilroy Realty, a commercial real estate firm based in Los Angeles. “You have to be interacting with other people in the trenches who have figured out how to make things work.”


Even some of the answers gleaned from the User Groups that seem small can be incredibly valuable, because they allow companies to get things right the first time. For example, in the LEED User Group: Commercial Real Estate, of which Kilroy Realty is a member, participants picked each other’s brains about whether air quality testing should be outsourced or done by in-house engineers.


“Calibrating the air quality testing equipment can be tricky, it’s actually quite difficult, and if it’s not calibrated correctly, the data is meaningless,” Neff explains. “It’s better to spend the extra money [outsourcing] and not eat up all of your goodwill with your engineers by making them waste valuable time on tests that aren’t valid.”


“Unfortunately, because we are so spread out across the country, we don’t see each other all that often [outside of User Groups],” Neff adds. “Yes, we could call each other up and ask these questions, but it’s hard to do with our busy schedules. The User Groups are just one more opportunity to do that kind of sharing.”

The Mars Windmill Farm in Mesquite Creek, Texas, generates 100 percent of the electricity needs of Mars’ U.S. operations.
The energy produced at the wind farm is equivalent to making 13 billion Snickers Bars. Photo courtesy of Mars, Incorporated

Strength in Numbers

Erin Hatcher, vice president of sustainability for AMLI Residential, which participates in the newest of the collectives—LEED User Group: Multi-family Residential, says she hopes the group will give participants a louder voice in conversations with vendors.


“My hope is that we can share solutions while also driving the industry,” Hatcher says. “If I call a manufacturer and say, ‘This product isn’t meeting my needs,’ it’s better to have a bigger voice. It’s power in numbers, as well as the information share.”


Additionally, says Neff, User Groups give participants a chance to seek answers from sources other than vendors, who, of course, have an interest in promoting their own solutions over others. “I love vendors,” Neff says. “I could do nothing in my life without vendors. But it can be more helpful to drill down with a peer group that’s trying to solve the same problems you are.”


Ian Knight of Mars, Incorporated.

Ian Knight of Mars, Incorporated.

Forging New Connections

Green building professionals are busy. Many of them act as the only people in their organizations responsible for sustainability—or else they have a small staff to manage—and accordingly, they can be skeptical of anything that places new demands on their time.


But Henke says that the benefits of participating in User Groups are definitely worth the time and effort. “You always wonder if one more hour spent out of your week on a conference call is going to be time well spent,” Henke says. “But after the first couple [of calls], it was very clear to me that it was.”


“You’re forming a really good network within your industry peer group,” Henke adds.


“You’re hearing the perspective of people who are building at the same scale as you are, and who are facing similar construction challenges and building challenges and opportunities. It’s great to be able to connect and talk about this more in depth.”


“It’s a nice calm time when you can have a conversation,” says Neff. “At Greenbuild, I have 8,000 people I want to see, and therefore I have 8,000 45-second conversations. Which is great. But [the User Group] gives you a chance to do a deep dive, which is not something I get to do very often.”


“I’m always looking to grow my network,” says Hatcher. “I think it would be great to develop a relationship where we can pick up the phone and call each other to talk through issues or information.”


While large green building events are good networking opportunities, Hatcher says, those events are often filled with people seeking business opportunities that don’t necessarily align with an organization’s goals. “The participants in the User Group are all in it for similar reasons,” she says. “We’re all coming at [sustainability] from the same place.”


Jennifer Taranto of Structure Tone.

Jennifer Taranto of Structure Tone.

A Pipeline to USGBC

One of the benefits of User Groups that participants mention most frequently is that the groups give them a way to quickly and easily communicate with USGBC when questions arise.


Hatcher, for example, says she hopes the group will be able to work with USGBC to complete some surveys or studies on the multi-family residential sector, which she says sometimes receives less attention than others.


Ian Knight, global site sustainability manager for Mars Incorporated, says he’s been impressed with the way participating in a User Group has made USGBC feel more accessible. “My impression of USGBC has been enhanced by knowing that they have this connection with users,” says Knight. “They engage, they listen, and they respond to concerns from organizations like ours, which I think is a credit to them.”


“Industrial facilities are a particular type of project,” Knight adds. “It’s much easier to build an office and comply with LEED and certify at a high level than it is with industrial facilities. Having a group to speak on behalf of organizations that are interested in deploying LEED for factories, and to compare notes, or to push back and say, ‘This part of the code isn’t working,’ I think is helpful. It gives more credibility if you have a group that says, we have an issue here or there.”


Learning Together

User Group participants say that peer collaboration has been especially useful during the transition to LEED v4.


“It’s like starting over from scratch,” says Jennifer Taranto, director of sustainability for the global construction management and general contracting firm Structure Tone that belongs to another recently formed collective—the LEED User Group: Commercial Contractors. “There are new challenges that come with reeducating ourselves and the downstream supply chain, and trying to drive [changes] all the way down to the manufacturer.”


Taranto says the group “usurped” a recent conference call where a USGBC representative was walking participants through the construction waste management credit in the new LEED standards, which require three separate waste streams. “It was this eureka moment, where we all learned the same thing, and then we started to think through, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Taranto says. “We almost usurped what was happening on the phone call and went straight into problem-solving mode: ‘I can do this, but I can’t do that.’ ‘Do you know of manufacturers that have take-back programs?’ ‘How well do those work?’”


“At the end of the day, all of our companies have a vested interest in green buildings,” Taranto adds. “But we know that the rating systems can sometimes be a pain point for our clients, who either don’t understand them or lament the costs. We want to make that process as painless as possible. Having everybody come to the table and discuss what they have done that’s worked well, or what they wish they would have done differently, has been really helpful.”