LEED Certifi-able vs. LEED Certified

LEED Certifi-able vs. LEED Certified

Every year, buildings are responsible for 39 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, use 71 percent of the nation's electricity, and account for 70 percent of all landfill waste. Green buildings can significantly reduce greenhouse emissions and energy dependence, by using less energy, water, and natural resources and creating less waste.

In Boston, a new code requires all new construction over 50,000 square feet be LEED certifiable (note the suffix), which is a little like saying that buildings must be greenish. The code's stipulation of certifiable is a missed opportunity, a weak gesture by city leaders to promote sustainable development in Boston.

In 2004, Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston Redevelopment Agency formed a Green Building Task Force to study how green building practices may be encouraged in the city of Boston. After a 12-month study, the task force recommended a set of initiatives, implemented in January 2007 as an amendment to the Boston Zoning Code Article 80 (Development Review and Approval), requiring private buildings over 50,000 square feet in Boston be designed and planned to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification.

The LEED process is a voluntary, consensus-based rating system for earning green credits in five different fields: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials and resources selection, and indoor environmental quality. Many other cities around the country use the LEED standard as part of their permitting process for private buildings and over 50 U.S. cities require LEED certification for municipal buildings. Article 80 makes Boston the largest city in the country to use the LEED standard for its private building permitting process.

The LEED amendment to Article 80 in the Boston zoning code could effect positive changes towards promoting green building practices in the city of Boston. LEED certified buildings are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work. Yet, the zoning code's Article 80 does not dictate that new construction in Boston must be LEED certified, but rather LEED certifiable. What does it mean to be LEED certifiable? Unfortunately, no one knows.

Thus what was initiated as a progressive step toward sustainable building construction in Boston is a pretense towards greening a major metropolitan area. And what could have been a truly bold move by city politicians towards curbing pollution, waste, and resource use is instead a rather feeble attempt to appear environmentally sustainable.

There is strong possibility that the rubric of LEED certifiability is ultimately detrimental to environmentally responsible building practices in Boston. It undermines the strength of the LEED rating system as an integrated process for sustainable design. And more problematically, it encourages a kind of greenwashing that allays eco-consciousness without necessarily being eco-friendly.

First, unlike the lengthy analysis and documentation required to achieve official LEED credits, the Boston Redevelopment Agency will accept brief explanations of how the project aims to achieve proposed credits. This implies that the Redevelopment Agency does not want to check the paperwork demanded from an official LEED review, and indeed the process by which the proposed LEED credits are checked is not transparent. It is likely that by only accepting brief explanations in lieu of analysis, they believe that they are decreasing costs because the official LEED documentation adds to the project budget.

Yet by evaluating the lifecycle costs of LEED certified projects to date, the USGBC has shown that LEED buildings are no more costly than non-LEED buildings, because the savings gained as a result of designing a more efficient high-performance green building presents a sizable offset to the cost of certification.

Second, the Redevelopment Agency does not provide templates describing what methods, models, or charts are acceptable explanations for proposed credits. And because several different analytical tools can be used to describe how LEED credits may be achieved, there is often uncertainty among design teams about how to best describe the credits sought. There is no stated baseline, criteria, or minimum threshold for how Article 80 may be interpreted by design teams, creating variability and hence confusion in the permit documentation process. Because architects and engineers applying for a building permit are not required to provide specific evidence of their analyses, they often opt for the least expensive and least time-consuming analytical methods, which are rules of thumb and back-of-the-envelope calculations. However, such "analyses" largely fail to describe the actual energy budget of a building and oftentimes provide incorrect results.

Third, the lack of clear guidelines and criteria for monitoring and evaluating the certifiability of a project during and after the permitting process relinquishes design team members from the responsibility of ensuring green building practices are actually implemented.

LEED-Lite

If the savings of a high-performance green building outweigh the costs of LEED certification -- then why did the Redevelopment Agency not amend the code to demand new construction over 50,000 square feet be LEED certified? What did they hope to achieve by easing the LEED certification requirements? Do LEED certifiable buildings perform better? Are they as high-performing as LEED certified buildings?

Indeed it is not possible to know the answers to these questions because there is no mechanism in place to evaluate LEED certifiable buildings after the permitting process. Rather the Redevelopment Agency must rely on the willingness of design team members to perform an accurate analysis to verify the proposed credits are actually achievable.

Sustainable design is not trivial and the LEED rating system and its multiple templates and complex submittal sheets makes this clear. The certification process outlined by the USGBC takes time, work, and experience, and leaves much room for improvement.

But it is the only nationally accepted standard for sustainable design, construction, and operation and to date, over 3 billion square feet of building has undergone the LEED process. The wide-spread adoption of LEED indicates that a major attitudinal shift about buildings and their impact on the environment is imminent. Sadly, the LEED-lite zoning code implemented by Mayor Menino and the Redevelopment Agency is not enough to ensure such changes in attitude or action will take place in Boston.

Simi Hoque is co-director of the not-for-profit organization Floodspace, which is focused on developing sustainable solutions for habitats threatened by climate change-related flooding. She works at the sustainable engineering firm in Waltham and teaches sustainable design courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and green practice at the Boston Architectural College. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley and a Masters of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. This column originally appeared in Environmental Design + Construction magazine.