Is LEED tough enough to stop climate change? Is it even the right question?

LEED certified spaceport
© Foster + Partners LEED certified spaceport

What do we really want from a building certification system?

It used to be fashionable to bash LEED, the green building rating system established by the US Green Building Council. These days, it is fashionable to ignore LEED, and talk up the newer, sexier certification systems. Over on Citylab, Brian Barth wonders Is LEED tough enough for the climate-change era?

Barth describes how LEED really changed the green building world. "A vast ecosystem of green commerce has grown in tandem with LEED, spurring sales in products ranging from solar panels to low-VOC paints and low-flow toilets." LEED is now baked into many building codes and municipal bylaws. Its influence has been huge.

LEED exposedLEED exposed/Screen capture

But a continuing problem is that everybody had their own axe to grind- people used to complain (even years after it was no longer true) THEY GIVE A POINT FOR A BICYCLE RACK! Others thought that it should just worry about energy when there were so many factors that LEED looks at, from better light and air quality to sustainably sourced materials and the most contentious, the use of plastics. Years were lost fighting over these. Republicans tried to ban LEED, greenwashing and astroturfing organizations were set up, all trying to emasculate LEED. (Barth kindly mentions our writing about this at the time) It is remarkable that it managed to survive such assaults.

But they did, and Barth notes:

USGBC has inarguably changed the course of the building industry for the better. It mobilized the masses around the idea of environmentally responsible construction. The “co-benefits” of many green buildings, like ample daylight and better indoor air quality, clearly improve people’s health and comfort. A Harvard study published in January found that LEED buildings yield substantial energy savings and “nearly equivalent” climate and health benefits.

Not a few serious green architects think that LEED really doesn't go far enough; green building pioneer Bob Berkebile tells Barth: “The certification has become: Your building is doing a little less damage to the environment than everyone else’s,” Berkebile said. “But that means you’re still having a negative impact. I think that’s a failure.”

That's harsh. There are levels of LEED and the Platinum certification is not easy to achieve. I have certainly complained about LEED certification for laughably inappropriate uses like parking garages and spaceports, and about how a LEED building can be located in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by a sea of parking. But LEED buildings are still better buildings. However LEED has also got so big, so corporate, certifying thousands of square feet per day. It has become so ubiquitous that it has lost its caché.

Imagine© Living Building Challenge

There are also so many boutique certifications now; Barth mentions the Living Building Challenge which is a much tougher standard, so tough that some of its requirements are not even legal in many building codes. It's also really expensive and I don't believe it scales very well.

well standard© Well Standard categories

Energy and carbon are a tough sell these days when the government wants to make more CO2, not less, but health is big, so the Well Certification system is booming. Then there is Fitwel for the exercise and fitness obsessed.

Elrond TweetTweet by Elrond Burrell/Screen capture

Those who care about carbon emissions and building efficiency are trending to the Passivhaus or Passive House standard; I have always thought it was too focused on that single metric and proposed, only slightly tongue in cheek, an Elrond Standard that was Passivhaus plus embodied energy, non-toxic materials and walkable.

The certification systems are not all discrete and separate; the USGBC and Well people are working together and sharing data and dual certifications are becoming common. (Rick Fedrizzi, who ran USGBC forever, now is heading up Well). It would be nice if all the certification systems were all modular, where you could plug them all into one framework.

But LEED is still the mother of certification systems in North America, it is constantly evolving, and to answer the question- is it tough enough for the climate change era? The answer is no, but there is probably a group somewhere meeting right now discussing it.

The author was recipient of the 2014 USGBC Leadership Award for promotion of green building, so is clearly biased.

Is LEED tough enough to stop climate change? Is it even the right question?
What do we really want from a building certification system?

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