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Now hear this: The Army isn't abandoning LEED

Can a misstatement travel halfway around the world before the facts put on their (Army) boots? You bet your bazooka.

Last week, Green Building Law Update blogger Chris Cheatham posted an apparently stunning scoop alleging that the Army had abandoned its decade-long commitment to LEED certification in favor of the green building code recently promulgated by ASHRAE Standard 189.  It didn't take long before this incendiary announcement made its way rapidly around the Twittersphere and blogosphere.

To be clear: No, Virginia (and Texas and Maryland and Florida and Washington, etc.), the Department of Defense is not, repeat, NOT abandoning LEED.

The erroneous conclusion -- Cheatham's own -- was reached after reading the testimony of a senior Department of Defense official who noted that after a year of investigation, the Army and the military in general were going to adopt standard 189 for all of its construction.

To his (partial) credit, Cheatham on Monday posted a correction admitting that he had misunderstood: The Department of Defense will simultaneously require 189 and LEED certification. He also wrote a new blog post today that retracted his earlier conclusion, but principally focuses on his confusion at the difference between the code and a standard like LEED -- and why-oh-why would the Army do such a silly thing?

A respected blogger like Cheatham shouldn't have posted such a sensational headline before even a rudimentary fact-check. Or, if he's unclear about what a comment means, he could at least have put a question mark at the end of a speculative headline.

Some cooler heads, notably those atop the good folks at, mitigated the damage by actually picking up a phone and typing an email or two before printing the facts. As Dave Foster in the Pentagon's media relations division told reporter Paula Melton, the Army "will continue to seek LEED certification for our buildings built to that standard and expect to get LEED Silver or better at no additional cost.”

But for many commenters responding to Cheatham's story, abandoning LEED seemed a logical conclusion: If you are using ASHRAE 189, why would you need (or want) to use LEED? To others, it was merely a vindication of a long-standing belief that either a) LEED had transformed the market and therefore was no longer needed or b) it was an expected, and long overdue, beginning of an epitaph for an empty, overhyped program that had run its course.

As a public service, I will attempt to clear up some of the confusion.

LEED is a certification program to recognize leaders. Meanwhile, I think the best definition of codes I've ever heard came from pioneer green architect Randy Croxton: “Building to code means: ‘If you built it any worse it would be illegal.’”

Mind you, my intent here is not to criticize ASHRAE 189. Indeed, it represents one of the most far-reaching and impactful green documents that has ever come out, including the advent of LEED. Mandatory codes, if adopted, represent significant and quantum improvements in green practices. There can be no complaints of a competitive disadvantage, since everyone has to use the code. Adopting a mandatory code like 189 is not a trivial issue.

In the case of the Army, essentially it's adopting a higher floor that brings the lower performers up. Again, that's important: My experience internationally over the last 25 years has been that a strong base is necessary for a leap to the next level of sustainability. In many respects, existing codes are simply too far behind innovative codes such as ASHRAE 189 to be an effective floor against which to push toward LEED. The gap is simply too wide. By raising the bar to ASHRAE 189, the DoD is making it easier for project teams to adopt certain green practices as “business as usual.”

And if many of the “basic” green features of the building are codified in ASHRAE 189, it stops becoming an issue for the LEED team and part of standard practice. This allows the LEED team to focus on ways to advance green design in ever more effective, creative and economical ways.

One can only hope that after getting something this wrong, the Green Building Law Update -- which often has very insightful and incisive commentary on matters relating to the legal elements of sustainable building -- and other bloggers writing about green buildings will engage in a little bit more active fact checking before releasing similar pieces in the future.

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