Fast Company

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]

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11 Comments

  • Deke Rivers

    If the building was modelled based on 2 hours of theatre use and the LEED system saved energy it's only obvious and logical that if the use went up the LEED system was saving money relative to the status quo or alternative systems that were modelled and considered. Gas mileage may be based on a 10 gallon tank, if the fuel efficient car uses 20 gallon's because the owner is happy to drive it, this doen't mean the car is less energy efficient. The miles per gallon is still better than the competition.

    This really is a poor article. The bigger issue with LEED is ignored. How are other sustainabile initiatives undervalued by the system in favour of energy efficiency. The reality is that we're squeezing small improvements in energy efficiency gains in a well designed building and ignoring bigger environmental or quality of life issues. People complain about bike racks  but fail to recognize that the commute uses more energy than the building. A 10% reduction in people driving to work equals a significant energy reduction, more than anything you'll be able to acheive mechanically.

  • Sara Hart

    People are missing the point of Mr. Appelbaum's critique by nit-picking energy-consumption claims and calculations at the Imaginon center. His skepticism is warranted. Despite claims that it's "not perfect" and "evolving," the USGBC does indeed promote itself as the unchallenged authority on sustainable construction. Developers and architects have jumped on the bandwagon, because they view LEED certification as a marketing tool, not because they're committed to environmental stewardship. As a result, a lot of bad architecture these days is receiving praise, not for design quality but for high LEED ratings. The USGBC is indignant and defensive in response to criticism, claiming that LEED is "voluntary" and provides "guidelines," not prescriptions. Really? Architecture firms pay thousands of dollars for reference guides, workshops, online courses, live webinars, and exams for six levels of profession credentials, so their employees can put LEED AP on their business cards. It may be technically voluntary, but no firm can expect to compete in a tight market without that USGBC seal of approval. Do highly trained professionals really need to be certified in order to follow some guidelines? No, they do not, but what an industry it has spawned.

    Good article in Forbes:
    http://blogs.forbes.com/eco-no...

  • Alec Appelbaum

    I appreciate the passion LEED's volunteers bring to its development, as the story says. In the spirit of advancing strong green performance, let's keep the discussion on track. The story doesn't complain or demonize- it says that energy models are not a basis for laws that govern energy output. The commenters, the hardworking executives at USGBC, and the critics of LEED's prominence all want to advance efficient and innovative building practices. This article flags the fact that governments are often blurring the distinction between LEED ratings and energy performance- and that USGBC is working to address the misunderstandings that may result. For the sake of the economy and the ecology, let's keep seeking solutions on many platforms. Nobody said the Imaginon was deceptive, and we don't say LEED is deceptive - and nobody needs to impugn anybody's motives. Thanks for the discussion.

  • Jenny Mahoney

    Check out what Treehugger has to say about this article: Over at Fast Company, Alec Appelbaum describes the Imaginon Children's Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. He writes that "instead of consuming a third less fuel, as expected, Imaginon was using twice as much as predicted."

    He then writes: 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.

    Normally one might think this is a good thing; Any person with a calculator might say "wow, three and a half times the projected use, and only twice as much energy consumption as predicted." Instead, Alec complains that LEED "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."

    As if the USGBC should be saying "I am sorry, Mr. Imaginon owner, you are not allowed to be more successful, have more customers and run more hours than originally planned. It will mess up the projections."

    It is not like this is a new issue. LEED acknowledges that not all of its buildings are performing as well as they should; in their own 2008 study, Energy Performance of LEED® for New Construction Buildings, they write:

    Variation in results is likely to come from a number of sources, including differences in operational practices and schedules, equipment, construction changes and other issues not anticipated in the energy modeling process. More in-depth analysis of some of the best and worst performers could identify ways to eliminate the poorer outcomes and communicate lessons from the best results.
    Alec does not help his case by quoting an engineer who says "I have 25-year-old cheap and cheerful suburban speculative buildings whose energy consumption is higher than buildings with LEED Gold." My goodness, I should hope so.

    Alec has another problem with the USGBC: 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....the organization's budget comes from people who take classes to become accredited certifiers, and landlords who foot the bill for certification paperwork.

    Actually, the USGBC is a is a "501(c)(3) non-profit community" with thousands of members. Every decision that is made about its policies goes through a rigorous public review; look at the fight that recently took place over lumber certification; that is serious public oversight. I don't know why Alec wants to nationalize it, or who he thinks should pay for it.

    Finally, Alec refers to the Henry Gifford lawsuit: 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."

    But Alec doesn't even comment on the fact that just about everyone who has anything to do with green building law dismisses it completely; Tim Clayton of Ohio Green Building Law describes it in the most entertaining fashion: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Suing Your way to More Speaking Engagements."

    Read the full article at: http://www.treehugger.com/file...

  • Bill Sutton

    This is an absolutely absurd article. I have been a huge fan of Fast Company until now.

    LEED/USGBC has been pushing for improved energy efficiency and environmental accountability for over 15 years. They have made remarkable strides and invoked serious change in the world of building design and construction. This has occurred in an industry which is, by nature, resistant to change (stubborn). USGBC deserves to be praised for their efforts as well as the many efforts by their local chapters throughout the country that are educating people of all ages/professions/backgrounds on how to improve the environment and the community.

    This article references projects that have not lived up to the expected energy performance... In the realm of design and construction... There will always be uncontrollable variables that impact building performance. Every building is a prototype... Every building is unique... Every building is designed and built for the very first time... There is no silver bullet to solving the energy problem when it comes to buildings. LEED does a heck of a job providing a guideline to attack the problem.

    LEED is only a guideline for designers and builders to navigate the world of green building. They also have built in flexibility... It is ultimately up to the design team to implement the correct strategies.
    One thing that USGBC has done well is continue to evolve... They are resolving many of the criticisms regarding energy performance and tracking in the newest version...

    Alec,
    I suggest you do some additional research (other than the 5 minutes you spent on google) and do a follow up article on what we can expect in the newest version of LEED... Due out later this year.

  • Jim Hartzfeld

    Very superficial article. Not up to Fast Company standards. First, there are plenty of examples where building performance does not meet design, LEED or not. Rather than a compelling condemnation, the example cited seems to be a positive testament for integrated green design because the facility is being utilized MORE than anticipated.

    No one at USGBC or in the know claims LEED is perfect, but few can argue that it has had a catalytic effect on one of the most slow moving industries in America. In so doing has rankled a number of entrenched interests and industries.

    I applaude the USGBC's continuing process of open engagement and evolution. If you have better ideas, bring them to the USGBC table and engage in the process.

  • Tristan Roberts

    What is the point of the Spielvogel bar graph? There could be tons of reasons why the energy use varies from floor to floor. One floor might have a data center, one might have a yoga studio. Slapping a "LEED" label on the building doesn't affect that. His quote about speculative office buildings is obviously misquoted or taken out of context. Let's be critical of LEED and other green building tools, but let's do so coherently.

  • Deviner

    This phrase makes no sense:

    “I have 25-year-old cheap and cheerful suburban speculative buildings whose energy consumption is higher than buildings with LEED Gold,” says Larry Spielvogel ...

    So he's saying his old building consumes more energy than the LEED Gold building? Isn't that a defense for LEED instead of against it, though it appears they were trying to make the opposite. If true, they should have said it consumes 'less' energy.

    I agree about that graph, sure it has some color and shows variations, but it's worthless without axis labels.

    Finally, the other commenter also made a good point. Comparing predicted to actual energy use isn't very reliable as the use may change or increase/decrease. Rather, you should compare two identical building, with the exact same usage, though one is LEED and the other not (though finding 2 such buildings would be difficult to come by).

  • Scott Wilson

    It should be noted that LEED and carbon reduction measures are at odds with each other. LEED is about sustainability and user comfort, whereas carbon reduction is more about energy usage and has nothing to do with sustainability. Many colleges and universities now have pledged to have new buildings meet certain LEED standards, but also have signed on to become carbon neutral campuses in the future. Pursuing LEED certification precludes one from achieving a reduced carbon footprint.

  • Carrie Reagh

    A quick comment about the Imaginon children's center and library portion of the article.

    Of course the bills are going to go up….they like using the building! That’s a good thing! If the children, parents and other visitors didn’t like using the new building this article would be about something completely different. LEED certified or not.

    They like the theater so they use it more!
    They like the offices so they are happy and more comfortable to come in on the weekends to work; it's a better environment.

    You can’t compare how much it cost to run the building prior to new construction to after without taking these things into consideration.

    Compare costs to use the theater in the old building for seven hours to what it cost now. I bet it would be more efficient (keep time frame in mind, savings happen over time).

    And then of course there is the immeasurable factor of happy visitors, happy parents and happier faculty; which are therefore working more efficiently and dare I, say the kids are probably learning more!

    Compare apples to apples, not apples to oranges.