LEED the game: A look into the green building rating system
How did this system achieve such PR and market dominance?
July 31, 2018
Written by Carren Jao
Photos courtesy of World Green Building Council
Buildings are an indelible part of the 20th and 21st century human experience. Since the possibility of building higher, taller and larger became reality with the use of steel, skyscrapers and their ilk have increasingly encroached upon the landscape.
In the United States, buildings use more energy and emit more carbon dioxide than the industrial or transportation sectors. Buildings represent 39 percent of the country’s total energy consumption, two-thirds of its electricity use and eight percent of its water needs. In a world that is struggling with global climate change issues, responsible building practices are not only desirable, they are imperative.
In the Philippines, as we debate among the many readily available green building rating systems, there is one name that rings familiar to most in the industry—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or more familiarly, LEED.
LEED is one of the many internationally recognized green building certification systems available in the world today. Developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED came at a time when the definition for “green” building was…well, mushy. A building could ban smoking and it could be called “green” for all anyone knew.
Piloted in 1998 and launched in 2000, LEED fleshed out the then-amorphous term “green building.” Originally created with new construction projects in mind, LEED has expanded to accommodate other types of projects including existing buildings, retail spaces, commercial interiors and core and shell construction among others.
The LEED system ranks projects on a 100-point scale. Depending on how many points a project earns, it is classified as Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59), Gold (60-79 points) and Platinum (80 points and above). It is possible to garner more than 100 points because LEED allows for 10 bonus credits available if a project addresses regionally specific environmental issues.
It is a voluntary green rating system that provides third-party verification that a project was designed and built incorporating strategies meant to improve performance according to predetermined priorities: energy savings, water efficiency, carbon dioxide emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.
“Looking at a nutrition label, people can easily determine the fats and calories in a product. LEED is that way for green buildings,” said Ashley Katz, spokesperson for the USGBC. As of this 2011, LEED has been or will be used to rate over 22,000 projects in 117 countries. Over 130,000 people have paid $250 to $350 and passed exams to become “LEED-accredited professionals.” How did this system achieve such market dominance?
LEED’s prevalence is historically attributed not to peoples’ environmental conscientiousness, but market dynamics. During LEED’s nascent stages, Richard Fedrizzi, a former marketing executive and USGBC president came up with a game changing strategy. “We realized we were getting the message wrong, leading with the environmental story,” he says in a 2007 article in Fast Company. “We had to lead with the business case.”
In short, LEED certification became a publicist’s dream. LEED certification gives brokers and PR people the one-liner they need to hook potential investors and buyers. Rather than go on and on about their building’s most sophisticated elements, publicists need only point to the LEED plaque proudly screwed onto the wall of their project. As famed LEED critics, Randy Udall and Auden Schendler write in their landmark opinion piece, LEED is Broken—Let’s Fix It, USGBC has managed to “Oprahize” green building by making it “understandable—even sexy—to the masses.”
But has that financial success been to LEED’s own detriment? As a voluntary third-party certification system, USGBC can only push the agenda as far as the market can tolerate. If the purpose of any green building rating system is to push the boundaries of sustainable design, then LEED can only do so as far as the market is willing to accept the burden of change.
As it is, the current iteration only mandates a minimum energy use reduction of 10 percent compared to the 2007 version of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, Air Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) Standard 90.1, an energy efficiency standard used as the basis for many local building codes. The 10 percent reduction is already a 13 percent improvement from previous LEED iterations.
In recent years, LEED has also come under fire for many of its new construction projects consistently underperforming their LEED rating. To assess an as-yet unfinished project, LEED relies on modeling technologies (in itself quite an expensive undertaking) that is done using
computer software. Because modeling only takes into account factors foreseen by its developers, it leaves a lot of room for variance when compared to reality.
Such is probably the case at New York City’s Hearst Tower, the city’s first Gold certified building for core, shell and interior. The building is reportedly outfitted with sensors that turn the lights off based on occupancy. Yet, night after night, the lights stay on. The tower houses the publishing giant’s many titles— including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Seventeen— whose employees no doubt burn the midnight oil to finish each month’s issue. Gold-rated or not, if a building isn’t used the way it was designed, then all the plaques in the world will not help it reduce its impact on the environment.
In response to this valid criticism, USGBC launched an initiative called the Building Performance Partnership (BPP) last July. Within the BPP program, USGBC will work with owners and managers of commercial and residential LEED-certified buildings to get real energy data from actual usage. The data will become the basis for action plans meant to reduce energy consumption.
“There is all too often a disconnect or predicted performance gap between energy modeling done during design and what actually happens during
daily operation after the building has been constructed, due to occupant behavior and other factors,” admitted Scot Horst, Senior Vice President, LEED, in a statement. There has been no talk of rescinding previously awarded certifications however, but that looks to be a logical conclusion.
In LEED 2009, the organization also introduced a regionalization scheme that took into account environmental concerns specific to a certain climate. In Nevada (a desert area on the west side of the US), for example, developers and builders could earn additional points if they were able meet all the credits within the water conservation category.
While LEED is undoubtedly a system born out of the United States, Jennivine Kwan, the Vice President of International Operations for the USGBC, reminds us that “the US is home to many different climatic landscapes…As such, the LEED rating system, through its referenced standards already provides guidelines and strategies on issues such as insulation, cooling and humidity control in tropical regions.”
Aside from questions on climate applicability, the adoption of a green rating system inherently takes on a predetermined mindset. Architect and sustainable design researcher Karim Elgendy points out in a comparative paper how different rating systems also impose implicit priorities. Elgendy notes that adopting LEED means an emphasis on occupant comfort, internal pollution issues and heat island effects. It also is structured around societies with a strong emphasis on cars as a mode of transportation. LEED rewards projects that have well-designed mechanical ventilation and air conditioning systems.
BREEAM in the UK, on the other hand, was primarily created to award construction with natural ventilation. It also has more stringent requirements for public transportation. For example, in a 300,000 square-foot project, only 36 bike spaces are mandated by LEED as opposed to 95 in BREEAM. For us Filipinos, the question becomes, do we want remain a country of ACs and cars? Or do we envision ourselves taking advantage of our tropical climate and (albeit massively imperfect) mass transportation systems?
Many other programs are in the works in the hopes of answering a growing chorus of industry criticism against LEED. But, as many of us instinctively know, there are no perfect systems. There are only steps toward ideal scenarios.
Whether we adopt LEED (or any other system available in the market), what is more crucial is to envision the greater end for ourselves. Green building rating systems should not be adopted just to give developers bragging rights of being “world-class.” Nor should the exhaustive process be undertaken only to market buildings in the best possible light, only to be neglected once all the fanfare has faded.
A green building rating system only works if it truly makes a dent in the face of increasingly dire environmental circumstances. Without such commitment to real actionable change, we are simply pandering to our own egos.