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Can My LEED Boundary Look Like an Octopus? Elizabeth Powers, LEED AP, CSBA Responds

ElizabethPowers-web A colleague working on a LEED project recently asked me if it was okay that their LEED project boundary looked like an octopus. My answer: Yes, assuming that the octopus results from following new guidance from USGBC on establishing the LEED boundary for LEED 2009 projects. If the various legs of the octopus are the result of the “discretion” often used by projects certified under previous LEED versions in establishing a boundary, your octopus is probably named Gerry – i.e. gerrymandering, which is now specifically prohibited.

Almost two years into the use of LEED 2009 ratings systems, most of our clients and project teams are still encountering the system for the first time. When discussing the LEED project boundary they often start with questions about including or excluding bits of land to benefit the project. Sorry Charlie, we can’t do that anymore. The Supplemental Guidance to the Minimum Program Requirements, Revision 1 (dated June 1, 2011)  provides comprehensive guidance for establishing a LEED project boundary under Minimum Program Requirement (MPR) #3: Must Use a Reasonable Site Boundary.

Pouring through this guidance, we discovered that there are still some situations where a project team has some discretion, but we’d recommend that decision be based on solid logic that makes the most sense for defining the project boundary, rather than which option gives the most points. Here are two examples where there are often questions about the boundaries.

The most common situation we encounter is land in the public right of way, such as sidewalks and parking strips that are built or rebuilt as part of the project. In one case, the project is voluntarily building a swale in the public right of way that will treat stormwater from other sites (not their site) and a sidewalk that, though public, is necessary to access the site.

Another situation we’ve seen on several projects is shared land for multiple buildings, such as a school campus, a retail development, or a multi-building development on a large city block. In general, we are encouraging these projects to first look at the Application Guide for Multiple Buildings and Campuses. Deciding when and how to use a “campus approach,” as it is often called, is the subject for another blog. If the team has decided to go with a single building certification, then many boundary issues come up around shared infrastructure.

Below is an approach to solving these issues following the new MPR guidance. First, pull out a site plan and three different colored markers, then follow these three steps.

Step 1: Trace all areas that directly support the building, including “hardscape, such EP-KM blog 008 as parking and sidewalks, septic treatment equipment, stormwater treatment equipment, and landscaping” as suggested in the MPR guidance, even if they aren’t owned by project owner.

In the first case above, the swale in the public right of way clearly does not support the project, but the sidewalk is a little less clear. Sidewalks are specifically called out as an example of the type of infrastructure considered to directly support a building but in this case, they are public sidewalks used by the community. Bottom line, if you can logically say a feature like a sidewalk directly supports a building, you can include it in the boundary even if owned by someone else.

For campus projects where parking and stormwater infrastructure are often shared, the first question is if they are adjacent to the rest of the project boundary. If so, then most likely you should include, at least, a portion of that infrastructure relative to what the project will use. Parking and stormwater infrastructure on campus but not adjacent to the project can be excluded but still be used to meet the parking and stormwater credits.

On a smaller campus, such as a park, that has only two or three buildings, one of which is in the process of getting LEED Certified, and where supporting land for the LEED Certified building wraps around the other buildings, you should look at the campus approach. A campus certification will make a number of credits available for all the buildings, if they choose to seek LEED certification in the future. If you can draw a boundary around the building seeking LEED certification that divides the supporting infrastructure proportionally, then you can proceed with a single certification.

Step 2: Trace the property boundary.

This is easy in the first example, but a campus like situation may not have clear parcel boundaries underlying the campus boundary. If not, just note any property boundaries near the project with your highlighter.

Step 3: Trace the likely limits of construction work.

This is usually the easiest step. Focus on where land is actually disturbed; you don’t have to include a parking lot where a construction trailer is parked, for example. All land that is disturbed for the purposes of undertaking the LEED project itself and is on your property should be included. Parts of the construction scope on non-owned property may be included but are not absolutely required.

Now look at what you’ve got. Where all three of these areas overlap, you are golden. It’s where they diverge that you focus. We usually make recommendations on which areas to include by focusing on these three phrases from the MPR guidance and creating a consistent approach.

1.  “The LEED project boundary must include all contiguous land that is associated with and supports normal building operations for the LEED project building….’. This includes land altered in any way as a result of the LEED project construction, with exceptions as detailed above, and features enjoyed primarily by the building users, such as:

  • hardscape, such as parking and sidewalks
  • septic treatment equipment
  • stormwater treatment equipment
  • landscaping

2.  “Land that the LEED project owner does not own (either leases, has an easement on, or has no claim to) may be included within the LEED project boundary if it can very clearly be shown to support building functions (this includes stormwater management strategies), or is a part of the construction scope. Otherwise, it should be excluded.” and

3. “Often, land is shared with other buildings, extends into large areas of land, or has other attributes such that it is unclear where the project boundary should be drawn. Although many of these situations are addressed in this document, there will always be unique circumstances that cannot be anticipated. In this case, it is the responsibility of the project team to determine a reasonable boundary that meets the intent of LEED and the available guidance as much possible.”

Gerry octo It is best to do this whole process without referencing a scorecard or before scoring the project to assure you are not gerrymandering, which is defined as “unreasonably excluded sections of land to create boundaries in unreasonable shapes for the sole purpose of complying with prerequisites or credits.” To come back to the question that prompted this article, yes octopuses are okay, but not if they are named Gerry.


Elizabeth Powers is Principal/Owner of O'Brien & Company, a mission-based firm in its 20th year focused on achieving sustainability in the built environment. Powers leads the green building consulting services team and is a regular contributor to the Building Capacity blog. O'Brien & Company publishes the blog as well as a monthly newsletter. For the most current edition of the newsletter, please see

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