The LEED Debate: Is Your Building Really "Green"?

If you’ve recently invested a significant amount of money and effort to design your building around LEED guidelines in order to receive that coveted LEED certification, you probably don’t want to hear someone tell you that your building might not actually be very “green”. But in recent months, a number of articles and studies have been published which argue that LEED buildings in particular aren’t living up to their hype. As designers, it’s our job to stay up-to-date on the latest sustainability rating systems and guidelines, so what’s our take on the LEED debate?

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The first part of the acronym represents leadership in energy efficiency, so it’s a cause for concern among the building community when we start hearing reports that some LEED buildings aren’t performing so well when it comes to energy consumption. If you were to Google “LEED Buildings Energy Consumption”, you’d find a number of results pertaining to LEED buildings being outperformed – in terms of energy consumption and efficiency – by buildings designed in accordance with other rating systems and guidelines such as Energy Star, ASHRAE Advanced Energy Design Guides, ASHRAE Standard 189.1 and ASHRAE BEQ. One notable article is a New York Times piece identifying the Federal Building in Youngstown, Ohio, as one of the aforementioned LEED-certified culprits that doesn’t measure up to the minimum Energy Star requirements, but some argue the criticism is faulty since the building was certified before LEED had specific energy standards for efficiency.  Another study by the National Research Council Canada analyzed 100 LEED-certified commercial buildings and found that, on average,  the buildings used 18 to 39 percent less energy than equivalent non-LEED certified buildings. But in spite of those savings, when it came down to individual buildings, “between 28 and 35 percent of these LEED buildings were actually using more energy than equivalent conventional buildings – suggesting that predicted improvements are often only partly realized.” The question that comes to mind: how can a building be considered a leader in energy efficiency when its energy efficiency components wouldn’t meet the requirements of a building designed to code minimum?

Even though some LEED buildings may not be the most efficient when compared to other rating systems, these buildings still have lots of great sustainability elements. Plus, the LEED system’s tremendous popularity has forced other rating systems to step up their game. ASHRAE is a great example of a standard that once focused only on energy efficiency but is now broadening its focus to include many more elements of sustainability. The original ASHRAE 90.1 is considered to be the foundation of all things energy-related, but ASHRAE has now released Standard 189.1 which is worded quite similarly to LEED. The latest standard includes requirements for transportation, site selection, building materials, recycled content and the like. Sound familiar? ASHRAE’s goal is for its Standard 189.1 to eventually be adopted by state and local governments in an effort to make green building design a requirement.  New certification programs like ASHRAE’s, and other programs that are being developed and altered, will ultimately serve a similar purpose as LEED in focusing on whole building sustainability, and they already promote an increased focus on energy conservation in a sometimes more palatable, code-friendly manner. As LEED 2012 continues to develop, we will see how far ahead the USGBC wants to be.

Edward MazriaAs the LEED rating system continues to evolve and as other rating systems and guidelines like ASHRAE begin to enter into the sustainability race, our responsibility as design professionals remains constant: push the envelope and inform our clients of the best, most cutting-edge strategies and technologies to improve building design and performance.  We must all work together to produce truly energy-efficient designs that deliver on our commitment to a sustainable future.  As we continue to work toward the goal of “net-zero energy” buildings set forth by renowned architect Edward Mazria in The 2030 Challenge, we realize that energy efficiency has never been more critical than it is today.

What are your thoughts on LEED and the other sustainability rating systems? How do you see these programs evolving as efficient design expectations grow? Will you or have you participated in the public comment period on the LEED 2012 drafts?

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