If sustainability is a three-legged stool of environmental, economic, and social performance, then LEED is a bit wobbly: historically, the rating system has not taken on community welfare with the same breadth and depth as it has climate change and resource conservation. “It’s not as if social-equity benefit was absent from LEED,” says U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) vice president of LEED Brendan Owens, citing how power-plant emissions disproportionately impact marginalized communities. “But we knew we could do more.”

To begin righting the imbalance, USGBC posited social equity as one of seven system goals for LEED v4, and formed a Social Equity Working Group to, as Owens puts it, “encourage and reward project team actions that delivered it.” Three pilot credits for LEED v4 have now been introduced. 

One credit, Social Equity in the Community, allocates a LEED point to projects that support vulnerable populations, by way of a thorough assessment process. A supply-chain pilot credit promotes sourcing materials manufactured under humane conditions. The third credit rewards teams whose members are certified for human rights and social-impact practices, or whose projects promote development of the construction workforce through apprenticeship programs, GED test preparation, and similar efforts.

“You could ultimately have a LEED rating system for social impact that’s as large and elaborate as the one created for environmental impact,” says Raphael Sperry, president of the advocacy group Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility and cochair of the subcommittee that drafted Social Equity Within the Project Team. Yet Sperry says the Social Equity Working Group wanted to keep the pilot credits to a manageable number as people test them out. “This is our first step,” he notes.

In order to make the credits easy to achieve, architects can also use existing programs for proving social responsibility. Completing parts 1 and 2 of the SEED Evaluator, or achieving Enterprise Green Communities Certification, another green building framework, qualifies
a project for a community social-equity credit, for example. “We have tried to evaluate what is out there and, where another program is equivalent to what we are trying to accomplish, we will allow teams to use it as an alternative path to credit,” says BuildingWrx principal Susan Kaplan, who cochaired the Social Equity Working Group with environmental consultant Joel Ann Todd. She adds, “We also don’t want to require project teams to fill another set of templates over and above what they are doing to incorporate social equity into their projects.”

According to Owens, the credits “will evolve based on project feedback over time.” In addition to officially adding them to LEED v4, the USGBC is open to “threading issues like social equity through LEED, making them a much more fundamental piece of the rating system, instead of calling them out as separate.”