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 work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of 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. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

8 responses

  1. Thanks for a well-reasoned article. I agree that although LEED has raised awareness, it has become a flawed brand. Too many parties – from municipalities to marketers have seized on LEED as a “green beatification” of sorts. It’s really one of many options.

    Yes, LEED attempts to address sustainability issues beyond the energy concerns addressed by ASHRAE, EnergyStar and others. However, the fact that a 4000+ sf home in the Hamptons can become LEED certified speaks to a very narrow concept of sustainability. Could the factory that produces individually wrapped plums become LEED-certified? Absolutely. Would it be an environmentally beneficial building? Yes as an alternative to a poorly designed prune-wrapping plant, but LEED doesn’t answer the question of whether we need a prune-wrapping plant. LEED makes not attempt to answer the question, and arguably shouldn’t. However, we should be wary of the instant green mantle that a LEED certfication can bestow.
    LEED is not “garbage” as some detractors claim, but I do think that vigorous discussion of LEED standard and the USGBC will only improve the climate for sustainable building design and operation.

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  3. My customers appreciate LEED as a quality standard for green building. However, most find the economics around it unsettling. What started with the best of intentions is now almost unrecognizable, wrapped in its business model.

    I don’t understand the logic. If you were trying to green the world’s structures.. why price out 99% of your potential clientele? Creating scarcity, or a feeling of superiority for your ‘elite’ standard bearers probably has its benefits for USGBC, but are those the benefits they wanted to create at the beginning?

    If so it was flawed from the start.

  4. I’m curious what you mean by this: “Others complain that the USGBC’s selection energy conservation strategies is imperfect, omitting legitimate approaches and materials while including others that have issues.”

    Who are the “others” making this vague complaint? USGBC and LEED don’t select energy conservation strategies — the project team does. LEED sets rules for how these are counted in its voluntary rating system. These rules, although not without quirks, allow for a great deal of flexibility in recognizing different approaches.

  5. LEED certainly has its flaws, but the nice thing about LEED is that it constantly evolves in response to criticism. LEED 2012 is being developed now. USGBC recently published a draft for public comment. The first public comment period ends Jan 14, then they will make adjustments, and then they will put it out for comments round 2. Then they will make adjustments again. Not to mention that the whole thing was developed by large teams of volunteer industry professionals, and continues to be, as I understand it.

    The proposed changes to LEED 2012 are fairly significant IMO, USGBC continues to raise the bar, as they should. I actually just finished a blog post on the topic here:

    It doesn’t take much to imagine a world where there was no way to qualify or quantify someone’s claim that their building is green. USGBC saw that niche over a decade ago, and created a tool to do that.

  6. I tire of these LEED bashing articles! Once you get beyond the screaming headline,there is no substance behind them and often allude to some magical “real” green building system. There is the obligatory mention of the Henry Gifford law suit and that LEED does not guarentee building performance.
    As someone who has been part of the green building movement for the past twenty years understands, LEED and USGBC has transformed how we design and build commercial buildings in this country and continues to innovate and improve as a rating system..LEED does continue to lead.

  7. I agree LEED may have its flaws, but it did do a good job about raising awareness of green building. It is up to the industry to continue to build more efficient buildings and use the best certifications available.

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