08.16.11Melony MontEton

LEED Points for Water Efficiency – Worthwhile or Waste of Time?

LEED Certification levels

A colleague and friend of mine, Dorothy F. Borland at Hydrosystems-KDI, Inc. asks the critical question when it comes to applying for LEED certification for your property: Is it worth investing time and resources to get LEED points for water efficiency or better to focus on lower hanging fruit? Below is her POV on LEED credits for Water Efficiency and recommendations for how get them when they make sense.


If you are investing in a water efficient landscape because you want to save money on unnecessary water bills and improve overall plant health, go for it! You are sure to get the ROI you are looking for with the right people on your team to advise you. If however, you believe water efficiency for your landscape will help you achieve LEED certification, you are barking up the wrong tree. There are only 2 points that apply to water efficiency out of 69 or so total LEED points available. Only 1 of the 2 points is relevant in most areas of the country. If you are of the former group described above and are also applying for LEED, read on.

For the purpose of dispelling confusion, the two LEED Credits for Water Efficiency include:

  1. LEED Credit WE 1.1 Reduce by 50%: Limit or eliminate the use of potable water, or other natural surface or subsurface water resources available on or near the project site, for landscape irrigation
  2. LEED Credit WE 1.2 No Potable Water Use or No Irrigation: Eliminate the use of potable water, or other natural surface or subsurface water resources available on or near the project site, for landscape irrigation

Both aim to achieve 50% water-use reduction and use only captured rainwater, recycled wastewater, recycled gray water or water treated and conveyed by a public agency specifically for non-potable uses for irrigation or install landscaping that does not require permanent irrigation systems.

Below are my Top 10 tips, cautions and words of wisdom from my experience navigating the LEED process to achieve water efficiency credits.

  1. Credit 1.2? In your dreams…unless you have access to ditch, well or non-potable or reuse water for landscape irrigation, especially in Colorado and the arid West.
  2. Waterless beauty – The masses, especially in Colorado, are accustomed to a luscious plant palette. So, if you want to get Credit 1.2 and don’t have access to a non-potable water source, make sure to look at your landscape design options carefully and gain a clear understanding of a xeriscape aesthetic before you dive in and sign on the bottom line.
  3. 50% water savings means at least a 50% shift in your plant palette – Don’t expect a small percentage of low water use or xeric plants mixed in with more traditional plants  to show the needed 50% water savings to achieve a water efficiency point.
  4. Newer is better! – Depending on the manufacturer’s data, newer components are said to save about 30% of the water used by older, less efficient components. Important features that should be on your radar are pressure reducing components and in-head check valves in irrigation heads, especially small area spray heads; pressure reducing valve in drip valve assemblies; and the newer nozzles for any head, many of which can now be “matched precipitation” nozzles.
  5. Take control of your irrigation – A newer model of irrigation controller will offer features such as “cycle and soak” to reduce runoff, multiple programs for better scheduling, and the ability to base irrigation schedules on evapotranspiration (ET).  The ET data can be historic and stored in the controller or from a web based weather station or service.  This feature, if used properly, could show savings of 20-50% over controllers not adjusted monthly based on weather data.
  6. Be prepared to prove your saving strategy – To qualify, the projected water use for the proposed landscape design must be compared with a “Base Case” pretend landscape design.  The adjustment factors include microclimate, the water needs of plants, and density of plantings, as well as the type of irrigation head and its projected efficiency.  There is also an option for centralized computerized irrigation controllers, which can save 30% of the water used.  The landscape and hardscape areas of the proposed landscape (the “Design Case”) are inserted into the Water Efficiency template and the the factors adjusted to be specific for the project.  The “Base Case” landscape must show the same overall square footage, but the areas for plant categories can change, such as more turf and fewer shrub beds in the “Base Case”.  In one of the latest versions of the template, the area of hardscape cannot change between the new “Design Case” and the “Base Case.”  Personally, I think this is unfair because a well designed landscape may have a larger patio or plaza area than a less innovative design.  In that scenario, the “Design Case” offers a solution to reduce projected water use by eliminating turf and replacing it with a plaza or other hardscape. But that’s a topic for another blog post…
  7. Too tiny? Some projects are too small to qualify for the 50% water reduction.  And other projects won’t qualify because of site or project demands that will limit the ability to reduce the turf area.
  8. Evaluate early – It is always a good idea to engage a landscape architect early  in the conceptual planning and design processes if you are planning to apply for LEED credits.  This makes it possible to  evaluate what is possible and what makes the most sense upfront.
  9. Go in with clear expectations – Water efficiency can only account for a total 2 points out of 69 possible LEED Credits. Evaluate what makes sense for your site with your project design team at the onset so you can develop a sustainability strategy that is also sustainable for your bottom line.
  10. Unrelated credit from your irrigation system – Although irrigation will not get the credit, there are aspects of irrigation design that can help you qualify for  other points. For example, the copper wire used for irrigation control valves is from recycled copper and can be recycled.  Most valve boxes are now made from recycled plastic.

Having gone through the LEED approval process before, I have a few pet peeves about the evaluations and outcomes.

  • I have run into situations before where I was not given credit where credit was due. For one project, the Water Efficiency point for reducing water use was denied when turf ballfields were replaced with synthetic turf, which requires almost no water except for clean-up.   We never were told why the reviewer did not consider this as a reduction in irrigated area on the overall site.
  • Design is only the tip of the iceberg. The LEED requirements for water efficiency don’t include a follow-up on how these grand plans are actually maintained. As we all know, “whoever controls the irrigation controller, controls the water” and if the maintenance firm is not committed to or understands the design intent, the water use will likely be higher than projected and the landscape design will suffer.  And, if the features of the irrigation components, especially the controllers, are not used, the projected water savings likely will not be achieved.

Dorothy F. Borland is  Irrigation Designer/Project Manager and Turfgrass Consultant for HydroSystems-KDI, Inc in Lakewood, Colorado. HydroSystems-KDI is a full service Irrigation Design and Water Management firm in business since 1993 with a staff of 9 Irrigation Designers and Project Managers.

Melony MontEton

Melony Mont-Eton is a landscape architect with vast experience in the landscape construction industry. She enjoys working through all aspects of a project from design review to cost estimating and construction installation. A LEED Accredited Professional, Melony facilitates the successful design, development, and certification of high-performance green building projects, which requires extensive knowledge of sustainable materials and construction practices.



  1. Tuesday, 7:19 Richard Restuccia

    Melony I enjoyed your blog. I especially agree with the point about whoever controls the controller controls the water. It is so important for decision makers to contract with maintenance companies who understand water management. Contractors need to commit to learning more about smart controllers and other new water management technology and lead the change.

  2. Wednesday, 8:07 Warren Gorowitz

    Great analysis of LEED and their focus on water efficiency.

  3. Wednesday, 8:44 Alan Harris

    Wow…I love it…someone actually had the ______ to say something less than positive about the LEED process when it comes to water. I can’t wait for this blog to expand to other landscape matters so a similar post can be written about LEED and the lack of recognition for good landscape management practices. The irrigation world (hello IA) needs to step up the lobbying efforts on USGBC.

  4. Wednesday, 10:14 Warren Gorowitz

    Good comments Alan. It would be great to discuss how the irrigation community can get involved with USGBC. It’s not an easy process…

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