Before delving into the issues associated with USBGC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building system, a disclaimer might be warranted. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who opposes the idea that buildings should be more efficient, have less environmental impact and be better for society. Though LEED has the potential to achieve these goals, there are still issues that prevent the system from being more than a de facto standard. Users of the LEED program have complained about confusing documentation requirements, underestimated costs and a lack of hard science backing the consensus driven process. It is important to note, however, that the LEED system is evolving and updates in LEED version 3.0 reflect some of concerns expressed by critics, like a greater emphasis on energy and water, as well as ongoing reporting requirements, but problems still persist.
For some, the promise of LEED is unfulfilled. Last year at a conference, I met two folks who had been charged with getting their office building LEED certified. Upon completion, when the building went operational, they were disappointed to learn it wasn’t performing as expected. In fact, it was performing below standards! After months of analysis, they were still fighting a losing battle and spending more time and money trying to fix the situation. Though this is not the norm, it is not an unusual case either. Overestimated energy savings and underestimated costs are not atypical. The LEED discussion sheds light on competing ideas, an architect’s green vision and an owner’s desire for efficiency.
One of the fundamental challenges with LEED stems from a case of semantics, specifically what is “green” and what is “smart”. At issue here is that green buildings aren’t always “smart”. By definition (there are many), a green building is meant to “significantly reduce the impact on Earth’s resources compared to a conventional building and be healthier, more comfortable, thereby enhancing productivity.” Whereas a smart building, by definition (again there are many), “is one that uses technology and processes to create a building that is safer and more productive for its occupants and more operationally efficient for its owners.” Traditional green building focuses on materials like renewable flooring, green roofs and recycled glass, which are important, but technology is also essential for optimization of building systems. Paul Ehrlich of the Building Intelligence Group comments, “The sad truth is that many green buildings today are neither highly efficient, nor particularly intelligent, and this is a missed opportunity.” Instances where buildings are green and smart, or “bright green”, as coined by the Continental Automated Buildings Association, is where LEED can represent true success. This synergy is not yet the norm.
The LEED program has encountered other criticism regarding its lack of emphasis on region specific environmental concerns. Buildings in Florida, for instance, should be given different consideration than buildings in northern Michigan. Architects need to work with other stakeholders and experts to discuss what is best for a building with respect to its surrounding climate and environmental concerns. Each region of the country has distinct environmental challenges as well as differing renewable resources. Drought warnings and water rationing in the southeast and southwest should create a stronger emphasis on water conservation and reclamation. Building in areas where viable renewable energy sources exist should be strongly encouraged to harness this energy. Still many simply follow the standard checklist without such considerations.
Another criticism related to the LEED program relates to the decision by organizations to mandate LEED. According to the USGBC, 43 states, 190 localities and 12 federal agencies or departments have policies or initiatives that include LEED certification. Though LEED’s one-size-fits-all approach makes a good business case for some, the standards were not designed to be mandates. As an example, the City of Charlotte, North Carolina is currently debating the implementation of a new sustainable building policy for municipal facilities and city officials disagree about whether to require LEED certification. In a recent article from the Mecklenberg Times, opponents to the mandate discuss the LEED system and why it does not address all the issues Charlotte’s officials are concerned about. Things like preserving land and trees, conserving clean water resources, reducing energy use and maximizing transportation alternatives. Council member Warren Cooksey doesn’t want to avoid LEED, but wants buildings to be more energy efficient and not just chase a point system. He states “The quickest way to fail to be a leader is to adopt someone else’s standard and follow it blindly.”
The LEED program was introduced as a voluntary program, which empowers individuals to assess the standards and then choose, when, how and whether to employ them. LEED mandates are likely to raise the costs of housing for consumers and increase the tax burdens of citizens in cities and towns requiring LEED for public projects. An easy counterpoint to this argument is that without government pressure, the standards would not be used. In any case, green buildings that include the use of innovative technologies are key to sustainability. LEED building certification is not always necessary to achieve an energy efficient, environmentally sensitive building that meets the needs of the region, its occupants and its owners. Employing an integrated building approach and establishing a comprehensive building team can make green building dreams a reality. Fortunately the interest in green building exists and is increasing. For that, we can wholeheartedly thank USGBC and the LEED green building program.