A family member forwarded me a really provocative article from USA Today about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and asked me what I thought of it. The article reviews and examines LEED-certified commercial buildings and concludes that “thousands of ‘green’ builders win tax breaks, exceed local restrictions and get expedited permitting under a system that often rewards minor, low-cost steps.” He and I have talked about LEED in the past and both shared our opinions and insights with each other on the topic.
Read the article here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/24/green-building-leed-certification/1650517/. This article is part of its Green Inc. Environmental for Profit Series
The article questions the effectiveness of the USGBC LEED rating system for buildings in driving real change and questions the fairness and utility of local tax breaks, expedited permit reviews and lifting of local public health regulations to drive changes in the marketplace. I don’t disagree with many of the points raised in this article however; I think that the article could have been more complete if the author gave recongition to some of the benefits LEED has provided in his approach. Throughout the article the author raises several issues without acknowledging some of the benefits achieved by this movement as well.
The author spends a great deal of time demonstrating how many project teams choose too many “easy” actions to gain points on their applications and improve their project rating. For instance, he points out that a project team can gain a point just by including a LEED certified professional on the team or by adding priority parking spaces for hybrid cars. Just including a LEED certified professional is not actually leading to any real environmental benefits. The author also questions whether LEED actually results in real results because “LEED certification is awarded before occupancy. Points for managing energy and water use are based on projects and not actual conservation.” (Emphasis added). As he correctly points out, most buildings do not perform as well as design models and metrics predict. Another issue raised by the author that compels a reexamination of the current LEED system is that several studies have demonstrated that “it is a common misperception that new buildings, even so called ‘green’ buildings are energy efficient.”
As I said, I agree with all of these points. However, I think that the article would have been better if some recognition was given to the fact that LEED, even with all of its shortcomings, has both raised public consciousness about conservation practices and led to some incremental improvements. The author does spend some time acknowledging that LEED has sparked an environmental and conservation movement within the building industry and it has driven innovation in green products and transformed the design and construction industry. But the author fails to give any recognition to the fact that LEED has also lead to incremental improvements.
It is a good thing that some building teams choose to install solar panels instead of relying on conventional energy supplies. It is a good thing for the occupants of these buildings that project teams are choosing to install a system that channels cooling system water to outdoor landscaping activities. It is a good thing that project teams are using building materials with recycled content rather than virgin materials. It is a good thing that project teams choose to use indoor paints; adhesives and flooring that protect building occupants’ health. It is a good thing that the Federal, state and local governments are leading by example and striving to create a local environment where both economic development and sustainability can thrive. These are all extremely important issues that should lead to a thorough reexamination and possible revision by the USGBC of the current LEED system. While some may consider these improvements small or incremental, we have to acknowledge that they are improvements. Many small improvements will eventually add up to significant improvements.
I also think the article would have been more balanced if the author also acknowledged the important role that tax incentives and other government initiatives have in driving market change. Tax incentives and other breaks are good tools in driving economic development and driving innovation by governments. While it is clear that some project teams have taken full and complete advantage of all of the breaks and incentives communities are offering to green buildings for their own benefit. Businesses do not exist to drive social change or to protect the public interest. They exist to maximize their resources and profits. Moreover, how can they be faulted for taking full advantage of these breaks and incentives? They were in place and there to be used. If the incentives and breaks are leading to projects that are inconsistent with community goals or if community leaders believe that they are losing more than they are gaining, then community leaders can work to repeal or revise the incentives and breaks.
Again, I thought this was quite a thought provoking article and in most cases agree with the author. What do you think?