Energy, LEED

Backlash Against the Backlash

April 4, 2012 | By Yetsuh Frank | 1 Comment »

I wish LEED had more nuanced critics.

As regular as winter, articles crop up purporting to outline the problems with LEED.  Every time I dive in eagerly and almost every time I come away disappointed.  Maybe this is inevitable.  LEED is technocratic, both in terms of content and process, and the building industry moves at its own pace.  Maybe we can’t expect our frothy media to deliver on this subject.

The latest instance along these lines is an article for Urban Land, provocatively titled LEED Backlash, that contains three paragraphs of wheat surrounded by a cloud of somewhat disorienting chaff.  First, the wheat.

The piece notes that the most recent Department of Defense (DoD) reauthorization bill included a provision that restricts DoD projects from pursuing Gold or Platinum certification without a waiver from the Secretary of Defense and requires the DoD to complete a cost benefit analysis of their green building standards (which, despite the bill, still require LEED Silver certification.)  It’s a fascinating development but the tenor of the LEED Backlash article seems misplaced.  First, they report that “the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill in December that severely restricts the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) from spending extra money on” LEED.  This implies that government has arrayed itself against LEED, when in fact a small minority have attached a restrictive provision to a massive defense funding bill.  As the article notes later, “It appears that Congress’s action primarily stemmed from a dispute over the use of wood in green construction.”

It goes on to state, “A coalition of green building advocates, timber interests, and dozens of congressional members have objected to what they believe is an exclusion of domestic sources of wood in the LEED point system.”  This is fascinating, but it doesn’t mean there is a generalized backlash against LEED.  It means that much of the timber industry is still frustrated that FSC remains the baseline within LEED to receive credit for the use of sustainably harvested wood.  The article, for instance, could just as easily have been titled “Timber Lobby Engineers Destructive Rider to Defense Authorization Bill.”   This debate has been raging for years and is far from resolved.  More specifics on the background would have been illuminating.  Who exactly is in the “coalition” noted by the author?  Which member of Congress added the provision to the bill?  I’d be fascinated to know more about this but instead the author surrounds this nugget of actual news with a host of vague quotes about LEED’s place in the market, pro and con, and a frustratingly undeveloped premise that governments are “pursuing green building standards other than LEED.”

Which brings us to the chaff.  The article suggests that California’s CalGreen building code is somehow a rebuff of LEED.  But LEED is not a code.  It’s not written as a code and the USGBC would be first to tell you that it should not be implemented as one.  In almost every instance of LEED being “mandated” by a public jurisdiction you’ll find that the fine print is much looser.  Most require that projects meet LEED standards, but not actually certify.  And most include broad provisions for the folks that hold the purse strings to opt out if LEED isn’t suitable for the project.  This is prudently cautious, but also a recognition that LEED should not be treated as something that can be legislated.  The advent of CalGreen and other green codes can be seen as a direct result of LEED’s success in the market- not a repudiation of it.  The article also treats the existence of Green Globes as news and states rather vaguely that it is “gaining momentum.”  I’d love to know how Green Globes is faring in the market.  If states or cities are using it as a guide I want to know about it.  Same goes for the International Green Construction Code, developed by the International Code Council and soon to be, as the article notes, adopted by Maryland.  In the same sentence the article notes the presence of the Living Building Challenge, so progressive it is mind-boggling, and a new certification for windows and doors by the AMAA, a comically out of place reference.  As a result, the article hints at some fascinating developments in the industry but doesn’t pursue them in any kind of depth.

There are certainly big questions about the future of LEED; for one, LEED certified buildings don’t always perform as one might expect.  Why, specifically, does this happen?  While LEED is looking at the horizon the floor is being raised by increasingly stringent energy codes.  Will LEED remain relevant in this context?  These are important but complicated questions and none of them are served by articles that treat them without nuance.

Another piece in the same publication, The Greening of the Real Estate Industry, looks at the disconnect between right-wing policy and the work of the private sector.  It’s well worth a read and be sure to scroll down to the comments where you will be treated to entries from Roger Platt of the USGBC on the obstruction tactics of the timber lobby and a reply from Kathleen Sims of the Plum Creek Timber Company.

LEED has many rough edges.   It does some things well and others not so well.  Understanding these flaws and their impact on the future of our industry is important work.  Let’s make sure we treat those issues with the care and specificity they deserve.


- who has written 261 posts on Urban Green Blog.

Yetsuh Frank is a consultant in New York City. An architect, educator and writer, Yetsuh has more than 15 years experience spearheading sustainability throughout the building industry. Yetsuh was Director of Programs at Urban Green Council from 2008 to 2011.

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1 comment

  1. durhamgrnbldr says:

    The problem with LEED is that it’s reactive(barely) and not adaptive. It’s a slow moving almost stagnant system.

    Sustainable building and design is the exact opposite of that.

    I don’t believe in the “Perfect being the enemy of the Good” and LEED has been and is good in the overall scheme.

    But it needs to be more responsive to whats actually going on in sustainable building and design and what should happen.

    I was hoping to see some sort of collaboration out of the USGBC and Passive House, I won’t hold my breath.

    LEED needs to have the mentality that any day now it won’t be relevant. Because it might not be.

    It’s needs a “Rocky” mentality.

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