Photo Credit: Metropolis Magazine and Envision
LEED-Certified “green buildings” consume less energy, require fewer resources to build, and generate less waste than conventional buildings. Oh, and they have higher market value. And did I mention their occupants are happier, healthier, and sometimes even smarter?
That’s not some hippie propaganda. Those are all findings from well-documented studies including a (lengthy) one from the GSA—the “landlord” of most non-DoD government property.
According to Ashley Katz, Manager of Communications for the USGBC, “green buildings save 30-50% of energy, 35% of CO2 emissions, 40% of water and 70% of solid waste.”
So where is the controversy?
The LEED Green Building Rating System consists of 110 possible points. A building earns a point by incorporating specific environmental or energy efficiency criteria into a building’s design. While it becomes “LEED-Certified” at 40 points, it requires 80 points to obtain the elusive and coveted “LEED-Platinum” status.
When I had an opportunity to meet with Scot Horst, the USGBC’s Senior VP of LEED, I joked with him about everyone’s favorite LEED point laughingstock: bike racks. He knew it would come up. It always does.
It is a perennial favorite for controversy: a developer gets 1 point for installing a bike rack and locker rooms. Some criticize the credit as “too easy.” After all, redeveloping a multi-million dollar brownfield site also gets just 1 point.
Horst emphasized those were precisely the conversations LEED hopes to encourage. While giving workshops, he notes a frequent “light-bulb” moment for people who have been doing construction and development the same way for their entire lives. “The LEED Rating System gives them a new way to look at the process and a new way to think about development,” Horst explained.
When people see a bike rack they realize they could ride their bike. If the bike rack is full, that might be just the motivation nudge they needed. If the bike rack is constantly empty, people may ask why. “It gets people thinking about the larger transportation system and the need for bike-friendly infrastructure,” says Horst. People start asking questions: How am I supposed to ride my bike safely without a bike lane? How can we get more bike lanes?
This is precisely the type of visionary thinking that underlies the LEED Rating System. These conversations are important. They drive thinking, questioning, and change.
The Rating System also provides consistency. Before LEED, the world of green building was very fragmented. Developers could do anything and call it green. A building with recycled carpet but drafty windows and inefficient lighting could be “green”.
The USGBC developed its criteria by forming committees of experts and generating enormous lists of potential “green” claims. Using a consensus-based approach and integrating lifecycle analysis (LCA), the groups defined those criteria from the list that had a genuine impact on energy and the environment. They then established a minimum number of criteria for claiming a green building. This systemic approach added legitimacy and credibility to green claims.
Of course, there are ways to abuse any system, including LEED. Some developers overestimate efficiency gains, make dubious claims, or poach for the easiest points to gain certification. However, some building performance shortfalls are due to a lack of training and data availability.
“Think of the building like a car,” Horst explained, “If your car is rated for 40 mpg but you are doing jackrabbit starts, performance is going to suffer. Buildings operate the same way.”
In other words, some design elements need to consider the human element. If natural light is shining through the skylights but an office dweller turned on all the lights anyhow, the calculated efficiencies of the skylights will dwindle.
My visit to USGBC’s headquarters in DC demonstrated a simple theory from the book Nudge in practice: Whatever you want people to do, make it the default option. The lights in the building were all turned off by default. To turn them on, someone had to search for a light switch. (The natural light in every room was more than adequate for working.)
To assist the feedback process, LEED v3 included new provisions requiring all LEED-Certified buildings to report their annual energy and water use. In exchange, building owners receive a 1-page report card showing their usage rates compared to similar properties along with a carbon emissions grade from A through D showing their performance. In the process, USGBC hopes to help building owners identify potential misuse of building resources and make necessary modifications.
The new version of LEED also attempts to address geographical differences in environmental priorities. Up to 4 “Regional Priority” points can be gained by making modifications that are specific to particular zip codes.
Overall, the LEED Rating System provides a consistent, codified system that encourages everyone to think differently about building systems and to speak in a common language when referring to a “green building”.
It is also producing measurable results. For those who love statistics, check out this factsheet, provided courtesy of the USGBC. Look for another view on LEED here.