LEED is the Worst, Part II: the Dirty Little Secret

October 19, 2010 § 13 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. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

Part I <—> Part III

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.

5. USGBC LEED Certified Projects List

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


§ 13 Responses to LEED is the Worst, Part II: the Dirty Little Secret

  • Peter Nobile says:

    Kevin – nice critique! However, as one who has swallowed the USGBC Kool Aid I take the position that LEED is a great place to start, but without guidance from cooler heads it becomes simple point-counting and award-chasing. It is like Energy Star – flawed, to be sure, but relatively easy to understand. Our job as architects-without-borders is to help clients sort through the greenwashing to do the right thing – which might mean not even using LEED and spending the money on CO2 monitors instead…

  • Andres Duany made this same point the other day:

    “Households in downtown Chicago produce one-quarter the greenhouse gases of households in nearby suburban Kane County”:

    What if, all of a sudden, say, like, in 2011, “production” homebuilders stopped concentrating on tearing up farmer’s fields and building new infrastructure for new housing, and started concentrating on rebuilding run-down neighborhoods closer to the city center?


    Just possibly the biggest single step toward halting global warming.

    The trend has begun on vacant lots in Philadelphia. See: http://postgreenhomes.com/projects/ Philly has a strong enough economy to support infill like this. But we’re not seeing much of this anywhere else in US.

    A decent rating system would award the 100k houses a rating that would be three times as good as average new construction in a new subdivision.

  • brendan says:

    kevin – let’s take a look at your dirty little secret:

    you’ve subdivided the carbon emissions of the “commercial” building sector but you compare it to 100% of the “personal vehicle use”. to be consistent, you should either be comparing all the personal vehicle use (17%) to all of the commercial and residential building use (40%) or, you should come up with some method to subdivide personal vehicle use for the residential and commercial sub-sectors. your whole argument is based on nonsense.

    which is unfortunate because a credit based on the ctod tool is an interesting idea. it would be great if we didn’t have to do our own subdivision of your analysis.

    leed isn’t perfect but interpreting data incorrectly to try to prove your point undercuts your credibility as a critic – you’re either inadvertently wrong or a hater. either way…

  • brendan says:

    i forgot to disclose a conflict: i’m full time paid usgbc staff. that said, i’m paid to do things other than respond to critiques and my math’s usually pretty ok.

  • Rob Watson says:

    Unfortunately, Kevin, I think you got the numbers wrong.

    First of all, commuting transportation is only 21% of the VMT-vehicle miles travelled-in the US (Transportation Energy Data Book, Oak Ridge National Lab, Table 8.6 “Journey to work”).

    Second, only half of that is allocable to the non-residential building: every journey has a beginning & an endpoint & in the commute equation, the one of them’s a home that deserves the other half of the allocation so, you take 50% of 21% of 17% (2% of transportation energy allocable to non-residential buildings) & now in fact I would make the reverse argument: LEED OVERallocates points to transportation because it fell into the same allocation error: 100% of the commute VMT to the non-res. building instead of splitting it.

    Indeed LEED allocates lots of points to this to incentivize those downtown buildings you correctly rhapsodize, which typically are NOT allocated the location efficiency points in the sustainable sites category. Between you and me, I think the USGBC was wrong to turn down your EP submission because we DO want to “unfairly” reward urban locations, which is exactly what the 2009 re-weighting did (a bit TOO well IMO). At the beginning we explicitly did not want to bias the system any one way, but now that we have some traction we can and should.


  • greenerblog says:

    Rob, thanks for pointing me to the Energy Data Book. It looks like a good resource. As to the numbers, commuting to and from work is a subset of personal vehicle use, so taking 21% of 17% doesn’t make sense. In any case, location efficiency affects more than going to and from the workplace. Should all of the transportation emissions be allocated to the destination rather than splitting them with the the origin (home)? A very, very high percentage of trips from home are to buildings that fall into the “commercial” sector from the standpoint of the IPCC* – basically anything that is neither residential nor industrial – and thus to buildings that could be LEED-rated. And of course you’re right, every trip is a round-trip, but the CO2 impact of that trip depends on both the mode (driving, walking, transit), the amount of energy expended to make the trip, and the nature of the destination. If those destinations are sited in location-efficient spots, the entire trip has less impact. This is true even if the home is location-inefficient. For example, a location-efficient destination allows people to park once and walk to several nearby destinations. Part of my point is that LEED makes no effort to actually measure transportation impacts let alone assign them. *the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

  • greenerblog says:

    Brenden, please take a look at the actual data. This is an apples-to-apples comparison. See this for some comments on assignment of CO2 to commercial versus residential. By the way, I’m a lover not a hater. If we don’t address LEED’s issues it will lose relevancy.

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

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

  • brendan says:

    apologies in advance for being a bit wordy…

    Kevin –

    I just reread my post and it sounds, in hindsight, very cranky. Apologies for that. I must have been having a bad day and didn’t realize it was coming out in writing. My intention was to challenge your conclusion, not your commitment to greener buildings in more efficient communities.

    Essentially, I’m making the same point Rob made – the allocation of all of the personal transport carbon (personal vehicle use) to any one sector of the buildings industry is letting the other sectors off the hook with respect to their location efficiency. While I’m sure there are several residential property developers in California struggling with the requirements they face to do something about their carbon footprint who would love to be able to do the math the way you’re proposing (put all the transport carbon on the commercial sector) it really disconnects the interdependency of the live/work equation.

    You might disagree with Rob’s specific allocation but as a starting point, it seems that personal vehicle use should be allocated in thirds across the commercial, industrial and residential sectors and adjusted from there based on census data and other trip generation information – which is what USGBC did to come up with the point allocations in the 2009 rating system. Most GHG accounting protocols (e.g. WRI) allow you to define your own assumptions for this allocation but I haven’t seen one that suggests allocating 100% of transport to one sector is advisable (or permissible – those CA developers are kinda hot about that point). Additionally it also seems counterproductive to location efficient communities. Essentially, you’re saying that as long as commercial buildings are in transit connected locations, nobody will need drive to them. This only makes sense if the residential areas people live are either collocated with the commercial areas or connected to them via transit – which is why the total personal vehicle use comparison to the sum of the commercial and residential sectors is important. Either way, the location efficiency/access to non-personal vehicle transit in residential areas is every bit as important as it is in commercial (all trips are roundtrips). This is the reason that LEED’s residential rating systems contain roughly the same allocation of location efficiency points. It’s also the basis of my assertion that the comparison of any one fraction/sector of building carbon to 100% of the personal transport is wrong.

    But putting that aside, and considering the fact that you’ve already accepted the allocation of scope 2 emissions to buildings (which I’m totally on board with but is a whole discussion in and of itself) you’re also forgetting three other major drivers of building carbon footprint – water use, construction material and operational material use. The magnitude of each wedge in this 5 slice pie chart (6 if you include a wedge for “other” – which you need to do but it’s never very big) varies based on location efficiency, climate, grid fuel mix, building construction, operational waste profile, water, energy use and a couple of things I’m sure I’m forgetting. The pie chart is generally dominated by operational energy use and location efficiency (in that order) but the three other parameters routinely account for more than 10% of the total (greater than 10% in location efficient areas) so the binary nature of the carbon allocation you’re performing to arrive at your conclusion is also overly simplistic.

    Finally, LEED isn’t 100% about carbon – LEED is only 25-30% about carbon depending on how you count it up. The way we’ve set up the point allocation process works to assign 2009 point value to credits based on the aggregate outcome realized when the requirements of the credit are achieved. The outcome is assessed across a weighted list of 13 environmental impacts buildings are largely responsible for. What this means is that the way you’re “counting” the points is also flawed. Only some of the points for energy and transport related credits are assigned because these credits reduce a building’s carbon footprint – the rest of the points are awarded because of the other benefits realized when these credits are achieved. There’s a write up on the USGBC website that shows how all this was done. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it but I’d like to think it’s worth a look.

    As for pointing out the weaknesses so we can make the whole thing better – amen brother. It’s not impossible to get a project certified in a bad location but the rating system point allocation makes it challenging (and damn near impossible for platinum). This change, which came in to being with the 2009 rating systems, was very purposeful and it is a step towards underscoring the critical relationship between buildings and location. It wasn’t the first step and it won’t be the last so let’s keep the dialogue about where we can improve it lively!

  • greenerblog says:

    Here’s a link to the LEED weightings Brendan referenced: http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1971 Get ready to spend some time looking at it. It may be an attempt at transparency, but that doesn’t mean it’s clear. One peculiar aspect is that the 2009 LEED weightings are based entirely on an impact assessment of a single building: a 135,000 sf suburban office building. Seems like an awfully small sample, doesn’t it?

  • Brendan says:

    the subject does get dense rather quickly. We’re working on a layer that is in between the 30,000 foot level and the 15 feet into the weeds version that kevin linked but we’re not quite done with it yet.

    A word on the prototype building (the 135k suburban office) – It’s fair, I think, to take issue with or question this decision. By way of explanation, this is our market transformation target. It was, at the time we were allocating the points to the 2009 rating system, the average size LEED building with the average use profile. We used it because it was “typical” but it is, to kevin’s point, limiting.

    For future development, we’re experimenting with a point allocation that is more unique to a specific project – the tool would allocate points based on the actual project being built rather than an average or prototype. Obviously there are pros and cons to this idea – anyone has ideas about it, please let us know.

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