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LEED Certification: Path to Better Buildings or Bigger Bottom Lines?

With supporting evidence from a USA TODAY analysis, Thomas Frank examines the LEED points system and finds that certification, and the tax breaks and other rewards that go with it, can be easily obtained without proven environmental impact.
October 30, 2012, 7am PDT | Jessica Hsu
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"Across the United States, the Green Building Council has helped thousands of developers win tax breaks and grants, charge higher rents, exceed local building restrictions and get expedited permitting by certifying them as ‘green' under a system that often rewards minor, low-cost steps that live little or no proven environmental benefit," finds Frank based on a USA TODAY analysis of 7,100 LEED-certified commercial buildings.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is based on a points system with a minimum of 40 required out of a possible 100 for certification. The problem, says Frank, is that, "designers emphasize LEED points that can be won through simple purchasing decisions and shun-labor intensive options and cutting-edge technology." According to Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network, which promotes non-toxic building materials, "A lot of the fuel for LEED, to be honest, is marketing advantage. People are interested in how they get the (LEED) credits, not in thinking deeply about it."

Yet LEED has its defenders among environmentalists and experts, who argue that the system has raised awareness of greener construction practices and has had a demonstrable effect on conservation efforts. "'LEED put this on the agenda single-handedly and rallied a mass of people interested in green buildings who didn't have a framework,' said University of California engineer Arpad Horvath, whose 2006 study criticized LEED for not considering the lifetime effect of its various points." Architect Bob Berkebile, who helped create LEED in the 1990s, calls the system "the most transformative force in the design and construction industry in my lifetime by a factor of four. For the first time, (designers) are starting to consider how a building affects the life and well-being of the occupants and the vitality of the system in which it operates."

However, "[e]nergy savings are not closely related to the number of points received," concluded a study by University of Wisconsin researchers, and the Environmental Protection Agency says "it is a common misconception that new buildings, even so-called 'green' buildings are energy-efficient." Even in the face of uncertainty, "[m]ore than 200 states, cities and federal agencies now require LEED certification for new public buildings," reports Frank.

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Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 in USA Today
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