LEED Buildings: Is the 'Green' All In Your Head?

A LEED-certified chemistry building on the MSU campus. Courtesy MSU.

There's nothing like conflicting information to give you a headache. Or maybe it's the building where I work, a structure built in the 1970s. According to a Michigan State University study, I'd feel better if I worked in LEED-certified building. On the other hand, LEED buildings don't pay enough attention to indoor air quality, says John Wargo, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council that takes energy savings, water efficiency, carbon dioxide emissions and indoor air quality into account. The Michigan State University study says workers who moved from conventional office buildings to LEED-certified structures called in sick less often and were more productive and less stressed.

The research (.pdf) is based on two case studies in the Lansing, Michigan, area, and was published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health.

It's important to point out that the results are based on self-reported absenteeism and stress, and improved productivity as a result of perceived improvements in health and well-being.

"These preliminary findings indicate that green buildings may positively affect public health," the researchers say.

It makes sense that a building constructed with practices meant to protect human health and the environment would make you "feel better." So what is the Yale professor's argument?

Wargo, in a lengthy post on Environment 360, says the criteria used for determining LEED ratings largely ignores factors relating to human health, particularly the use of potentially toxic building materials. Making buildings more airtight saves energy, he says, but also traps emissions from chemicals used in building materials and furnishings. Which can make you light-headed (and happier?).

"... LEED, a voluntary set of standards created by architects, engineers and builders, can award its highest level of certification -- platinum -- to a structure that earns no credits for air quality," he writes.

"In practice, the average LEED-certified building achieves only 6 percent of its total points for 'indoor environmental quality,' the category most closely tied to health, although some of these credits are often given for lighting and thermal comfort rather than assurance of reduced exposure to dangerous substances."

Wargo calls for a national building policy, rather than industry-developed standards, for toxics used in building construction. The Green Building Council, for its part, says the Indoor Environmental Quality section of LEED should be tougher and the standards are regularly revised.

For those of you in LEED-certified buildings, does the MSU study ring true? Or could it be more of a Hawthorne Effect, because those surveyed were just excited about their new work environment? Wouldn't a national building policy also suffer from industry influence? Shouldn't we be emphasizing renovation and re-use rather than new construction? As with any good science, the MSU researchers say larger and longer-term studies of LEED benefits are needed.

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Tags: Air Pollution | Buildings | Construction

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