LEED Is Not An Excuse To Demolish And Build A Monster Home

kingsway theater sign photo

Image credit JosephIWMolto, Wikipedia Commons

Donovan Rypkema once suggested that LEED was an acronym for "Lunatic Environmentalists Enthusiastically Demolishing." In Toronto recently, there was a case of blatant misuse of LEED, using it as an excuse to knock down a bungalow to replace it with a house 2-1/2 times the area and double the height of any other in sight, (with a tower that is even higher) but hey, it's OK, because it's gonna be LEED Certified.


Aerial view of the Kingsway, Toronto

Stephen Del Percio of The Green Building Law Journal points to a case in this writer's own backyard. The Kingsway is a lovely old streetcar suburb in Toronto, full of big wide lots with midcentury bungalows. People like it that way, and the height and density bylaws are such that if you want to change it, you have to go to a Committee of Adjustment to vary the bylaws. If you lose, you can appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, which everyone hates because as of late they appear to approve just about anything anywhere. But sometimes the OMB gets it right, and in this case, M.C. Denhez wrote a very entertaining ruling.

The owners applied to the Committee of Adjustment to build a new house that was two and a half times the area of the one being demolished (4248 square feet with six bedrooms), noting:

"This project", said their architect, "is to be LEED certified... and must maintain its 'green' features to be able to use this internationally recognized label".

It ended up at the OMB; Denhez writes in the decision, emphasis mine:

The Applicants' case opened with emphasis on LEED. The architect's letter called LEED "the best guarantee with regard to the quality"; and the Applicants' Planner told the Board that "environmental sustainability will be promoted". Those words demand consideration: history is riddled with instances where innovation was hamstrung by overly literal adherence to rules, and where environmentalism was poorly served by hidebound regulation.

The Board must be cautious, however, concerning "sustainability" and various trademarks for "green building" - not for fear of overextending the cause of environmental innovation but, on the contrary, of trivializing it. The Board takes notice that, with so many reported attempts by all and sundry to oversell environmental benefits (notably to expedite approvals), a new word was coined in North America - "greenwashing". It also applies to construction....

Does this project nonetheless deserve favourable treatment for "promoting environmental sustainability"? In a province where sending a plastic bag to landfill is considered environmentally problematic, the notion of turning entire buildings into landfill - in the name of environmental sustainability - would surprise at least some observers. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note that such claims are no shortcut around the Planning Act.

Denhez also addresses the issue of preserving the character of the neighbourhood:

This case is not about freezing suburban neighbourhoods in a 1950's time warp. The OP [official plan] and this Board anticipate that many options exist, to improve the Applicants' property - within the framework of the Planning Act. In particular, it is fully expected that many of those options can be both innovative and "green".

As we like to quote, the greenest building is the one already standing. LEED is not an excuse to demolish and build a monster home. It shouldn't get you around the rules.

More on LEEDwashing:
Is A Green Parking Garage Like A Kosher Ham?
Dumb and Dumber: NAIOP Calls HSBC HQ Green Project of the Year
Donovan Rypkema: LEED stands for "Lunatic Environmentalists Enthusiastically Demolishing"

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