By Grey Lee

One item that synergizes perfectly with LEED is the International Standards Organizations (ISO) environmental standards.  And yet, I find that many in the building trades have an imperfect or incomplete understanding of these tools.


The ISO membership is comprised of 160 national standards institutes and its standards provide practical tools for all three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, environmental, and societal.  These standards provide an internationally developed and recognized framework to ensure quality, ecology, safety, economy, reliability, compatibility, interoperability, conformity, efficiency, and effectiveness.  These traits facilitate trade and shared knowledge based best management practices.

Many of the standards, particularly those in the 14,000 families of environmental management standards, harmonize with many aspects of LEED.  While LEED focuses upon the built environment, ISO focuses more on the organizations operations and management, thus it meshes quite nicely with LEED-EBOM.  These standards can build off each other and the strengths of each can complement the other to build a more sustainable whole.  With a small amount of planning and foresight, a company can occupy a LEED-certified building and earn ISO certification without duplicating effort.  If they currently hold one certification, the other is more easily attained.

Why would an organization seek ISO certification?

Just as there are a myriad of justifications for seeking LEED certification, there are a host of reasons for pursuing ISO certification.  These include improved efficiency and effectiveness, contractual or regulatory compliance, customer or public preference, risk management, sales prospects and market access, cost savings/waste reduction, and environmental stewardship.

It should be noted that while the ISO develops the International Standards, it is not a certification body.  Certification is performed by third party auditors. These “certification bodies” review the written documentation and audit the facility.  The documentation can include employee standards, training records, approved standard operating procedures, plans for non-conforming events, quality verification, calibrations and test methods, document control procedures, and audits.  The purpose of this documentation is to ensure that the desired procedures are followed in a prescribed manner and that the Plan–Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle is driving continual improvement.

ISO 14001 standard is unique in that one can opt for the traditional third party audit and certification or one can independently self-certify. The ability to self-certify opens the standard up to many smaller organizations that may be daunted by the costs of a third party audit. 

ISO 14001 – Environmental Management Systems.


This standard is the bedrock of the entire environmental series. It establishes the requirements for an Environmental Management System (EMS).  An EMS is a standardized plan that defines the environmental impacts of an organizations' activity and seeks to minimize those impacts that are within its control.  The system that quantifies and then minimizes these impacts follows the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.  This involves deciding upon a plan of action, implementing the plan, checking that the plan is in effect and correcting any shortfalls, and reviewing the results and improving the system.  Determining the impacts and designing the plans can be a daunting task; however, the ISO has many published documents to assist in the task.

If a company is certified to ISO 9001 standards, it is much easier to obtain ISO 14001.  ISO 9001 establishes Quality Management Systems.   A company that has a Quality Management System in place will have much of the framework required for an EMS.  They will have records on raw materials and products used, a system for dealing with problems or incidents, internal and external audit procedures, and employee and management training.

Other standards within (and without) the 14000 family that can help

Many other standards within the ISO 14000 family of standards can be integrated into an EMS and can assist in the development of a comprehensive Environmental Management System.

ISO14004 provides additional guidance and useful explanations.  ISO 14031 helps an organization evaluate its environmental performance and can assist with selection of suitable performance indicators.  This is useful for accurate and truthful reporting on environmental performance.  ISO 14020 addresses a range of environmental labels and declarations such as eco-labels, self declared claims, seals of approval, and quantified environmental information about products and services.   ISO 14040 provide guidelines on the principles and conduct for the Life Cycle Assessment of products and services.  ISO 14064 provides a set transparent and verifiable requirements for Greenhouse Gas accounting and verification.  ISO 14063 can assist with environmental communication to outside parties. 

Several standards are still in development. These include standards for eco-efficiency assessment (ISO 14045), material flow cost accounting (ISO 14051), carbon footprints (ISO 14067 & 14069), phased EMS implementation (ISO 14005), and quantitative environmental information (ISO 14033).

There are several standards outside of the “environmental” 14000 series that can help. The 19011 is the auditing standard and it is useful for both Quality and Environmental audits.  ISO 50001 is the Energy Management System standard. While an Environmental Management System will contain sections that address energy usage, an Energy Management System under ISO 50001 requires energy performance monitoring and actual energy performance improvements.  It is akin to ongoing building commissioning, but for all the processes that occur within an organization.

Data driven standards for continual improvement.

The interactions between these two great consensus-driven international standards, LEED and ISO, can ensure the long-term sustainability of an enterprise. A LEED-certified building, especially if it then earns LEED-EBOM, will position the physical plant for an ongoing benefit. EBOM will ensure that the gains realized by the integrated design and thoughtful planning are not squandered and that the improvements are maintained. ISO standards can help the activities that occur within those buildings meet their environmental goals.  Building Designers and Facilities Mangers can work shoulder-to-shoulder to ensure not only a sustainable building at occupancy, but also throughout its life and throughout the course of the activities the building supports.  These distinct environmental benefits will yield tangible economic benefits and sustain the triple bottom line. 

Kevin Dufour is an Environmental Scientist with Viridis Advisors. He collaborates with Tom Irwin on creating greener greenscapes. The opinions expressed by member bloggers are their own and not necessarily those of the USGBC Massachusetts Chapter.

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