Last week, USA Today ran a couple of "man bites dog" stories about the LEED Green Building Rating System. The first article questioned whether LEED is too easy; the second article implied that "green" buildings are about making money, rather than advancing sustainability.
Although some might argue that any publicity is good publicity, overall, I thought the USA Today articles were confused, contradictory and rife with mischaracterizations.
The U.S. Green Building Council set out to transform an entire industry and, because of its approach, succeeded on a scope and scale that no other private program or label has ever matched. The building sector is complex and Byzantine. Unfortunately, the author, Thomas Frank, falls prey to some typical mistakes that reflect underlying misconceptions about the intersection between the economy and the environment.
Here's one contradiction: On one hand, the series takes issue with the fact that “designers target the easiest and cheapest green points,” such as “materials [that] add little cost or effort and have no impact outside the building.” Using these materials -- which barely existed on the market when LEED first launched, but which have now become much more commonplace in the U.S. -- still delivers benefits for occupant health.
On the other hand, one of the second article's points is that LEED supposedly hasn't done enough on materials and the indoor environment. This contradictory perspective implies that somehow environmental measures are not meaningful if they aren't expensive or if they're common. In addition, throughout the article, the author implies that any economically successful or cost-effective environmental program must be greenwash.
To back up his premise, Frank relies on several misleading points. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the length to which the article went to show that the USGBC had rolled over whenever member companies or industry groups had suggested favorable changes to the system. The timber industry has intensively pressured the USGBC to recognize wood certification systems other than the Forest Stewardship Council's. This pressure has included the creation of a rival standard, Green Globes, and an extensive state-level lobbying effort resulting in the sponsorship of dozens of state level laws -- some of which were successful -- or executive orders prohibiting the use of LEED because it does not recognize conventional timber certification regimes.
Far from rolling over, USGBC has fought hard to bring real change to the building industry, in spite of pressure that has, at times, been extremely intense and that has only ramped up since the release of the draft of Version 4. The mild reference to a "protest" against one of USGBC's proposed requirements, in the second article, completely glosses over the scorched-earth tactics of chemical and wood trade associations that have been trying for years to force LEED and USGBC to cloak their business-as-usual practices in some sort of veneer of green leadership. These protectors of the status quo have poured many tens of millions of dollars into trying to "defeat" LEED and, for the most part, have failed.
Next page: The importance of retrofits and industry insiders