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As good and important as it is, LEED can be so embarrassing

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 18, 2013

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  The New American Home 2013 (by: Trent Bell, courtesy of NAHB)

As most readers are likely to know, “LEED” (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a voluntary set of standards for judging and certifying green buildings.  It was developed by the US Green Building Council, a consortium of industry (there are still formal requirements that certain segments of the building industry sit on the board) and environmental interests. 

The system is based on builder-applicants both meeting certain requirements (“prerequisites”) and earning a minimum number of points from a menu of optional building components or performance achievements (“credits”).  Depending on the number of credits achieved, a qualified applicant may earn a rating and certification at one of four levels (certified, silver, gold, or platinum).  More than 7000 buildings have been certified through LEED, a slim majority of them reportedly located outside the US.

A number of my NRDC colleagues and partners have participated in the US Green Building Council and in volunteer committees related to LEED since its inception in 1998.  My former colleague Rob Watson, LEED’s founding chairman, devoted so much time to the development of the system that he became known as “the father of LEED.”  I devoted a huge chunk of my own time to developing a sort of sequel called LEED for Neighborhood Development, a partnership attempt to create standards that could define and encourage smart growth projects in the same way that the original LEED had defined and encouraged green buildings.

  The New American Home 2013 (by: Trent Bell, courtesy of NAHB)

It’s not much of a stretch to say that, more than any other single force, LEED has put green buildings on the map and institutionalized building performance measures shown to reduce resource consumption and pollution.  A lot of wood, water, and energy has been saved, a lot of pollution has been avoided, and a lot of conditions protective of public health have been adopted because of LEED and because of the hard work of USGBC and their volunteers.

Warts in the system

But, man, there are a lot of warts in this system.  For starters, LEED has been criticized for being insufficiently demanding of its applicants.  I believe that, to the extent this criticism is well-placed, it stems from a belief held by many involved with the Green Building Council, some of them representatives of the building industry, that the standards should be set only a little bit above what industry is likely to do anyway.  The theory is that applicants will be more likely to adopt green measures if they perceive them to be well within their reach by aiming just a little bit higher; otherwise, the feeling goes, they won’t bother and there will be no environmental benefit. 

Another problem may be that USGBC, although a non-profit, operates as a business and needs revenues to keep the system going; if difficulties in the standards or the process of application are too demanding, fewer potential applicants will be willing to pay the costs of documentation and formal review.

The New American Home 2013 (by: Trent Bell, courtesy of NAHB)A third charge leveled at the system is that LEED has become pro forma, more about earning points than achieving actual environmental performance.  The two are not unrelated, of course, but there is a belief that applicants and their consultants “game the system” by going after low-hanging fruit to rack up a good score, even if the underlying measure doesn’t result in a significant environmental improvement.  I worked in a building that, when applying for a LEED-gold certification, simply turned off its water fountains, presumably in a strategy to grab another water efficiency credit point.  The result was that the building probably did use less water, but at the cost of reducing workers’ access to drinking water. 

LEED also gives a point for installing an outdoor bike rack, which few seasoned cyclists in urban situations would risk using, but not for actually giving employees bikes or heavy-duty locks, which might be more effective in encouraging cycling.  LEED even gives a credit point for itself; an applicant who employs a LEED “accredited professional” will score higher than one that does not, even if the applicant’s building is identical to one whose sponsor lacks accreditation. 

“The new face of efficiency”

I recount this long-winded intro because my friend Lloyd Alter of the environmental website Treehugger has just written a terrific story about a new, supposedly super-green house being touted as “the new face of efficiency” even though it’s really a gigantic luxury house placed in a location where residents have no choice but to drive long distances to do anything.  This is ultra-green?  Sadly, LEED seems to think so.

In particular, did you know that this latest LEED-Platinum home – the highest rating bestowed by the Green Building Council, in theory only for the very greenest of green buildings – is nearly three times the size of the average new American home?  Would you be surprised to learn that it sits on a lot occupying two-thirds of an acre, consuming nearly twice as much land as the average new-home lot in a US metro area?  How about that it is located in a “gated community” on the far outskirts of Las Vegas, 1.2 miles to the nearest transit stop?  Or that its Walk Score is a miserable 38 out of a possible 100 points?

  The New American Home 2013 (by: Trent Bell, courtesy of NAHB)

The building in question is the latest in a series of showcase homes featured by The National Association of Home Builders every year during its annual trade show.  It’s called “The New American Home” and the idea is to celebrate and publicize the state of the art in American homebuilding.  This one has 6,721 square feet of floor space, nine bathrooms (but only three bedrooms, plus a home office and library), and extensive “water features.”  The house also includes 17,261 square feet of "outdoor living space."  (The average size of a newly completed American, single-family home in 2011 was 2480 square feet.) 

It is one of 33 "estate homes" planned for the exclusive Marquis Seven Hills community, itself a component of the master-planned Seven Hills development being built by Blue Heron Homes in Henderson, Nevada.  The marketing tag for the Marquis enclave is "luxury without limits."

I’ll grant that The New American Home 2013 is loaded with green bells and whistles.  An article titled “The New Face of Efficiency” and posted on NAHB’s BuilderOnline website earlier this week lists over fifty of them, including the use of certified wood, solar panels, energy-efficient lighting, and a carbon monoxide alarm monitor.  “Overall, the home uses approximately 67 percent less energy for heating and 83 percent less energy for cooling compared to a similar home in the same climate zone,” says the article.  (Put a bit more candidly, the building uses that much less energy for heating and cooling than your run-of-the-mill 6,721-square-foot home in a desert climate where the average high temperature in July is 104 degrees.)

The house has, according to the article, received an “emerald” certification from NAHB’s National Green Building Standard and, as noted, a platinum certification under the branch of LEED called LEED for Homes.

To my eyes, the new American home is spectacular and beautiful.  I love the architecture and think all the water features would be soothing (and certainly a contrast from the building’s dry, desert surroundings; Henderson, the exurb of Las Vegas where Marquis Seven Hills is located, receives a mere four and a half inches of water per year).  The photos look wonderful.

But is it worthy of being certified LEED-platinum, the greenest of the green?  Maybe not, if you consider its outlandish size and challenging climate setting.

Environmental building performance is determined by location

And certainly not, if you consider the location.  Contrary to myth, the environmental performance of a building is not determined just by what happens inside the building.  Research shows, for example, that Americans generally consume more energy – and emit more carbon dioxide – getting to and from a typical building than does the building itself.  Research also shows that location and neighborhood factors can create a dramatic difference in how much energy is consumed and emissions are generated in the getting to and fro. 

  location of The New American Home 2013 (via Google Earth)

  location of The New American Home 2013 (via Google Earth)

  guardhouse and gate to Marquis Seven Hills (via Google Earth)

Additional research also shows that even ordinary households in transit-oriented locations save more energy and emissions than “green” households in sprawl, across several housing types.  In other words, a home with no green technology, if in the right place, is actually greener than a house with every bell and whistle imaginable, even if the latter gets a platinum rating.

In the case of the New American Home 2013, as noted, the Walk Score is 38.  That’s poor even by the standards of notoriously sprawling Henderson, Nevada.  Walk Score reports that 77 percent of Henderson residents have a higher rating.  Las Vegas as a whole has an average Walk Score of 49.  (Walk Score is a rough measure of how easily one might be able to get around from a given location to typical daily functions such as food stores, schools, parks, and restaurants without a car or with minimal driving.)

A typical household in the Seven Hills development where this year’s New American Home is located drives 20,053 miles per year and emits more than 8.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year from household auto use for transportation.  This is mediocre environmental performance at best, more driving and emissions than even an average household in the Las Vegas-Henderson metro region, as well as more than the average American household nationally. 

The New American Home 2013 (by: Trent Bell, courtesy of NAHB)All this means that a household living in the New American Home, all things considered, is as likely to be brown as green in its environmental performance if the measure of that performance is determined by a full accounting of the home’s characteristics, no matter how many efficiency gizmos are built into it.

Just to be clear, I don’t really fault the Homebuilders for showcasing conspicuous consumption far beyond most Americans’ wildest dreams, even if it remains a time of persistent unemployment and struggling household debt.  The purpose of the New American Home is to be impressive and attention-grabbing while showing off building techniques and state-of-the-art products, not to show where someone attempting a restrained green lifestyle would be likely to live.  I think the home is impressive.  While I personally wouldn’t prefer living in a relatively isolated gated community, I do like the way the house looks and would probably enjoy visiting if I knew someone who lived there.

Why a Platinum rating

But I do hold the LEED standards accountable for bestowing the system’s highest rating on a building that not only isn’t likely the best of the best in total green performance but may not even be average, considering its size, land consumption, climate conditions, and especially its transportation characteristics.  LEED does a lot of good; but, unfortunately, at its worst the system doesn’t really measure how green something really is but how many credit points it can check off for having compliant technology.

The US Green Building Council is a fantastic organization of talented and dedicated people.  Those inclined to defend a platinum rating for an ostentatious house in sprawl would likely respond with a theory of “market transformation”:  a system of forgiving incentives placed in a certification program for implementing green technology gradually transforms the market precisely because the standards are not too difficult to achieve; as a result, more builders will employ green measures than they otherwise would, conserving resources and reducing pollution, regardless of what might be considered truly green. 

subdivision where The New American Home is located (via Google Earth)In other words, since we can’t stop peopIe from building trophy houses in the desert even if we wanted to, we should at least encourage them to build those trophy houses a little better:  if you’re determined to build a house almost three times bigger than the average American house, in a gated luxury subdivision where you have to drive long distances to do anything, it’s better to do so with green technology than not.

But, come on, platinum?  The Seven Hills development wouldn’t come close to qualifying for a certification under LEED for Neighborhood Development, which takes location and neighborhood design into account as well as building technology.  LEED-ND includes a prerequisite that a development applying for a rating, even at the lowest level, include certified green buildings.  As a leader of the environmental groups involved in constructing that system, I supported that prerequisite.  I wanted us to create a system that defined and encouraged smart growth; it’s my belief that, in this day and age, smart growth isn’t really smart unless it includes green buildings.

But why shouldn’t that work in both directions?  Why should a building be considered green if its location is brown?  Or, at the very least, why should a building qualify for the highest, platinum rating – signifying the greenest of all green buildings – if it is completely dependent on long automobile trips that will collectively emit more carbon than the building’s efficient heating and cooling systems will save?  Maybe ten years ago, the green building movement was so new that it would have been counterproductive to have high standards.  But we should be better than that now.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Robb BlackJan 18 2013 10:09 AM

I have become more and more frustrated with individuals and groups of individuals who insist upon using LEED or other similar rating system to try to force people to move into urban settings or near-urban settings (town center developments). As an environmental activist I do my part in both my daily work and my personal life to protect the environment around me. But I will never ever live in a large city. Even though I detested my suburban up-bringing I have reluctantly come to realize that I am a suburbanite and always will be. While the city might have been fun when I was younger, I have no interest in it now and will never want to raise a child in a city.

Town center developments that ring urban areas now are so devoid of any authenticity. Sure they are "one stop shopping" right next to the rail line everyone uses to commute, but there is no sense of community. In fact, I have found suburban settings that have a greater sense of community and stronger commitment to the environment than many of these dense urban and near-urban developments that all the hip planners go ga-ga over these days.

I think we need to stop trying to force people into urban environments through the use of rating systems and recognize that individuals are going to live where they want. And personally, I think we should be encouraging EVERYONE to build green regardless of where they live. And we should reward those projects accordingly, regardless of their walk score or public transit radius.

Stephen PorterJan 18 2013 10:23 AM

Great post, Kaid. I think there are two other issues with LEED certification. First, as it pertains to giving certification to buildings with no consideration of their location and transportation characteristics, LEED is doing for the environment what the Prius did: it's giving people a way to say they're green, look green, and feel better about themselves without meaningfully changing their lifestyles or truly reducing their impact.

The second issue is that LEED reflects a building's construction process, materials, and propensity for efficiency, but it does not consider actual, ultimate energy consumption. For example, a friend of mine recently took a picture of a major national bank's branch in New York City that had a huge LEED Gold sign on the window. At 10 PM on a Saturday, every light in the building was on and every computer terminal was running. There was no one inside, but this branch was devouring energy.

LEED has real value, but you're right that there are a lot of warts in the system.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 18 2013 12:29 PM

Robb: You may think we disagree, but actually we don't. I like a lot of suburbs. I don't think we should force people to live anywhere.

LEED isn't a regulation but, instead, a voluntary system of nongovernmental recognition for buildings with superior environmental performance. I would have less criticism of the recognition in this case if it were for a lower level, say LEED-certified or LEED-silver. That way huge trophy homes in automobile-dependent locations could still get an appropriate measure of recognition for incorporating green features.

But the highest level of recognition, LEED-platinum, should be reserved for the best of the best when all relevant determinants of environmental performance are considered. For platinum, a house with the greatest possible transportation characteristics should not be allowed to receive a platinum rating unless its internal building features were also superior; and a house with the best possible internal building performance should not qualify for platinum unless it also had good transportation performance. Save the highest ratings for the buildings that perform best.

Jeff ArnoldJan 18 2013 02:48 PM

I work for a distributor of FSC Hardwood Lumber, Plywood and Mouldings. Since you get LEED points for FSC (as well as 500 mile harvest location, NAUF, etc) we are actively involved in projects like this. Points for FSC are based on dollar amounts, not on volume. Since we supply high end hardwood trim packages, it can happen that it is our product that creates the points. We have had customers ask us to charge more than we bid, to get those dollars up there. In the industry, this is called the "platinum doorknob." (Since the doorknob may be the last thing you buy, you may be willing to pay thousands of dollars for one if it boosts your level.) At one point we had to buy a truck of lumber from 700 miles away, ship it to our location for milling, and then ship it back to the project location, all so that the harvest location was within 500 miles of the project.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 18 2013 03:27 PM

Jeff, great illustration of gaming the system! I truly believe that the world is much better off with LEED than without. But . . .

Steve MouzonJan 18 2013 04:23 PM

Like I said on Kaid's post, you can get LEED for Homes Platinum and still use a tremendous amount of energy and other resources because LEED isn't a performance standard... It's a mechanism for getting accolades that can be translated into effective marketing.

That's not necessarily a bad thing... the USGBC was founded in part to encourage designers & builders to think about greener measures, and they've certainly accomplished that. But the illusion that LEED = sustainability simply isn't true, as a lot of USGBC people would tell you if you asked them.

This post mentions several problem issues, and I'll mention one more: Homes this large inevitably create places where people don't walk because their physical size and setback creates low Walk Appeal even if they're beautiful. So you end up driving everywhere, destroying any carbon benefit you might have created from all the green gizmos.

Bottom line... I don't really care if people build houses like this because the people who can afford it are such a tiny part of the population that they don't really make a noticeable difference. My objection is to the NAHB building this thing and promoting it as The New American Home. As if it's supposed to be some sort of broadly useful pattern. It simply is not. And it's a travesty that they have once again passed on the opportunity to build something that would be useful to many people.

Kirk WJan 18 2013 07:13 PM

Great post, thanks!

To my mind, for those who care about a green *building*, strictly speaking, the Green *Building* Council has the LEED system. The ND rating was designed to satisfy those who know that being green is about more than buildings.

I share your embarrassment at bestowing Platinum on sprawl. But I think the finer points of this debate are lost on the 99% of the population who are relieved every time gasoline prices fall.

Daniel DeAngeloJan 19 2013 12:15 PM

This post gives clear voice to my reservations about the validity of the LEED rating system.

Here in Cleveland, we had a distressing situation recently where a couple bought and demolished an architecturally significant mansion in a historic district, in order to build an energy-efficient “passive house” in its place.

The local architectural critic, Steven Litt, argues that sometimes we must make a choice between sustainability and preservation:

I strongly disagree with what this couple did, and with the Litt’s premise that we must choose between these two goals. Instead, sustainability and preservation can and should complementary. As can be seen in the Comments section following the article, many in the Cleveland sustainability and architecture community disagree with Litt as well.

I thought you might be interested in writing a post on this situation, as many aging communities across the country are being confronted with these issues as well.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 19 2013 01:54 PM

Daniel, I coudn't agree more, and it's a subject dear to my heart. You may be interested in these articles I've written on closely related points:

When values collide: balancing green technology and historic buildings

Assembling the green facts to support preservation

The greenest (historic) building is the one that's in the right context

John ScofieldJan 19 2013 09:32 PM

This pragmatic approach of offering green certification to any and all is ridiculous. We have LEED-certified casinos. What will we have next? Energy Star slot machines? LEED-certified brothels? Energy Star cigarette boats? Energy Star tanks? This makes a mockery of the entire concept.

Elizabeth SchillingJan 22 2013 09:30 AM

As I understood it, LEED's reliance on incremental improvements is intended to accompany regular revisiting of the rating systems to ensure they're always ahead of common practice. By now, I should think that these regular checks would have resulted in incorporating location impacts as a more valuable credit, if not a pre-req.

What's the hold-up? How can USGBC defend this?

Robb BlackJan 23 2013 01:17 PM

@John Scofield

LEED certified brothel? Why not! Or are you suggesting that sex workers and their clients are undeserving of the benefits that a green building can provide?

Barry PearlJan 23 2013 08:14 PM

Anyone who could afford a residence of this size could also afford a Tesla to commute back and forth from the gated community. If the selling of green features of the home is so effective, maybe the buyer will decide to reduce their carbon footprint somewhat by driving an all-electric vehicle.

Jon SewardJan 24 2013 06:41 PM

LEED seems to be the objectively best all-around energy and sustainability rating system currently available, and it has been extremely successful. Yes, it can be gamed and some of the points seem far easier to score than others. It does not require you to build small, or with minimal materials, or in town centers. Until recently, LEED has not been concerned with actual energy consumption after building completion.

But we also see that LEED is able and willing to change its format and scoring in order to improve, to be fairer, and to raise the bar as the building industry improves. This is to be applauded and makes me very hopeful.

I also notice that many of those who have been complaining the loudest about LEED are those who aren't so concerned about sustainability or energy efficiency. In fact many represent manufacturers and trade associations whose products have difficulty being considered green for a variety of reasons. Others represent interests which prefer other rating protocols, most of which are tightly focused on specific issues, or whose ratings systems are more generous. I think it is instructive that NAHB has created its own sustainability index, but has chosen for their centerpiece home to seek LEED certification.

I too participated marginally in the early days of the USGBC and with the LEED-ND program. I found the goals to be very high and admirable, but the final resolution to be somewhat lacking. LEED-ND may be better than a typical new subdivision in the US, but it pales in comparison to many of our older neighborhood clusters, both in cities and smaller towns. Behnisch US prefers not to build to LEED standards, because they believe they can far exceed the metrics with their own approach - specifically referring to instances where products which are not needed (like certain floor surfaces or wall coatings) are specced in order to acquire the points associated with them.

Finally, I have to wonder if LEED is a sufficient protocol to encourage the creation of buildings that will become cherished, buildings that will be able to endure and live over centuries, rather than investment structures built to a spreadsheet and a pro forma, which will be demolished at the end of their investment cycle. But I return to the indications that LEED is fully able to grow, change and mature, to be a living standard that will continue to do a better job over time.

T. CaineJan 27 2013 09:59 PM

It's certainly an issue that seems to keep on going. I think there are a lot of good comments and thoughts here, but overall I agree most with Jon Seward's comments. LEED is a productive addition to the building and design industry that achieves incremental improvement.

Let's remember that the reason we are having this debate at all is in a large part due to the fact that LEED has elevated the topic of green building to a point of accessible discussion for more people. Building sustainability has become something outside of the building and design industry because it now exists as something that people can buy--even if they don't completely understand it. The fact that a house like this wants a LEED label is a testament to the value someone thinks it holds.

That being said, I agree that this isn't the kind of building that we want as the face of a more sustainable future. This isn't a new face of efficiency. It's just the face of consumption and it isn't really all that new.

Beyond just awareness, the real goal of LEED for me is to gradually raise the standard. In New York, the new energy code actually exceeds LEED in some areas. That's the end goal we should be looking for.

*As an aside to the first comment. "Regulating" people to live in any conditions is not really the goal of sustainability, but the fact of the matter is that in its current likeness, suburbs in America are grossly inefficient. Take it as you will, but for most suburban dwellers it is difficult to offset that inefficiency of space, energy and travel with products and technological changes.

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