Green Building Pioneers Urge LEED to Embrace Low-Carbon Tech, Climate Change Challenge
As the U.S. Green Building Council celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for environmentally sound buildings, it’s coming under pressure to toughen up a set of construction and retrofit rules that brought green design to the mainstream, but still fall short of the performance that will be needed to decarbonize the global economy.
With 94,000 commercial buildings in 167 countries either holding or awaiting LEED certification, and another 2.2 million square feet of real estate gaining recognition every day, “LEED standards have essentially been written into building codes across the country in an effort to ensure that the next generation of homes, offices, warehouses, schools, and hospitals are more resource-conscious than the last,” CityLab reports. “LEED certification is expected for today’s high-end office buildings and corporate headquarters. But it is available for virtually any type of construction, including renovations, and even entire neighbourhoods and cities.”
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“Green building is now a $1-trillion global industry,” said USGBC CEO Mahesh Ramanujam.
Along the way, “a vast ecosystem of green commerce has grown in tandem with LEED, spurring sales in products ranging from solar panels to low-VOC paints and low-flow toilets,” CityLab notes. “But as the USGBC has grown, so have accusations of ‘greenwashing.’ National newspapers have reported on criticisms that LEED buildings do not save as much energy as predicted, and that the LEED points system is gamed by designers targeting ‘the easiest and cheapest’ points, such as for posting educational signage or giving priority parking to fuel-efficient cars.”
Kansas City architect Bob Berkebile, whose early advocacy helped get LEED off the ground, and whose firm has designed many LEED-certified buildings, isn’t entirely thrilled with the way his performance standard has performed. “The certification has become: Your building is doing a little less damage to the environment than everyone else’s,” he told CityLab. “But that means you’re still having a negative impact. I think that’s a failure.”
The first recipient of the USGBC’s Lifetime Achievement Award had a similar message in an opinion piece on GreenBiz.
“LEED has not kept up with the accelerating urgency of climate change or the availability of low- and no-cost ways to deeply cut carbon—particularly from steep declines in the cost of clean energy options (such as the 60% cost reduction of residential solar since 2010)—that make these now the cheapest electricity source in most states,” wrote clean energy investor Greg Kats, president of Capital E. “The rapid growth in the ability to buy onsite and offsite solar and wind under a power purchase agreement (PPA) structure allows LEED building owners to buy carbon-free power at a fixed price at or below conventional utility rates,” enabling most LEED buildings “to switch to 100%, zero-carbon power at low or no cost.”
Yet “in a world of accelerating climate change and fossil-fuel-funded denial, LEED has failed to maintain a carbon leadership role,” he added. “Science dictates that serious green building standards today must deliver large reductions in CO2, and LEED must step up to this.”
USGBC has long stood by research indicating that LEED buildings use 25 to 30% less energy than the conventional equivalent. CityLab reviews some of the pushback to that claim. Critics say the original study that established the benchmark was flawed, and that LEED’s target energy savings are based on computer models rather than actual use of the buildings. They also note that many of the newer structures that have sought and achieved certification have more energy-intensive clients—like the banks of energy-guzzling computers on the financial trading floors of the LEED Platinum Bank of America Tower in Manhattan.
“They can’t tell their prime tenant that they can’t work round the clock on fancy computers,” wrote architect Lloyd Alter, as part of a broader defence of the standard.
Ramanujam acknowledged that operations and maintenance are key to energy performance, and that poor-performing buildings “need a better operational strategy”. Sometimes, he added, the right building design “does not get properly translated to construction and operation. It’s like buying a car and expecting a certain level of miles per gallon. If it’s not performing, maybe it’s time to adjust your driving habits.”
With LEED, USGBC “has inarguably changed the course of the building industry for the better,” CityLab concedes. “It mobilized the masses around the idea of environmentally responsible construction. The ‘co-benefits’ of many green buildings, like ample daylight and better indoor air quality, clearly improve people’s health and comfort.” And many of the harshest attacks on the standard have come from an “astroturf” group run by lobbyists and affected industries, like chemicals and timber.
“But the conflicting evidence on energy savings is worth a gut-check,” the article states, and the bigger question for Berkebile and others is how a standard that was never set up to hit or exceed net zero performance can improve dramatically and quickly enough to align the building stock with the climate challenge.
“The amount of carbon in the atmosphere continues to increase,” he told CityLab writer Brian Barth. “And unless we change that, we’ll have beautiful LEED Platinum buildings in an environment where human life is not possible.”
Kats wrote that he and three colleagues put forward a proposal, titled LEEDing on Climate Change, that was endorsed by more than 150 green building leaders, including several USGBC and LEED pioneers.
“LEED immediately should be revised to require substantial minimum carbon reductions for each level of LEED certification, both for new LEED buildings and for LEED rating renewals,” he writes. “If LEED fails to incorporate deep CO2 reductions as a requirement at higher levels of LEED, it will become increasingly irrelevant. Worse, by enabling buildings that are only marginally better on CO2 to claim a green mantle, LEED could impede the rapid, deep decarbonization we must achieve if we are to heed scientific consensus and the pope’s moral call to pull back from ‘the limits of suicide.’”