LEED is the Worst, Part III: Design Loses Out

October 31, 2010 § 4 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. Although touted as a design tool, one of its biggest problems is that…

LEED distorts the design process.

One of LEED’s strengths is its ability to challenge owners and designers to take the next step. “We’re within two points of silver. Let’s go for it.” But it also encourages point-chasing. Many clients want LEED certification, but are uninterested in the actual benefits of green design. This results in simply pursuing enough credits to qualify, to get the label. I submit that the majority of Certified- and Silver-level buildings are not designed or really intended to be sustainable (a hope is not an intention), they are just chasing points. Many architects see LEED as something to withstand, to get through. They don’t, or believe they can’t, charge for what they see as additional services. They are unwilling, or don’t think they have time, to engage with new ways of thinking about design or process. So they go for the cheapest, quickest points available. Who can blame them?

Yet that effort distracts from good design (green or not). It results in buildings that are often not the architect’s best work. And it produces projects that are only marginally more sustainable than their conventional brethren4, yet they are LEED certified. This does not mean the designers are bad architects or that the owners are bad people, but they may have made some bad choices.

“The best argument against LEED is a five-minute conversation with the average architect.”  This paraphrase of another Churchill quote (sub-in Democracy for LEED and voter for architect) illustrates a related issue. I spend a good part of my day helping other architects apply the principles of sustainable design to their work. I’m usually hired by the owner who wants a green project but for a variety of good reasons has retained an architect who is unfamiliar with sustainable design and LEED. I find three responses to my involvement:

  1. Architects who profess little interest in green, but take a professional and cooperative approach since that is what the owner has requested,
  2. Architects who are eager to learn the principles of the relatively new approach (these are the most interesting to work with), and,
  3. Architects who passively resist and even sabotage the process despite the stated goals of the owner.

Even now, 40 years after the first Earth Day and ten years after LEED started, most buildings are designed merely to meet code. Why? How much of that is the responsibility of the architect?

LEED contributes to this problem by working against sustainable design.

Wait, aren’t we talking about the preeminent tool for designing green buildings? Realize this: LEED is a rating system, not a design tool. If you want a good process, the first thing to do is put the LEED checklist in the garbage can. Integrated design is the key to good sustainably-oriented projects. A primary principle is breaking down the barriers between disciplines and finding cross-functional synergy — breaking out of our professional silos. The sustainable design process can lead to less expensive and faster projects that score very well on the LEED checklist. Almost every project I’ve worked on has exceeded its original LEED goal — e.g. Silvers became Golds — because we had a good process, a great team, a cooperative engaged owner, and because we essentially ignored LEED at the beginning. Despite the USGBC’s proselytizing about integrated design, the LEED system itself does not support good process — it actually creates new and complex silos: the credits/prerequisites themselves. And it provides no effective means to integrate them. Yes, integration is the job of the architect, but LEED could and should help.

What do you think?

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

Part II <—> Part IV

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

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?

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


§ 4 Responses to LEED is the Worst, Part III: Design Loses Out

  • dylan says:

    I fail to see how adding another level of bureaucracy to the design process helps anyone but those making the rules. LEED is simply another “green” word to make people feel better. I would also point out that the LEED process is time consuming, expensive, and based on memorizing an arbitrary point system when it should be approachable and intuitive, like all good design. LEED is a reactionary blight on the design industry filled with self righteousness and offering few solutions.

    I am insulted and aggravated by a system that would assume that I lack design competence an in effect instill blanket stipulations that may or may not apply to a particular project, or more importantly, the larger scope of the project. For example bamboo flooring is touted as a LEED certified material. Bamboo is grown half a world away, chemically processed and is not durable over time. How is a bamboo floor really more environmentally friendly than a local hardwood? Because LEED says so. A fallacy and injustice to those with true sustainability in mind.

  • Kevin Pierce says:

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that good design (the finished thing) should generally be approachable and intuitive. But the design process, with or without LEED, is anything but. I’m not arguing LEED should be dismissed, but improved. LEED does not argue that bamboo flooring is the right choice (or certify any material for that matter), but your point as I take it, is that LEED cannot substitute for design. Still, a look at the basis of LEED is worthwhile.

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