Bob Berkebile, FAIA, principal of Kansas City, Missouri-based architecture and planning firm BNIM, has worked for decades to promote sustainable design. He is founding chairman of the of the AIA’s National Committee on the Environment (COTE) and was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and it’s LEED rating system. Berkebile also played a key role in the development of the Living Building Challenge. The BNIM-designed Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York, is one of two projects to be named the world’s first Living Buildings.


Architectural Record: Since its inception LEED has grown and changed significantly, but does it need to transform even more fundamentally to sustain the greening of the design and construction industry?

Bob Berkebile: Of course. LEED was always envisioned as a tool that would evolve. You may recall that the first LEED tool was for commercial office buildings. Period. Now there are tools for a variety of building types and a variety of scales. And there are always stakeholders working on the next refinements to the LEED system. That’s as it was always envisioned and as it must continue if the rating system is to remain viable. Without any question, LEED has been the most transformative tool in the design and construction industry in my professional career. But, it is still not a great design tool.

AR: It’s not?

BB: No, but it is a great educational tool. It enlarges the conversation among the design team, the client, and the users about the issues that should be considered in the conceptualization of a design solution. It became an even stronger educational tool when agencies like the GSA [General Services Administration] said, “This is our standard.” Many other agencies, local governments, and institutions followed suit. That changed everything. It changed the supply stream. It changed the way contractors operate. It has changed the way we design and build.

AR: What are LEED’s limitations as a design tool?

BB: Once a project team gets into analysis, it turns to the LEED checklist. And often there is a tendency to add features and components to the building in order to earn points. This is not a systems approach. Instead of encouraging the addition of features, a design tool should support solutions that are more elegant.

AR: How would you like to see LEED evolve?

BB: LEED is not nearly sensitive enough to bioclimatic conditions in different regions. Such variations should be one of the rating system’s fundamental drivers. It should also promote social equity. If you don’t already have this sensitivity, LEED is not likely to take you there. It does require commissioning, and as a result, certified buildings operate more economically and provide healthier environments than they would have otherwise. But LEED should also require that projects incorporate systems for monitoring building performance. Built-in feedback loops would create a Prius effect among occupants and owners.

AR: Do you predict that the USGBC will establish a level of certification beyond Platinum?

BB: A Platinum rating is third-party certification that your building is doing less damage to the environment than anyone else’s. It is clearly time to move beyond less damage to a regenerative model. BNIM is working with the U.S. Green Building Council on such a concept. It isn’t another certification level, but a roadmap for making better decisions supported by powerful tools.

AR: Do you have advice to other architects who want to maintain the environment as a priority in their own practices?

BB: This is the most critical and the most exciting moment in human history. The vitality of our planet is threatened and our economy is in decline. You can get depressed, or you can view the restoration of these systems as the ultimate design challenge.