Weighing the Pros and Cons of LEED
Most of us can agree that moving towards environmentally-friendly building practices is one of the keys to a more sustainable future. After all, the construction industry accounts for around a quarter of all non-industrial waste production in the U.S., and buildings are some of the biggest resource hogs around. Between lighting and thermal control, commercial and residential buildings account for 75% of the electricity used in the U.S. and contribute 39% of the nation’s total carbon dioxide emissions. The Leadership in Energy Environmental Design program, or LEED, is designed to help promote design and construction practices that reduce the negative environmental impact of buildings. But if we all agree that green building practices can help us cut down those numbers, what’s the debate about?
What is LEED?
The most important thing you need to know to understand the debate about LEED is that it’s a completely voluntary, third-party certification. No one is forced into following the complex green building standards laid out by LEED; instead, companies pay LEED to certify their buildings using the criteria developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which runs the program. Independent auditors evaluate a building by looking at issues like energy efficiency and site selection, then decide whether it will be labeled Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum or be denied certification.
There are several areas in which LEED has helped advance the fledgling green building industry.
Setting industry standards. The green building industry is still young. Only a few decades ago, very few designers were looking into building sustainably, and there weren’t very many people in the industry with the knowledge to take on these projects. When the USGBC entered the fray in 1998, there was very little consensus on just what made a building green. The LEED program was implemented to help develop a set of comprehensive standards that could guide the industry.
Independent certification. There are currently very few government regulations for green buildings, which means it’s up to those in the industry to set sustainability standards. This lack of regulation also means that the responsibility of ensuring a builder’s green claims fall on the public. LEED is one of the most recognized names in the business, and offers a guarantee to consumers that a building meets high standards for sustainability.
While LEED is still the most popular green building certification worldwide, in recent years there has been a backlash against the brand for a number of reasons.
Problems with standards. One of the biggest criticisms of LEED has been that it simple doesn’t work. Critics say that the standards, which rely heavily on energy models and projections, don’t actually lead to buildings that use less energy. For example, there was a great deal of press on the Gold-certified ImaginOn children’s center in Charlotte, NC when independent audits showed that because the building was being used more than expected, it’s energy efficiency did not actually fall within LEED standards. In 2010, a class-action lawsuit was filed that claimed the USGBC was engaging in false advertising, since its buildings did not actually meet the standards they promised, and that it operated in violation of anti-trust policies.
Price. LEED certification is expensive, and that’s putting it mildly. The program is funded in large part by building owners paying large sums for certification. The minimum cost for certifying a building is $2,900, but the price tag quickly jumps for bigger projects. Office buildings and hospitals can cost upwards of $1 million for the certification alone (remember, this isn’t for any of the actual building—it’s just for the plaque that says you’re LEED certified). For big companies this initial investment of capital can be worth it for buildings that will attract wealthy, green-minded tenants and sell at high prices. But for the more cash-strapped, LEED certification is prohibitively expensive. For example, the Fire Station in Cary, NC, which was completed in 2010, was designed to meet all the LEED standards, but the city council chose not to apply for the certification because it was too expensive.
New laws. Many communities have enacted laws mandating that all new constructions be LEED certified or are offering subsidies for certified buildings. These new laws are a big issue for critics of the program, who point out that the USGBC is a private corporation and therefore has no business being involved in government regulations. These new laws, coupled with the high price tag of LEED certification, create a strong conflict of interest, since USGBC directly profits from the implementation of these regulations.
For better or worse, when it comes to green building standards LEED is the biggest game in town. Worldwide, they’re still the name everyone knows when it comes to sustainable building, but that’s slowly changing. Other programs, such as Green Globes, which sponsors green certifications in countries around the world, are gaining in prominence. More importantly, government bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy are jumping in to set standards of their own. Hopeful, as the green building industry continues to grow and change, the process of green certification will grow and change with it.