New Report Measures the Actual Impacts of Green Buildings for the First Time

New Report Measures the Actual Impacts of Green Buildings for the First Time

Green buildings have saved the U.S. billions of gallons of water and enough energy to avoid the equivalent of burning of 1.3 million tons of coal for electricity since the development of the LEED standards.

In the process, these high-performance buildings have produced millions of dollars in employee productivity gains, avoided thousands of tons of soil erosion, and created a multibillion dollar market for the green building materials used in their construction.

Yet all of this still isn't enough to overcome global climate change, according to the Green Building Impact Report 2008, which was written by Executive Editor Rob Watson and released Wednesday in Boston at Greenbuild, the U.S. Green Building Council's annual conference.

The report is billed as the first to comprehensively gauge whether LEED buildings are producing real and verifiable environmental improvement as promised. Though LEED buildings are reducing individual site impacts, market penetration must significantly escalate to truly move the needle forward, it found.

"Our findings are both encouraging and cautionary," Watson said as part of the report's release. "Overall, we believe that LEED buildings are making a major impact in reducing the overall environmental footprint of individual structures. However, significant additional progress is possible and indeed necessary on both the individual building level and in terms of market penetration if LEED is to contribute in meaningful way to reducing the environmental footprint of buildings in the U.S. and worldwide."

The report chronicles LEED's growth in an industry where buildings consume about 40 percent of the world's energy and contribute roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. LEED registrations and certifications doubled in 2007, compared to the previous six years, and doubled again in 2008 relative to the previous seven years.

Watson foresees a slowdown and eventual flattening of the rates in the U.S. because of the faltering economy and increasing rigor of LEED requirements. Yet growth overseas will continue adding LEED floor space at a pace that could surpass that of the U.S.. The 295 million square feet of LEED-certified floor space existing today in the U.S. could balloon to 5.6 billion square feet by 2015, and to 11.1 billion by 2020.

You can download the Green Building Impact Report from GBIR 2008 cover

The reduced environmental impacts from LEED buildings cited in the report are heartening. LEED buildings, for example, operate on about a quarter less energy than their conventional counterparts and have so far prevented the burning of about 1.3 million tons of coal for electricity. By 2015, that figure could hit nearly 26 millions of tons of coal we won't have to tap for electricity, and nearly 49 million tons of coal by 2020.

LEED buildings have saved the U.S. 9.5 billion gallons of water, an amount that could surpass 133 billion gallons by 2015. Water savings could double again by 2020.

LEED buildings present a strong business case for the dollars they can not only generate, but also save for their occupants. LEED building occupants, for instance, have driven nearly 400 million fewer miles since 2004, and occupants may drive more than 4 billion fewer miles by 2020. Employee productivity could grow from $170 million annually now to nearly $2 billion by 2020. The current $10.5 billion green materials market could also grow to more than $100 billion over the next 12 years.

The report calculates that carbon dioxide emissions from commercial buildings in the U.S. must drop 1.6 percent every year to meet an overarching goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. LEED buildings are now exceeding that target, but the rest of the entire building sector isn't.

"LEED buildings' relatively exemplary performance is not helping to make enough of a dent in contraining the growth of the building sector's CO2 emissions," Watson said. "We need much more -- and much more quickly -- to reduce total emissions."

Even LEED standards must become more stringent to capture even bigger energy savings, the report found. However, LEED cannot tackle climate change on its own. There must be a monetization of carbon, improvement in building codes and other market incentives to foster the adoption of green building practices, such as requiring smart grid technology in every building, widespread energy efficiency utility incentives, and financial and insurance vehicles that reward green buildings for lower risk. Executive Editor Joel Makower compared the steady rise of the green building movement to the strides toward environmental stewardship under way in the business sector.

"The question is whether progress is happening at sufficient speed and scale to adequately address our needs for cleaner air and water and a stable global climate," Makower said. "As much as the building sector has made over the past decade, there is much, much more to do."

Watson underscored the point in a news conference Wednesday night at Greenbuild and called for broad application of an aggressive policy to bring energy efficiency to all buildings.

"LEED is a very strong engine for market transformation, but if guys in the back of train — the caboose — have the brakes on, then not much is going to happen," Watson said at the media conference hosted by Johnson Controls, the presenting sponsor of the report. "In fact, we need to take the caboose off and put another engine on."

Asked whether there is proof that LEED buildings are more valuable than others, Watson pointed to three studies this year.

Two were compiled by McGraw-Hill Construction. The most recent, which was released Tuesday, said the value of green building construction starts has grown five-fold and rose from $10 billion to an estimated range of $36 billion to $49 billion from 2005 to 2008. That report said the value could triple by 2013 and attain an upper range of $96 billion to $140 billion.

In March the CoStar Group, which specializes in commercial real estate research and information services, said its research showed that Energy Star and LEED-certified buildings command higher sales prices and rent. Energy Star certified buildings sell for an average of $61 per square foot more than comparable non-certified buldings, CoStar said. The sales price for LEED building averages $171 more per square foot than conventional buildings.

"We have very clear market signals that LEED buildings are more valuable,” Watson said.

You can read the Green Building Impact Report 2008 online or download it from