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LEED-Certified “Guzzler” Draws Criticism

RP Siegel | Wednesday January 26th, 2011 | 4 Comments


When the Charlotte, NC ImaginOn opened in 2005, it was the city’s first green building. The combination library and children’s theater used a number of innovative features in its construction including compressed wheat fiberboard, recycled rubber parts and plastic bottles. The builders recycled all of the waste material and incorporated numerous energy savings elements into its design. The building, which was LEED Silver certified was projected to use 30 percent less energy than a building of the size same built using conventional materials and methods.

However a study performed in 2007 by a local engineering contractor found that the building used more than twice as much energy as predicted. This came as quite a surprise to the tenants who, like many people, had not been tracking their usage.

There has been somewhat of an outcry over LEED especially as more and more municipalities have mandated that new buildings meet the US Green Building Council’s standards.

The Charlotte experience underscores the need for tracking the performance of these buildings and not just relying on the estimates made by the designers, or, for that matter, the performance of the building when it first opens since a good deal of the savings realized depends on the behavior of the occupants, which could change over time. According to a NY Times Op-Ed, “a building’s LEED rating is more like a snapshot taken at its opening, not a promise of performance. Unless local, state and federal agencies do their part to ensure long-term compliance with the program’s ideals, it could end up putting a shiny green stamp on a generation of unsustainable buildings.” The writer goes on to suggest that there should be a way to repeal a building’s designation if owners or tenants miss their energy consumption targets.

USGBC has addressed this issue in Version 3.0 and building owners are now required to report energy data, though there is still some quibbling over whether enough detail has been required.

As anyone versed in LEED will tell you, the standard is not necessarily about energy. In fact, according to a study prepared for the USGBC in 2008, more than half of all LEED certified buildings would not qualify for the EPA’s Energy Star rating. Furthermore, one-quarter of the buildings certified demonstrated energy performance that was below the national average.

Architectural legend Frank Gehry has gone on record criticizing green architecture and sustainable design calling it “political,” and specifically criticized LEED saying that points are often given for “bogus stuff.” Later, in an interview on PBS, he backtracked, saying he’s not against LEED, that it can help encourage sustainable design, but that it’s only one standard among many.

An earlier post in this series describes a new standard being adapted in Abu Dhabi.This is an alternative standard to LEED, in another country, which as the article points out, is tailored to the specific circumstances of that region, which are in some areas significantly different from the those in the US.

Personally I think USGBC is to be commended for the tremendous job they have done in raising awareness of the need for green building and for providing guidance on what some of the best approaches are.

Sure they haven’t always been right, but their process is open to public comments which are often incorporated in future editions.

Oh, and that building in Charlotte, ImaginOn; it turns out that the designers underestimated how much use the building would get when they did their calculations. The facility receives some 450,000 visitors per year as compared to the 300,000 in the original estimate. That has meant longer operating hours and more intensive utilization of the theater space. When this new utilization is taken in account, the building actually uses 28.4% less than a comparable sized (and utilized) conventional building. And when the energy saving aspects of the building are applied to this increased usage, the owners see an annual savings of almost $79,000, just about twice the original estimate.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Valeria

    That was an interesting assessment of LEED, I like that you brought up that there is an open forum before each new version is adopted, and that it really has spurred the awareness and mandate to revamp a whole industry, no small feat, so when those of that said industry start tearing up USGBC, I wonder what the agenda is, actually from these folks, including rock star architects, (who also could have contributed to the open forum, if egos allowed)

  • Jamie

    I believe the underlining message to be true and have seen it many times. With out measurement, you have no way to comprehend your relative efficiency/productivity levels. With out a proper benchmark against a set of organizations who have a similar size, complexity and utilization, your understanding of the measurements can be incorrectly skewed. It is great to hear w/ a proper benchmark they were able to identify such a substantial annual savings relative to the investment.

    • Rob Hink

      Just wondering why you waited until the last paragraph to say the building actually was more energy efficient than similar buildings while leading the casual reader to believe that LEED was bad because the building was an energy “guzzler”. A Prius use more gas than a Hummer if you drive it 5 times as far. Maybe that could be the next article

  • g

    A good idea for tracking building energy performance is the New York City energy star program. Building owners are required to report energy use each year and they will be benchmarked and index scores will be publicly reported. Those scoring 75 or higher can apply for the energy star label, which will carry weight with current and prospective tenants