The Green Standard?

LEED buildings get lots of buzz, but the point is getting lost.


When this magazine moved to 7 World Trade Center this past spring, we were pleased to be settling into the first New York office tower to score a “gold” for environmental sustainability from the United States Green Building Council, or USGBC. Buildings account for 71% of America’s electricity use and 38% of all greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the Department of Energy. Anything that cuts those numbers–as USGBC-certfied buildings do, by an average of 25% to 30%–is surely a plus.


But what does the plaque on the front of a $700 million glass tower really mean? Asking that question exposes some serious cracks in the world’s biggest green-building brand name–Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED–as well as a very human tendency to reach for easy solutions to difficult problems.

As alarm over the environment intensifies, LEED has been in the right place at the right time. Two federal agencies, 22 states, and 75 localities from Seattle to Boston have instituted policies to require or encourage LEED; in New York, the new rules are expected to affect $12 billion in new construction in the next few years. A host of major New York projects, including new luxury condos in Battery Park City, a 2‑million-square-foot skyscraper on Bryant Park in midtown, and the rest of the buildings around the World Trade Center site, have all sought the council’s stamp of approval.

But critics say that the LEED standard falls short of what’s possible in terms of saving energy. While a 25% to 30% improvement in energy use over conventional buildings sounds impressive, it pales compared with, say, the 50% target adopted by the dozens of firms that have signed on to the Architecture 2030 initiative. Assessing LEED is further complicated by the business growth of the Green Building Council. Awarding gold–and silver and platinum–certification has been a gold mine for the nonprofit organization. Once a small operation with seven paid employees, it now fields a 116-member staff and earns 95% of its $50 million annual budget.

Which raises another question: Could the council’s financial success be standing in the way of cutting-edge green-building standards?

The Green Building Council started 14 years back with an unlikely alliance between a real-estate developer, David Gottfried, and a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rob Watson. “The great majority of environmental organizations had invested in keeping companies on the other side of a fence,” says Richard Fedrizzi, the current CEO of the council. “David [Gottfried] thought that we could do things differently. If we could invite business to the table, we could develop standards relative to building performance, buy in at the very top, and be able to transform the marketplace toward sustainable buildings.”


The result, introduced in 2000, was LEED. The LEED rating system is simple in concept. Architects and engineers shoot for points in six categories: siting, water use, energy, materials, indoor air quality, and “innovation in design.” Once a building is complete, a representative from the Green Building Council reviews the documentation–plans, engineers’ calculations–and awards points out of a possible 69: certified (at least 26 points for new construction), silver, gold, or platinum (at least 52 points).

Watson says the point system was specifically constructed to entice builders and drive the market in a green direction. “One definable action equals one point,” he says. Bike racks, one point; recycling room, one point. “We threw a few gimmes in there so people could get into the low 20s … and say, ‘We can do this.'”

And it worked. Power-suited developers and hard hats have signed on. More than 6,500 projects have registered for LEED certification since 2000, and new categories such as commercial interiors and existing buildings have been added to the original LEED for new construction. Forty-two thousand people have paid $250 to $350 and passed exams to become “LEED-accredited professionals.”

The council’s revenue has been growing at 30% or better a year, with close to 20% coming from certification. Getting the LEED plaque is not cheap. In February, the mayor of Park City, Utah, told a building-industry publication, “On the Park City Ice Arena [$4.8 million project cost], we built it according to LEED criteria, but then we realized that [certification] was going to cost $27,500. So we ordered three small wind turbines instead that will power the arena’s Zamboni.”

Much of this growth is credited to Fedrizzi, a former marketing executive for an air-conditioning company who became CEO in 2004. “We realized we were getting the messaging wrong, leading with the environmental story,” he says. “We had to lead with the business case.”


The business case isn’t just that green building saves money on energy. It’s that LEED certification sells buildings to high-end clients and governments, gets architects and builders sparkling free publicity, and creates a hook for selling new products, materials, and systems to builders. It’s a whole new commercial ecosystem. “Here in DC,” says architect Russell Perry, who’s active in the Green Building Council, “for a speculative developer to go out and advertise their property as being Class A [the highest-quality commercial building], they’ve got to have a LEED rating. The brokers need that as part of their pitch. People who would have been ambivalent about that as a moral issue are finding that it’s a commercial necessity.” Perry also cites the mushrooming of markets for products and services such as less toxic paints.

Fedrizzi is now talking to holders of multibillion-dollar real-estate portfolios, such as Cushman & Wakefield and Transwestern, about the possibility of trading carbon credits from green buildings.

Even skeptics recognize the council’s achievement. “There’s nothing else out there. LEED is what’s for dinner,” says Auden Schendler, the director of environmental affairs at Aspen Skiing Co. and the author, with Randy Udall, of a much-discussed 2005 article in Grist, the online environmental magazine, titled “LEED Is Broken: Let’s Fix It.” “Plus, it’s a good idea. Previously, nobody knew what a green building was.”

But, Schendler adds, “one of the reasons you’ll find very few critics out there is that lots of folks make money on LEED. And it is a bit of a cabal–it’s like criticizing the pope in Rome. People don’t want to alienate themselves from this great emerging movement.”

The limitations of LEED proceed from its design. The categories aren’t weighted, meaning that bike rack, to use an oft-cited example, can get you the same point as buying 50% of your energy from renewable sources. And there are no regional adjustments; saving water earns a point in Seattle just as it does in Tucson. What’s more, says Schendler, “until recently, you could certify a building to LEED with no energy measures.” Now beating a widely accepted international baseline (ASHRAE/IESNA) by 14% is required. But is that enough? “All 10 points [in the LEED energy category] should be mandatory,” Schendler asserts. That would mean beating the ASHRAE baseline by 42%–which, he says, “is achievable and frankly isn’t even enough to solve the climate problem.”


The temptation for developers and builders is point mongering–picking one action from column A, another from column B. “I think people have the idea that sustainability is just a collection of exciting ideas that you can peel and stick onto your building,” says David White, a climate engineer with the German firm Transsolar. “Unfortunately, the exuberant creative stuff–the expensive buzz words such as ‘geothermal,’ ‘photovoltaic,’ ‘double facade,’ and ‘absorption chiller’–only makes sense when the basic requirements, such as a well-insulated, airtight facade with good solar control, are satisfied.”

Jerry Yudelson, who has written five books on LEED and marketing green buildings, highlights the peel-and-stick method in his forthcoming book Marketing Green Building Services: Strategies for Success. He calls solar panels and green roofs “two of the most important emerging green technologies.” Yet most engineers say that solar panels have limited applications on large buildings, and reflective roofs can save as much energy as “green” ones covered with plants. But Yudelson writes, “Nothing beats publicity like having your project, with its green roof, PV [photovoltaic, or solar, power] system, and LEED Gold plaque highlighted as a lead story on the 6 o’clock or 10 o’clock network news station in your city. You’ll get on camera; dozens, possibly hundreds of clients, prospective employees, and others in your industry will see it, almost guaranteed.”

New York architect Chris Benedict–whose residential buildings use only 15% as much energy for heat and hot water as the typical New York apartment building–says, “I’ve spent hours explaining my systems-based approach to a newspaper reporter, and at the end, the photographer asked me, ‘Do you have a solar panel or something I could photograph?'” With her design partner, Henry Gifford, a former boiler mechanic, Benedict delves into the infrastructure of buildings, incorporating basic factors such as heavy-duty insulation, radiant heating and cooling, room-by-room temperature controls, and thicker glass.

One of the reasons you’ll find very few critics out there is that lots of folks make money on LEED, says one environmentalist.

Benedict, who works outside the LEED structure, says that environmental constraints free her creativity, citing a building in the Bronx where dramatically deep sills shade the south-facing windows. Certain clichés of modern architecture, like the glass curtain walls of One Bryant Park, the future headquarters of USGBC board member Bank of America, are another story. “It’s pretty frustrating that there’s going to be a LEED platinum-rated glass building,” Benedict says. “It’s going to use obscene amounts of energy. At times, it will need to be heated and air-conditioned at the same time.”

Jordan Barowitz, director of external affairs at the Durst Organization, the developers of One Bryant Park, counters, “You could make a building that’s very energy-efficient by not having any windows in it and having only one elevator, but this is not a building that people are going to want to work in.”


So what should define a green building? It’s not necessarily shiny or pretty, and it starts from the minute the site is chosen. LEED began with the goal of getting attention for energy-efficient building. Now that it is dominant in the marketplace, it could be adjusted to better reflect–and exploit–its newfound power.

Rob Watson, the so-called father of LEED, seems to agree. “Over the last 10 years, the gravity of the global environmental situation has become more obvious,” says Watson, reached in China, where he’s consulting on green buildings for the government and private developers. “And so I think, if anything, we need to redouble our efforts, and not only go for greater market share but increased stringency at the same time.”


About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation