A plaque with removable screws


Accessed from Sheenenergy

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.

bank of america

Accessed from ENR New York

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.

4 thoughts on “A plaque with removable screws

  1. Great title! Thank you for pointing out the way people rely on labels to feel good about what has been done when there is much more to making a difference in energy use and efficiency than a plaque.

  2. Thanks Jennifer! I really like the idea of LEED building, but your right I would like to see more responsibility being taking by the building owners to keep up on energy savings by making yearly goals for energy consumption.

  3. This is a great piece Kyle! I think in all the sustainability hype it is too easy to rely on a label and leave it at that feeling like the work has been done. Follow ups on these buildings to see if they are really living up to what they claim to be would be a great idea.

  4. Wow, pretty scathing commentary. I’m glad the author is critical of LEED and I agree the buildings should do what they say they’re going to do, in terms of energy efficiency, indoor air quality, etc. Does the author have a better program in mind? What are the viable alternatives for an international standard? How are they performing? Living Building Challenged (sic) and PassivHaus come to mind, but they aren’t as comprehensive as LEED attempts. And what impact is most important? LBC seems to focus on energy use. Great for avoiding carbon emissions, but what if the building get its power from a renewable utility? Efficiency is great, but what about sustainably sourced hardwoods and the carbon emissions they avoid? What about LEED neighborhood development and walkability? Are energy efficient houses spread all over the valley really all that efficient if they contribute to sprawl and increased driving, furthering the need for cars in our lives, and therefore more and bigger parking lots, contributing to even more sprawl, messing with rainwater and runoff?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think LEED is perfect. But else exists on this scale?

    “Many LEED-certified buildings have been constructed using some of these compounds.” Don’t forgot that MOST buildings are constructed using ALL of those compounds. So those buildings don’t get the points for avoiding the toxic ingredients, and they have to find their points elsewhere. This is actually great for innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity. If all LEED buildings were prohibited from using those toxics, builders and designers wouldn’t have to look elsewhere to make up the points. If they choose to use the toxic materials, they have to find a way to put more solar panels up, or increase efficiency somewhere else or find another ay to get the points they need for certification. I don’t think its fair to criticize the LEED buildings for what they choose not use or the points they choose not to pursue. Having many ways to achieve LEED certification is good for the economy, good for builders, good for renters and good for the environment.

    I think it’s also important to point out that the reason the “owners charge more rent” is not just that they are greedy and want LEED so they can get more money. The author seems to vilify this. People pay more money in rent for LEED because employees are happier and more productive in healthier, sunnier environments. (http://www.costar.com/josre/JournalPdfs/04-Green-Buildings-Productivity.pdf, http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/leed-buildings-workers-feel-more-productive-healthier.htm, http://blog.vista-films.com/2013/02/green-building-productivity/)

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