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Lawsuit Takes Aim At LEED Certification

The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification has become the de facto certification system for green buildings, and for good reason. LEED is internationally recognized, and its vast criteria take into account everything from water efficiency to indoor air quality. But not everyone is happy with the system. A recent class action lawsuit filed by Henry Gifford, owner of Gifford Fuel Saving, accuses the USGBC of monopolizing "the market through fraudulent and intentionally misleading representations in the marketing and promotion of their LEED product line." Do Gifford's claims have any merit?

"What Henry Gifford is alleging is that the USGBC has defrauded the public," says Shari Shapiro, a LEED-accredited attorney with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel in Philadelphia. That is, "building owners, building professionals that have gotten LEED accreditation, taxpayers, consumers, and a variety of other people. He is saying that USGBC representations about the energy performance of buildings have harmed all of these classes of people in various ways." 

The representations in question include claims that LEED-certified properties use 25% less energy, offer CO2 reductions, and feature improved air quality and water efficiency compared to non LEED-certified buildings. Gifford points out that verification of energy usage is not required for LEED-certified buildings, and that the USGBC doesn't require facility plans to be submitted or reviewed, "essentially allowing building designers to self-certify."

If the case isn't certified as a class action lawsuit, it's probably doomed. Gifford isn't LEED-certified, and he doesn't own any LEED-certified buildings. It will be difficult, in other words, for him to prove that LEED has caused him to lose out on any business personally.

Still, the USGBC might want to take Gifford's accusations to heart. Complaints against LEED are not uncommon among green building professionals; the rating system is inexact, and it's hard to measure "green." Just because a building plan lives up to LEED's requirements doesn't mean its energy consumption will be lower once the building is in use.

"Whether LEED buildings live up to the performance representations made by designers of buildings is an open question at this point," Shapiro says. "I'm not privy to the internal communciations of the USGBC, but I will say that where there's one lawsuit, there are more."

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.