LEED is the Worst, Part I: The (now) Obvious

October 18, 2010 § 7 Comments

Winston Churchill“…democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried…” 1 ~ Winston Churchill

Change a few words and the Prime Minister’s commentary on democracy could easily be applied to LEED. The USGBC’s system is barely ten years old, yet it has been has been remarkably successful in transforming the public’s view of architecture and the market for architectural goods.

But if you are familiar with the system or have tried to get a building certified you know it has some major problems, some more obvious than others:


It’s clumsy, brutish, long, and expensive.

Of course that may describe the architectural process itself, but nonetheless LEED creates an additional layer. It is in essence a scheme of regulatory compliance in which owners volunteer to participate, and one that appears at times tailored to obscure. Almost by definition, regulations impose, they don’t facilitate. LEED is not designed to be a good tool for making the goal-seeking process of architecture more efficient or effective. Although certification is dangled in front of us as a reward, the process of dealing with LEED itself is more stick than carrot.

The Reference Guide is over 500 pages long and costs $160. How many have us have read it cover-to-cover let alone the included reading list? LEED documentation is complex and circuitous. I was privileged to work on what was arguably the first green building in Chicago, the LEED Platinum Chicago Green Tech. It’s LEED documentation was an eight-foot bookshelf of four-inch black binders that got boxed and shipped to USGBC. Things have improved, but  the USGBC’s newest streamlining effort — the new LEED Online, is awkward and sluggish at best. The old one is almost unusable. Official LEED reviewers are often uneven, inconsistent, unreachable, and inexperienced, a result no doubt of the incredibly rapid growth the the USGBC and the newly formed Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). And there seems to be a new fee every time you turn around. If you want to work in all the many LEED systems — there are seven now: NC, EB, CI, CS, ND, Schools, Retail, and Healthcare, each with their own $160 guide — you are encouraged to achieve accreditation in each of them … for an additional fee.

When the developer of a LEED Gold Core & Shell project I’m working on wanted to bump up his pre-certification to Platinum, USGBC wanted an extra $2,000 to review the two additional credits required. $1,000 per credit? Let’s get real.

There are signs that USGBC/GCBI is considering reform, but without a clear direction we can expect these joint organizations to continue along their present trajectory – focusing on self-propagation at the expense of all of the participants.

What do you think?

note: this post is the first of a multi-part critique of LEED. Look for future posts in the coming weeks.

Check out Part II

Kevin Pierce, AIA, LEED AP, CEM

Kevin is Managing Director of Shaw Sustainable Design Solutions of Illinois, LLC, — an integrated firm providing comprehensive sustainable design services.  He is involved in projects nation-wide in energy efficiency, green infrastructure, clean energy, and green building. Kevin is Chairman of the Resource Center,  a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on urban agriculture and extreme recycling, adjunct associate professor at a the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a board member of American Institute of Architects, Illinois.

1. The Official Report, House of Commons (5th Series), 11 November 1947, vol. 444, cc. 206–07. (via WikiQuote)


§ 7 Responses to LEED is the Worst, Part I: The (now) Obvious

  • Well, I agree with most of the argument above. Frankly, all of the LEED guidelines should be everyday “good” design practices, but unfortunately are not. On the one hand, it is good that LEED has become a driving force in the building industry because it is raising awareness and forcing improvements towards sustainable design. Clients are better informed and now expect LEED buildings. Of course, it always comes down to the motivation behind doing LEED – are we truly following the intent or are we merely focused on getting the most points. It’s a double-edged sword.

    What I have heard from many architecture firms is that they apply the LEED guidelines to every new project regardless of whether or not the client is seeking project certification. It’s debatable as to the degree that this is true (if you’re paying for the LEED certification process, you’re more likely to follow through as opposed to trying to follow the intent without a structured framework).

    In any case, my position on LEED is that it should be considered the baseline or minimal code requirements for any building. If a client wants a LEED project, the associated fees should be included in the budget. And if a client doesn’t have a preference either way, it is the responsibility of the architect to encourage following the LEED guidelines and educate the project team about the importance of sustainable design.

  • greenerblog says:

    Justin, Thanks for your comments. I’ll be interested in hearing from you as I expand on this later.

  • If a LEED rating isn’t a guarantee, it’s worthless to a consumer. Sorry for repeating this post from greenbuildingadvisor:

    In building code terms, LEED is far too prescriptive and not performance oriented enough. Throw in “too complex for real customers” and too expensive, and what you have is nearly worthless.

    Here’s a solution I’ve been mulling:

    1. Let the building departments adopt the 2009 energy code as they wish. Then STOP any energy code changes forever. The technology is still changing too fast to attempt to follow it with prescriptive code “improvements”. Another reason for freezing the code is to prevent those pesky unintended consequences that aren’t even discovered for 20 years. (see Solar Driven Moisture in Brick Veneer at BuildingScience.com)

    2. Then let builders build as they see fit. Good ones will keep improving the sustainability of their product. (If you care enough to be reading this blog, you’re probably one of the good ones)

    3. Here’s where we replace prescriptive with performance: You can’t get any sort of LEEP (Leadership in Energy Efficiency Performance) rating PRIOR to building anything. To get a LEEP rating, the home must have a simple Web-based monitoring device installed for at least one year. The cost of this should only be $1000-$3000, it only needs a handful of measurements, some of which are already there, like kwh consumption, water consumption, gas consumption. Add two indoor temperature readings, hot water tank inlet and outlet, outdoor temperature north side of house and south side of house, major appliance electricity consumption, etc.
    This data can then be used to “normalize” the performance results. The square footage of the house is left out of the normalization calculations.

    4. The LEEP rating is in dollars, just like a yellow EPA EnergyGuide label for appliances. A true net zero energy house gets a LEEP rating of $0/yr. If you put on excess PV panels, and the utility pays you for your excess production, then your LEEP rating can be calculated to equal what the utility pays you for the year, and is negative, say -$200/yr.

    A 1000 sq. ft. home built to 2009 code minimum might get a rating of $800/yr. A 2000 sq. ft. home built to 2009 code minimum should perform a little better per sq. ft. than the 1000sq.ft. home, so it might get a rating of $1400/yr.

    This performance rating will always guide the builder in the right direction.

    5. The other non-energy efficiency related metrics can have their own rating, such as LEEPdurability, and LEEPwater. A near-zero maintenance house might have a LEEPdurability rating of $30 per year, while a house that needs painting and new light bulbs often would be rated at $300/yr. Again, the LEEPwater rating is in $/yr. Oh yeah, don’t forget LEEPembodiedenergy. That could be in kwh or $.

    The ratings are thus understandable, simple, standardized, and allow the builder his own solutions rather than any prescribed by LEED.

    Eventually these ratings will be meaningful to buyers, and that’s when the builders learn they must generate good ratings. That’s what I like, market forces in play instead of federal policy!

    Since this is so similar to the appliance rating program, the LEED officials must have studied the method, but I can’t figure out why they rejected it.

    Instead we got a mess that some people hate enough to sue for $100 million.

  • […] first of a multi-part critique of LEED. Look for future posts in the coming weeks. And check out Part I and Part […]

  • […] in Chicago, is in the midst of a multipart takedown of the LEED standard on his blog. Here’s Part I, Part II and  Part […]

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