LEED is the Worst, Part II: the Dirty Little Secret
October 19, 2010 § 13 Comments
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. Part II of this rant on LEED addresses a particularly insidious dirty little secret of LEED.
It rewards sprawl.
LEED draws a tight line around the environmental impacts it considers relevant. Transportation, specifically commuting impact, is the biggest hole. Commercial buildings, the primary LEED beneficiary, created 19%2 of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2008. Personal vehicle use — driving cars to buildings — accounted for 17%2, nearly as much as the buildings themselves. Yet LEED-NC (for example) has only 14 points available to reward reduced driving compared to 42 points directly related to energy reduction3.
Do the math for Chicago using two basic facts:
- The average LEED NC-certified building is only 24% more efficient than the average existing building4 (an average that includes a great many buildings over 50 years old).
- More than 60% of downtown Chicago workers take transit, bike, or walk, rather than drive, thus eliminating 60% of auto impacts.
In other words, when the car is accounted for, non-LEED conventional construction in a downtown Chicago location is two-and-a-half times better (60/24=2.5) than its LEED-rated car-only suburban doppelganger when it comes to CO2 emissions (and by implication total energy). A building in Manhattan is almost four-times better. Location efficiency is critically important to sustainability, and it provides other benefits ignored by LEED: less time in traffic, a healthier population, lower costs, greater convenience, and many others.
For a recent design project in a major city, the team proposed exemplary LEED credit be awarded for the incredible public transport options available near the site: 7 train lines, 17 bus routes, and 47 transit stops. Not a single employee drove to work. The USGBC denied the extra credit saying it would “unfairly reward an urban location”.
Interestingly, the Center for Transit Oriented Development just released a new tool designed to help assess the transportation impacts of development. This may help understand the total energy involved in a creating a new building. Maybe LEED should be modified to incorporate such a tool to identify the true affect of location efficiency.
What do you think?
note: this post is second of a multi-part critique of LEED. Look for future posts in the coming weeks.
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)
2. p.ES-8, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2008, Executive Summary (PDF), USEPA, April 2010. In 2008, commercial buildings accounted for 1045 MMT* of the total 5573 emitted, or about 19%. Residential buildings emitted 1185 MMT, or 21%. Together they add to the oft-quoted 40% attributed to non-industrial buildings. The transportation sector accounted for 32% (again corresponding to the regularly noted figure) of which 53% is “personal vehicle use”. Should the commercial building take responsibility for all the traffic (i.e. CO2) it generates? LEED acknowledges that transport impacts are directly associated with the building, so I suggest they should. *Million Metric Tons
3. LEED 2009 for New Construction and Major Renovation Checklist. Four credits reward reduced driving: Sustainable Sites credit 2, 4.1, 4.2, and 4.4. for a total of 14 potential points. Twelve credits relate to energy reduction: WE prerequisite 1, credits 1, 3; EA prerequisite 1, 2, credits 1, 2, 3, 5, 6; EQ credits 6.1 and 8.1. for a total of 43 potential points.
4. p. 2, Energy Performance of LEED® for New Construction Buildings, New Buildings Institute (for USGBC), March 2008. Note that this is a comparison with comparable existing buildings, not code. How close does the average existing building come to meeting the energy code? Are LEED buildings saving ANY energy? The data, if it exists, is not well publicized.
6. GBCI LEED Professional Directory. As of May 9, 2010, there are 123,056 LEED APs in the US.
7. p 474, LEED Reference Guide for Green Building Operations and Maintenance, 2009 Edition