Years ago I used to be quite critical of the LEED certification system, particularly about the laughably inappropriate things that got certification, from parking garages to space ports to drive through restaurants. But LEED kept getting better, and then the lumber and the plastics industries started going after them, and I realized that for all their problems, they have done so much to take green building into the mainstream, to change the whole industry. I became a big defender, and I must admit that they were very nice to me, giving me a big leadership award in 2014 for being so vocal.
And then I see this: the Mirabella at Village Green subdivision being built in Bradenton, Florida. According to Scott Gibson of Green Building Advisor, it is going for LEED Platinum in the LEED for homes program. That's the highest level you can get and I just have to ask, really?
Let's start with the site: there are points to be had for using an existing property rather than a greenfield site. As Matt Johnson reports in the Bradenton Herald:
Mirabella gained additional certification points for being built on an old golf course in the middle of an existing suburban neighborhood. Infill development is valued by the USGBC because it does not contribute to urban sprawl.
However this is not exactly new urbanism in action; the site has a Walkscore of 27. The site was a very suburban golf course community, probably sold to the people in the streets around it as forever green. It's not exactly a model of urbanity and Walkscore doesn't get LEED points, but It should count for something.
The design is what Scott Gibson says is a "garage forward" design. That is the polite term for what are known as snout houses, defined in Dolores Hayden's book "A field guide to sprawl" as "house with a protruding garage that takes up most of the street frontage, squeezing out front yards and making it hard to find the front door." They are banned in many communities because of the unfriendly streetscape they create, nothing but a wall of garages. In this design you can't even see the front door; it is hidden behind so that there is a straight run from the garage into the house. Here you are in sunny Florida where kids should be playing in the streets and people should be talking to their neighbors and you get a blank wall of garages, with the only overview being a window from the den. It's ugly, it's anti-urban and It should count for something.
Then there is the house itself. The builder calls them "paired villas"- I guess semi-detached doesn't play well. However it's a plus; you get higher density and a shared wall reduces heat gain and loss. Like any Florida house today it is designed for air conditioning, and being a semi limits the window placement. And I often complain that houses have too many, too large windows. Not a worry about solar gain here; windows face the sideyards or the covered front porch. It might have been designed for a bit of resilience with big windows front and back to maximize cross ventilation, but nobody opens their windows in Florida. Cross-ventilation and resilience aren't required for LEED for homes, but It should count for something.
But the biggest shocker for me is that these houses do not even meet code for insulation in the walls. Scott writes:
Insulation in Mirabella houses may seem a little skimpy to northern readers. Bradenton is in Climate Zone 2, where the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code's prescriptive approach requires R-38 of insulation in the ceiling and R-6 in mass walls — values that Mirabella homes don't reach. [they have R20 or 30 in ceilings, R4 in the walls] But as Dennis Stroer of Cals-Plus, a Venice, Florida, company that is handling some of the LEED certification work on the project, explains, the project is using a performance-based alternative.... In following a performance-based path to compliance, builders use computer modeling software to show energy costs won't be any higher than they would be in a house meeting prescriptive requirements of the code. High-efficiency mechanical equipment, such as AC units, can compensate for lower levels of insulation.
It is true, as the LEED consultant notes, that in this climate there isn't that much temperature differential between inside and out (I checked and last July and August it was a pretty consistent 91°F) and humidity is a bigger factor than temperature. So using gizmos, like SEER 15 air conditioners (with an optional SEER 18 upgrade) lets you get away with using R-4 walls and barely half the required insulation in the ceiling. This may be fine for the local building inspector, although I don't think gizmos should replace insulation, but for LEED? It should count for something.
There are obviously good things going on here. The houses are not grossly huge at about 1500 square feet. They will, according to the builder, quoted in the Herald,
...use 40 percent less energy than those built to local energy codes. Joe Jannopoulo, whose Synergy Building Corp. is handling Mirabella, said the homes will also have cleaner indoor air, be quieter and more comfortable.
Perhaps. It is a big improvement over much of the stuff built in Florida. We have to start somewhere. As the LEED consultant tells Scott, "The good part is we know we’re doing the right thing. In five years, everyone will be doing it. Right now, we’re alone." I should remember my Voltaire, that "The perfect is the enemy of the good".
But is this good enough for LEED certification, let alone Platinum? Is this subdivision, with its low walkscore, horrible streetscape, auto-centric snout house design, inadequate insulation, good enough? I don't think so. These are all important and It should count for something.