Is LEED No Longer in the Lead?

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Is that what they will be saying about the LEED standard for green buildings, a few years from now? Was it perhaps a bit ahead of its time when it was first developed back in 1998? Has our collective understanding of what it takes to make a building truly sustainable evolved over the past few years to the point where a different standard is needed?

As more and more people are moving into the green space, new requirements are emerging. Questions are being raised that a LEED certification doesn’t necessarily answer.

For example, while LEED provides a number of guidelines that point architects and builders in the direction of a more energy efficient building, it neither measures nor predicts the actual energy use or cost. This is a concern for regulators, such as those in New York City who have expressed doubts over the standard’s accuracy in predicting the sustainable performance of a building once it has been completed. Others complain that the USGBC’s selection energy conservation strategies is imperfect, omitting legitimate approaches and materials while including others that have issues.

The situation came to a head in October when a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of mechanical designer Henry Gifford who charges that the standard fraudulently misleads consumers and fraudulently misrepresents the energy performance of buildings certified under its rating systems. He further charges that LEED is harming the environment by leading consumers away from using proven energy-saving strategies and that LEED buildings are actually less efficient than average. A subsequent study by National Research Council Canada did not support his allegations.

Most critics are not quite so strident and generally agree that LEED has raised awareness. But without quantitative data, the standard lacks both credibility and the ability to persuade building owners to spend the extra dollars often required upfront.

According to Anthony Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings, a joint owner of the Empire State Building “More people want to see quantitative data that show they are saving money.”

Malkin recently completed a $50 million energy renovation of the famous building, but claims that they did it for the savings, not the certification. The efforts of the team, which included Rocky Mountain Institute and Johnson Controls, were recognized by the Sustainable Business Industry Council, another advocate of the whole building approach to sustainable facilities.

Other organizations, including the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Greenprint Foundation are in the process of developing quantitative metrics for building efficiency. Greenprint developed their first carbon-footprint index last year, which tracked the performance of 600 buildings. ASHRAE introduced a Building Energy Modeling Professional certification program last year aimed at improving the accuracy of building energy models. They also just released a User Manual to help professionals in the implementation of the ASHRAE 189.1 Standard for the Design of High-Performance, Green Buildings. This “green standard” was developed jointly by ASHRAE, the USGBC, and the Illuminating Engineering Society.

This multiplicity of standards for high-rise buildings is becoming a bit of a Tower of Babel itself. Eventually the field will narrow. Keep in mind that while ASHRAE and Greenprint are specifically focused on energy conservation; others, like LEED and SBIC are trying to gauge the broader sustainability impact of a given structure.

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

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. He is also active in his community of Rochester, NY. A regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine, RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner to the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com