Is LEED Overrated?: The Rise of New Green Building Certification Programs


LEED certification & green constructionBefore LEED, there was nothing.

This may sound like an overstatement, but LEED set a modern standard for green building. While other movements existed before it, nothing really had a commensurate level of legitimacy.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, provides a certification process based on sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED remains a leader in green building certification.

The coveted LEED plaque has become one of the most fashionable trends among the architectural elite. It sells buildings to high-end clients and governments, makes architects and builders look good, and creates an incentive to invest in the newest green trends.

But while this program is effective in making buildings more sustainable, its reach is stunted by several problems.

First of all, it’s really expensive. A simple building certification can cost tens of thousands of dollars—cash that could be better applied toward other sustainable substitutes (i.e. solar panels, energy-efficient LED Lighting, etc). According to the mayor of Park City, Utah, LEED-certification for the Park City Ice Area was going to cost $27,500, so the city decided to invest instead in three small wind turbines to power the arena’s Zamboni.

The issue is no different for residential and commercial developers. As Jeff Martin, Senior VP of Specialty Construction, Inc. in San Luis Obispo, comments, “I find that most clients want a sustainable building that is cost-effective and efficient. But paying a commission on top of everything for nothing more than a plaque does not give them the incentive to make such a large capital investment.”

From the planning stages to the last-minute alterations, LEED is costly. One must commission a professional to ascertain whether mechanical systems are performing as designed. Then you must computer model your building’s performance. Add the costs of professional documentation and LEED registration, and you might as well take out a second mortgage on your house.

Unsurprisingly, LEED-certification has transformed into a money-making industry. What started out as a “small operation with seven paid employees” now has a “116-member staff and earns 95% of its $50 million annual budget.”

Second, the LEED point system is ineffective and not properly weighted. Since only 26 points are required for certification, builders can get their plaque with few and minor energy-saving tricks. For this reason alone, the relative impact of LEED is minimal. While LEED-certified buildings often have a 25% to 30% lower energy usage than conventional buildings, participants of the Architecture 2030 Challenge have adopted a 50% target.

In addition, builders often choose more affordable point-mongering gimmicks rather than invest in green technology that would actually improve the building’s overall sustainability. Builders and developers will naturally cut any corners necessary to get this plaque.

And lastly, there’s the bureaucratic headache. LEED certification demands a great deal of time, patience, and paperwork. And that’s only when you receive approval on the first shot. If your application is rejected, the headache only continues. No wonder less than 7000 projects nationally have received LEED certification in the last decade.

So if LEED isn’t the solution, what is?

Well, depending on your LEED grievance, there are two excellent paths available for green recognition.

Option #1–The Green Globes® Rating/Certification Program: If LEED costs will surely burn a hole in your pocket, opt for this cost-effective route instead. Part of the Green Building Initiative, this certification program is much cheaper than LEED and doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or consultant) to figure out. In fact, online pre-assessment tools leave no guesswork to builders and developers.

Green Globes® ratings are based on four factors: energy efficiency, water conservation, overall pollution, and indoor environment health. Projects that have passed an initial assessment with a minimum of 35% are able to schedule a third-party review for a Green Globes rating of one to four Green Globes.

The Green Globes® Rating/Certification Program represents a positive compromise of green achievement and feasibility. In other words, it makes green recognition more “accessible” to the hoi polloi.

Option #2—The Living Building Challenge: If you see LEED as more of a profiteering scam than a civic-minded program, then this is the route for you.

The Living Building Challenge, started by the International Living Future Institute™, is comprised of seven performance areas (or Petals)- Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. Petals are subdivided into twenty Imperatives. These Imperatives are relative to just about every type of project and are mandatory. The Challenge is a holistic approach to certification without any of the LEED loopholes. While certification isn’t as expensive as LEED, the immediate costs of compliance can be significant.

The objectives of the Living Building Challenge are ambitious and civic-minded. Cal Poly Architecture senior Austen Diliberto explains, “The goal is to some day design buildings which are not only environmentally neutral, but actually contribute positively to the environment.” The question is: are you up for the “Challenge”?

LEED created the foundations for green building standards, but remains flawed at its core. Whether you are concerned with costs or looking for a more aggressive approach to sustainability, don’t give into the hype. There are better ways of getting recognition for your efforts.