It’s not such a big secret anymore that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is having a tough time living up to the hype. For quite awhile now LEED certification gives property owners bragging rights, tax credits, and they can charge premium rents to their tenants. According to the USGBC, a quarter of the new buildings that have been certified do not save as much energy as their designs predicted and that most do not track energy consumption once in use. Without backing up that your building is energy efficient by getting “check-ups” at least once a year, these buildings are getting benefits that they do not deserve. Does the LEED certification really set out to achieve a more sustainable community? “The plaque should be installed with removable screws,” said Henry Gifford, an energy consultant in New York City. “Once the plaque is glued on, there’s no incentive to do better.”
In order to get the benefits developers can focus on outer design principles such as landscaping with native plants, and not really focus on structural energy processes. The Federal Building in Youngstown, Ohio is recognized as a LEED certified building, but has a gas guzzling cooling system that was the main reason it failed an EPA test for energy efficiency a year later. It received its LEED certification by getting enough points from its use of natural light and white rooftops.
Easy to get points and inaccurate projections of energy efficiency defeats the purpose of LEED certification. The certification is awarded before the building is even used. The Bank of America tower in New York City made headlines when it was built in 2010 for reaching LEED’s highest honor of Platinum status. Turns out that LEED inaccurately projected its energy savings. According to Sam Roudman of the New Republic who wrote “Bank of America’s Toxic Tower: New York’s “greenest” skyscraper is actually its biggest energy hog” he said “It symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.” That flaw is the over reliance on programs like LEED that take a superficial, “add-on” approach to the energy problems that face us today.
Not only are the outside design characteristics not living up to the hype, but the inside quality of buildings is also slacking. According to John Wargo, professor of Environmental Policy and Political Science at Yale School of Forestry, LEED places little emphasis on making indoor air quality better.
He found: In December 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)released a list of chemicals that “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to health and the environment.” The EPA list includes four classes of chemicals widely used in the building industry and approved for use by the LEED rating system. These chemicals include phthalates (used as softeners in flexible vinyl products, such as floor and wall coverings); short-chain chlorinated paraffins (used in plastics); PBDEs (used as flame retardants in textiles, plastics, and wire insulation); and perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOA (used for non-stick cookware and stain resistant materials). Many LEED-certified buildings have been constructed using some of these compounds.
Considering the three proponents that sustainability tries to meet, environmental, economics, and equity, LEED buildings may not be sustainable after all. Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have policies either requiring LEED construction or establishing strong incentives for it in public buildings. The federal government does too. Community Planners looking to create more sustainable communities may want to overlook using the LEED certification as a requirement for new buildings. The lack of checkups on buildings to ensure that they are performing energy efficiency is a flaw in the system, along with many others. Planners should focus more on the process of green buildings and how they are going to achieve actual energy efficiency. More important than having a plaque in your building and being recognized is actually being able to live up to the hype of a sustainable community.
Other programs are picking up the slack that USGBC leaves behind such as Living Building Challenged– While LEED certifies the design of green buildings; the Living Building Challenge scrutinizes how buildings actually perform, gauging their effect on the environment and measuring their performance a year after construction.