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Can the Green Building Council Polish LEED's Tarnished Standards?

US Green Building Council plaque

When Charlotte, North Carolina christened its Imaginon children's center and library in 2005, it highlighted the building's energy efficiency; it had applied for a LEED silver rating, which it earned officially in 2006. The center was wildly successful when it opened, drawing 150,000 more visitors than expected. But when a reporter for the Charlotte Observer investigated Imaginon's energy use, he discovered that instead of consuming a third less fuel, as expected, Imaginon was using twice as much as predicted.

It turns out that Imaginon's theaters were used seven hours a day instead of the expected two hours, and offices were used on weekends. That energy draw was left out of the model behind the building's LEED certification—and like most LEED buildings today, Imaginon was under no obligation to track its energy usage after receiving that initial certification.

LEED, or "leadership in energy and environmental design," is a point-based rating system written voluntarily by building professionals and administered by the nonprofit United States Green Building Council. It began in 1993 and now applies four ratings—certified, silver, gold or platinum—to over 4.5 billion square feet of built space. The council has an annual budget of $80 million, and offers LEED certifications to homes, existing buildings, commercial interiors and, most ambitiously, ground-up new neighborhoods in 91 countries. The organization has gained so much market force that local governments from New England to New Mexico are now writing laws that require new public buildings to earn high LEED scores.

But there’s a big problem with snapping LEED ratings into building codes, which are equivalent to law: The United States Green Building Council is a private institution that has no public oversight. It does not predict the future energy use of the spaces it certifies, and there are no consequences for buildings that end up consuming more energy than originally planned. What's more, the organization's budget comes from people who take classes to become accredited certifiers, and landlords who foot the bill for certification paperwork.

If the government ever gets around to imposing a national carbon pricing scheme, then something more enforceable than LEED will have to emerge as a common standard.

Some engineers are already challenging LEED’s prominence, claiming that the codes are producing dud buildings and that taxpayers are footing the bill through subsidies. "I have 25-year-old cheap and cheerful suburban speculative buildings whose energy consumption is lower than buildings with LEED Gold," says Larry Spielvogel, an independent engineer who works outside of Philadelphia."The model’s accuracy depends on who is using the building and for what." He likes to show a slide with what he says are electricity costs for nine adjacent floors in the same LEED-certified office building. The rates vary from below 20 cents to above 48 cents (graph below).

Energy-use predictions are effectively guesses, according to a study prepared for LEED administrators in 2008 (.pdf report). "Program-wide, energy modeling turns out to be a good predictor of average building energy performance for the sample," read the study, conducted by the non-profit New Buildings Institute. "However, there is wide scatter among the individual results that make up the average savings. Some buildings do much better than anticipated. Nearly an equal number are doing worse - sometimes much worse."

Now a class action suit has been filed against the United States Green Building Council, claiming that LEED defrauds consumers and befouls interstate commerce while acting as a monopoly. "Everybody who pays taxes has to buy this rating system," says Henry Gifford, a Manhattan-based energy efficiency consultant who helped initiate the lawsuit. He contends that local governments are embracing LEED without enough oversight and as a result subsidizing energy "hogs."

The CEO of the United States Green Building Council, Rick Fedrizzi, tells Fast Company that he welcomes scrutiny—and agrees that governments need to enforce their own green building codes. Once a point-based standard exists, argues Fedrizzi, the government should set it as a minimum. "Over time, there will be buildings that are not performing, from which we get no revenue," he says. "Our goal is to put the best buildings in the marketplace."

Fedrizzi and his deputy, Scot Horst, are introducing a new version of LEED that will track a building's energy performance over time. Landlords would share data on their energy and water use, and managers and inspectors would use that information to fix problems as they arise. Over time, the USGBC hopes, a new revenue stream will flow from software applications that landlords use to make sure their properties are performing up to par.

Other standards exist for measuring energy performance, including the federal Energy Star label and Green Office, a proprietary score for tenants of mega-landlord Hines Interest. A scorecard like green office could work well for buildings with many tenants with similar energy usage. But what about cities, which are trying to certify hospitals, labs, schools and other buildings with vastly different energy needs? New York City’s Urban Green Council chapter convened a broad "task force" in 2009 to recommend new green building codes that would make the city less wasteful on a variety of measurable fronts. The recommendations are now working, one by one, through New York’s City Council.

"We welcome a time when all public building codes require a minimum LEED silver rating," said USGBC CEO Fedrizzi. "If that happened we could go back to our roots—because the public baseline would give our members the cue to push more."

[Image by M.O. Stevens]