Feature Article - April 2010
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Shades of Green

Eco-Friendly, Budget-Friendly Facilities

By Dawn Klingensmith

Both supporters and critics point out that the cost of the LEED certification process cannibalizes funds that otherwise could be used to further improve a building's efficiency and performance.

That's not the only criticism of LEED. Wassaic, N.Y.-based architect Allan Shope said the LEED rating system is well-intended but does not go far enough. "It leads many people in the right direction," he said, "but it doesn't encourage innovation." Nor does it always result in energy-efficient buildings, he added. A building can attain Platinum certification, LEED's highest designation, without giving much thought to the structure's energy usage by racking up points in other areas, such as landscaping features. And in some places, simply following municipal or state building requirements is enough to earn the lowest level of LEED recognition, in which case LEED-certified projects claim bragging rights they haven't truly earned, Shope said.

Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, or NEEP, a nonprofit organization that facilitates regional partnerships to advance energy efficiency, shares the concern that LEED's basic prerequisites for meeting energy requirements may not actually generate energy savings. In fact, a significant number of LEED-certified buildings do not even meet existing energy code requirements, according to a New Buildings Institute study. NEEP takes the stance that any green building standard, such as LEED, needs to make energy efficiency a weighted prerequisite, not just an option, with resulting energy savings of 20 percent to 30 percent better than code at minimum.

"The key word in the acronym LEED is leadership, and unfortunately we think it has been shown that LEED buildings don't necessarily exhibit leadership when it comes to energy use," said Jim O'Reilly, NEEP's director of public policy.

Another issue critics have with LEED is that it rewards better-than-average performance rather than excellence. To illustrate this point, Shope applies the LEED rating system to cars. If automobiles burn 18 miles per gallon on average, cars that get 22 mpg could hypothetically receive a bronze rating and those that get 34 mpg could achieve platinum. The problem with this system is auto manufacturers are capable of making cars that get 60 mpg, not to mention the fact that cars can be made that don't burn fossil fuels at all.

Perhaps the wisest approach to green design is to forget about points toward certification and focus on broader and ultimately more meaningful goals. One downside of LEED is that building owners sometimes resort to "buying" points. The focus is on accumulating points for LEED certification versus the longer-term goal of optimizing building performance and adding environmental value. Sometimes, the potential public relations benefits of certification drive the design process; besides completing a pile of paperwork, not much needs to be done in terms of energy efficiency to make a building LEED certifiable, though plenty of other features—such as the point-earnable presence of bike racks—may be green. An example of point-mongering that actually has occurred is a recreation center receiving a point for installing an electric-vehicle recharging station that, subsequent analysis revealed, is used about once a year.