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In the nascent movement to foster environmentally sound building practices, just how to get buildings to use less energy and water, create less waste and still provide the healthiest home for tenants has become a fractious debate within the industry.
At the center of the discussion is the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification program, commonly known as LEED, a comprehensive set of standards for green construction where builders aim for a certain number of LEED points to reach LEED Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum status. Created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and overseen by the Green Building Certification Institute, LEED is gaining a legion of domestic and international followers—many of them in Northern California.
In recent years, however, detractors have been crying foul, saying the program that promises better environmental stewardship actually fosters poor operational practices, and even harms tenants. Some believe that architects and planners are so focused on attaining “green” points that they miss the bigger picture, while others argue that LEED is a work in progress constantly evolving to meet the needs of the growing green building industry.
How Healthy Are LEED Buildings?
“Although the primary stated purposes of the Green Building Council are to promote both energy efficiency and human health, even the council’s most prestigious Platinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of the certified buildings,” according to John Wargo, a professor of environmental risk analysis at Yale University who authored, “LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides With Human Health.”
In the condemning report, published in May by Environment and Human Health Inc., Wargo says the LEED program focuses on consumption and waste production, conveying a false impression of a healthy and safe building environment, while failing to adequately prioritize critical health hazards such as air quality and potentially toxic building materials. Energy conservation technologies and designs can earn nearly four times as many LEED certification credits as efforts to protect tenants from indoor air quality and “well-recognized” hazardous chemicals. “LEED standards are clearly insufficient to protect human health, yet they are being adopted by many levels of government as law,” according to the report.
The LEED program has encouraged more efficient heating and ventilation techniques, but, in some instances, energy conservation efforts that reduce the indoor-outdoor air exchange exacerbate indoor air problems, Wargo says in the report. He claims that LEED also fails to adequately monitor the thousands of toxic building materials and products that end up in human tissues and protect people from poor water quality or potential work hazards.
Another detractor is Henry Gifford, a mechanical systems designer and owner of Gifford Fuel Saving, who recently filed a $100-million class action federal lawsuit claiming the USGBC has been misleading consumers. The suit argues that LEED standards steer builders and property owners away from more effective strategies for saving energy and contributing to a healthier building.
In the suit, which was filed in October and amended in February to discontinue the class action portion, Gifford alleges that the USGBC standards promising more environmentally-friendly buildings are patently false, as are USGBC claims that LEED buildings gain third-party verification. Gifford relies on a 2008 study by the New Buildings Institute and the USGBC that measured actual energy performance of LEED buildings. “LEED-certified buildings are no more energy-efficient than non-LEED certified buildings,” Gifford claims in his amended lawsuit. He says there is no objective empirical support for the claim that LEED buildings consume less energy.
Building in Long-Term Stewardship
But LEED proponents say that since the decade-old LEED program began gaining traction a few years ago, thousands of builders and property owners have been inspired to incorporate new environmentally conscious practices into their projects. According to the USGBC, 35,000 projects are participating in the LEED system, comprising over 4.5-billion square feet of construction space in all 50 states and 91 countries. In February, the Northern California Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, founded in 1998, reported 1,770 LEED registered and certified projects, which account for 6% of the total LEED projects worldwide.
According to the USGBC, buildings contribute an estimated 39 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S., about twice the amount generated by transportation.
“The need for more environmentally conscious building is very real,” says Dan Geiger, executive director of the USGBC-Northern California Chapter. Effectively operated green buildings can reduce building energy consumption by 24% to 50%, carbon emissions by more than one-third, water use by 40% and waste by a whopping 70%, according to Geiger.
The building industry needs to keep the environment, tenant health and economic incentives in mind. “It’s important to think of it holistically,” Geiger says. “[LEED is] kind of a win-win-win really, which is why I think it’s grown.”
Acknowledging the importance of post-construction monitoring, in 2009 the USGBC announced the Building Performance Partnership, a program to engage owners and managers of commercial and residential LEED-certified green buildings in optimizing the performance of their buildings. “The question of the day is, how are building owners going to improve tenant behavior?” Geiger said.
Quantifying some of the changes to meet LEED standards was one of the challenges for people working on the silver LEED certification effort last year at the Fillmore Center, said Joe O’Connor, a project manager with Sustainable Energy Partners.
“The intent of each point was relatively subjective,” said O’Connor, who cautioned against getting too focused on particular measurements that get LEED points. “Keep a broader view and remember what’s important. You can lose sight of what the goal is of getting LEED certified. You have to step back and refocus. Getting from A to B is different for everyone. Every architect will tell you things change.”
Sifting Through Green Claims
The challenge for property owners and managers is to sift through the claims—both for and against—the growing trend of sustainability consciousness and decide how to handle priorities most effectively. Property managers “have got an extremely difficult job in the best of times,” says Barry Giles, founder and chief executive officer of BuildingWise, a LEED consultancy and training company based in Moss Landing, a community just south of Santa Cruz.
BuildingWise helped the Transamerica Pyramid building in San Francisco earn a gold LEED standard as an existing building. A structure dating back to the 1970s, it was built long before “green” was a design term. The building, however, has undergone an operational transformation in recent years that has allowed it to cut energy consumption by about $600,000 a year. In fact, the building now creates its own energy via an onsite co-generation plant. Changes to how trash was handled saved about $100,000 a year and tenant education has played a key role in ongoing savings, according to Giles.
“Is it a green building? I don’t really care,” he says. “All I care about is if this building is operated in the best possible way it can. I look for high performing buildings. There’s no end target. It’s a methodology and a framework for how things operate.”
Giles believes property owners must look beyond great design and implement operational, often inexpensive changes that save money and help protect the environment long-term.
“The most important thing is, how does the building operate over time?” Giles said. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure. It’s what you do with that LEED that makes it green or sustainable. You can design the greenest building in the world, but if you don’t operate it that way, it will never reach the goals you’ve designed and it could be the worst building out there.”
In tough economic times, property managers needs to try to satisfy the green component and also save money on the operation of the building. The challenge is finding “real down-to-earth answers,” Giles said. “There’s a lot of hype out there from the LEED side and the green side. You can’t see the forest for the trees.”
A Work in Progress
In the end, the LEED program is still evolving, say LEED supporters such as Jose Guevara, a Cushman & Wakefield property manager who oversees the Gold-certified Post Montgomery Center in San Francisco. The one-million-square-foot retail and office center earned certification as an existing building in October 2009. But that was really just the beginning, according to Guevara, who estimates that changes in the last few years save 20 to 50 cents per square foot a year. The building continues to incorporate new conservation measures, such as energy-saving faucets and toilet flushers that generate power for the next usage.
There are huge misconceptions about what LEED is, what it takes to be certified and how the program is supposed to work, Guevara says, adding that the program is still being refined: “Yes, there are flaws, but it’s the only program that provides a standard to strive for.”
Guevara welcomes criticism of LEED, saying it helps improve standards. “Having the naysayers helps point out the defects in the process and system and makes us think and say, ‘We should do something about this,’” he says.
LEED will continue to be revised as the market evolves and standards are raised,
Geiger said. “We will be seeing requirements for ‘net zero’ buildings, even regenerative buildings. It will be the difference between doing less bad, and doing positive good. It’s going to be harder in a residential apartment building, for sure, but the design and technologies are going to be better. We have a climate crisis and an energy crisis and a water crisis and the most profitable way to deal with this is green building: to stop wasting and create more healthy places for us to live and work and make money doing it.”
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