The Not-So Green World of LEED

Much about the US Green Building Council’s LEED award program has been beneficial. The advances in energy efficiency in the home building industry in the past five years have been truly significant. However, with regard to LEED certified office buildings, in my opinion, much is a ruse thrown to the public and inexpert government officials in place of real energy management.

The 55-story New York Bank ofAmericatower, completed in 2010 and earning the highest “Platinum” LEED award is having big sustainability problems. As was recently reported by Sam Roudman in an article in theNewRepublic, this new building is an energy hog using twice the power per square foot of an old standby like theEmpireStateBuilding. New Yorkers must be surprised and one building tenant is speechless. That would be Al Gore who, ceremoniously, located the headquarters for his sustainability business there. Buildings don’t use energy (at least efficient systems don’t). People inside them use it.

Scott Horst of the USGBC was quick to cry fowl. He says that the USGBC has no control over the uses that take place inside their Platinum LEED award buildings, and that how we use them shouldn’t be part of the award process. He says it’s not accurate to pick on the dirtiest of “Platinum” buildings.

A building’s use should be recognized somehow. But even if we put that issue aside, the certified LEED office awards still are something akin to fantasy football. Similar to calculating the gas efficiency of a car by measuring only highway mileage, but not including the short city trips to the gas station or, trips to pick up your laundry.

To accurately compare the real energy cost of a new office building to an existing product like the 80 year old EmpireStateBuilding, the LEED formula should include all energy components of construction. All the truck deliveries, all the energy consumed fabricating and delivering the new efficient building materials, all the auto trips by the contractors, workers and inspectors. And don’t forget the demolition energy used in removing the old building and its components. The LEED mathematicians forget to add in all the energy expended.  My bet is that it would take more than twenty years of design energy efficiency to recapture those “platinum” energy costs. TheEmpireStateBuilding would easily walk away with honors, as it does today.

If LEED calculations were done on a level playing field so that building remodeling was given the proper credit for saving that existing building structure, new office buildings would never earn the highest LEED scores—they would all go to the smaller residential and office rehabs that USGBC doesn’t consider important enough to properly recognize.

If we took up Scott Horst’s challenge and sharpened our pencils to see accurately what energy is expended in the completion of a new high-rise, the answers might make us cringe.