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Attention USA Today: Green buildings need to make financial sense

<p>Two USA Today articles got plenty of attention by questioning whether LEED goes far enough. But they highlight the false -- but broad -- premise that only expensive steps qualify as truly green.</p>

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.

Image of money exchange by Jeff Davies via Shutterstock.

Back to the basics

There were also some basic facts that I wish the articles had gotten right. For example, the first piece repeated the oft-cited canard that "LEED certification is [only] awarded before occupancy. Points for minimizing energy and water use are based on projections, not on actual energy and water use."

For existing buildings, the USGBC standard relies on measured energy use as recorded by Energy Star. The average Energy Star score of a certified building in LEED is 84, which means -- in contrast to the article's assertion that LEED buildings don't perform better than others -- that they are more efficient than the vast majority of buildings in the country. Moreover, approximately 15 percent of the certified existing buildings are in the top 5 percent of the Energy Star rankings.

The article dismisses the importance of existing buildings in LEED by saying that existing buildings make up only a small percentage of LEED-certified buildings compared to new buildings. But while the number of existing LEED-certified buildings is indeed less than the number of new buildings, the correct story is that -- based on the amount of certified floor area -- the center of gravity in LEED has now firmly tipped toward existing buildings.

Everything we care about -- including environmental impact and dollars -- is driven by the amount of floor area, not the number of buildings.

There were a total of 810 million square feet of certified existing building floor area, as of the beginning of October, compared with a total of 798 million square feet of buildings certified under LEED for new construction. And for buildings certified under LEED 2009 -- the most recent version of the standard -- more than 300 million square feet of existing buildings have been certified, compared to just over 60 million square feet of new construction.

It is true that new buildings certified by LEED, which don't yet have actual energy and water use figures to use, must rely on computerized estimates. However, these estimates are getting better all the time due to a growing base of experience in computer modeling.

Why real solutions need 'insiders'

The other thing that rankles about the articles is the implication that the volunteers who contributed to its development of the green building movement should not try to promote incentive programs that grow the market. If "insiders" who are greening actual buildings aren't supposed to be working on the standards and building the market because of some supposed conflict, then exactly who the heck is supposed to be doing it? Maybe we should have insurance executives make surgical guidelines and decisions. Oh, wait…

Based on the underlying assumptions in these articles, it would seem that society at large doesn't think business should be at all involved in trying to improve the environment. But, as a friend recently commented, "How do people think markets get transformed?" Business participation is essential to making market changes.

LEED is an engine of market transformation. If it pulls too hard on the market “train,” it risks decoupling itself from the very market it is trying to change. If the industry stops participating, then the market for LEED will be nonexistent. And 100 percent of nothing is … nothing.

By contrast, as we have written in the Green Building Market and Impact Report, LEED has realized significant accomplishments and fostered real change in the global building industry. It is one of the true beacons of the power of broad-based, voluntary, market-based programs.

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