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LEED awards show why ‘green’ criteria need reform

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 11, 2010

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Bear with me: this is a bit of an essay. 

The US Green Building Council, which NRDC supports and to which we donate lots of staff time, including mine, is a terrific organization that has done a lot for the environment and arguably has changed the paradigm for building construction and operation in this country.  Much of this has been accomplished through the organization’s flagship certification program, LEED, which awards platinum, gold, silver, and certified ratings to buildings based on environmental criteria.  The US is closer to being sustainable than it would be without their impressive body of work. 

But the Green Building Council also has a reputation for emphasizing bells and whistles – building technology – in its criteria defining what makes a building “green,” often overlooking or minimizing building-related factors that can be more significant to the environment.  the platinum-certified Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock (by: Robert Nunnally, creative commons license)Building location, the availability of transportation choices, and the resource savings inherent in the reuse of older buildings are among the more commonly cited of these.  Perhaps this is not surprising given that the organization’s membership, board and committees are overwhelmingly populated by representatives of the building industry, their architects, and their consultants.   

The organization’s 2009 LEED for Homes award winners – the very best of the best, in USGBC’s judgment – prove that its reputation for stressing technology over other factors is well-deserved.  Of the six non-military winners, only one is in what the popular rating service Walk Score considers to be a walkable environment.  Only one (the same) shows up on Google Earth as richly served by public transportation.  The rest are in locations best described as varying degrees of automobile-dependence and sprawl.

One result is that the added environmental benefit of the residences’ laudable green features will be offset by the environmental damage caused by the sites’ automobile dependence, poor environment for walking, and relative distance from jobs, shops and services.  Another result is that the public, the building industry, and policy makers will continue to be misled about how best to achieve true environmental performance in our built environment.

Going in the order presented by the organization’s press release, here are the winners, the descriptions in the release, and some additional information and commentary by me:

The BrightBuilt Barn on Spruce Mountain, ME (by: BrightBuilt Barn via Jetson Green) 

“This year’s Innovative Project award was given to the Platinum certified BrightBuilt Barn project, the result of a two-year collaboration between Kaplan Thompson Architects, Bensonwood Homes and a team of green building experts from throughout the northeast U.S. BrightBuilt Barn was recognized for implementing innovative strategies and techniques that go above and beyond the scope, requirements and prerequisites within the LEED for Homes rating system.”

location of BrightBuilt Barn (image by Google Earth) 

Above is an image of the project’s location, on Spruce Mountain in Rockport, Maine, on Google Earth.  In Walk Score, which measures and rates a site’s proximity to common shops, goods and services, the location gets a 6 - yes, 6 - out of 100 (From Walk Score: “Car-Dependent/Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car”).  There is, as you might expect, no discernible transit service.  The site also reports that 92 percent of its users nationally have a higher score than that of the platinum-certified award winner.

The BrightBuilt Barn is an accessory building for owners who also own a nearby 4,400-square foot house that they use as a second home.

home at Villa Trieste (by: Summerlin via Las Vegas Home Agent) 

“Pulte Homes was honored with the Outstanding Production Builder Award for its Villa Trieste project, located in Las Vegas, NV. Villa Trieste is planned to be a community of 185 LEED Platinum single family homes, which will place it firmly among the ranks of the largest LEED for Homes project to date. Pulte’s commitment to LEED Platinum certification for all homes in the Villa Trieste community sets an example of excellence for builders and project teams across the country.”

site of Villa Trieste (by: Google Earth) 

Villa Trieste does better than the BrightBuilt Barn, with a Walk Score of 38 out of 100 (“Car-Dependent: Only a few destinations are within easy walking range. For most errands, driving or public transportation is a must”).  There is a bus stop 0.52 miles away, but that is outside the 1/8-1/4-mile range generally considered by transit experts to be the farthest most people will walk to bus service (people will walk farther to rail transit).  The site reports that 92 percent of Las Vegas residents have a higher score.  The design of the homes certainly is consistent with the autombile-oriented setting.

To get a bit technical for an important sentence or three, another important determinant of walkability but one not captured by Walk Score’s ratings is street connectivity, measured as intersection density, or the number of intersections per square mile.  The better connected a neighborhood’s streets, the more direct and convenient the walking (and driving, for that matter) options. 

The walkability experts on the LEED for Neighborhood Development core committee concluded that, for a location’s surroundings to be even minimally acceptable, they must have an intersection density of at least 90 per square mile; any new streets should be built to a minimum of at least 140 intersections per square mile.  (These measures are not overly demanding.  At the upper end, the smart growth development Highlands’ Garden Village in Denver has over 800 intersections per square mile.)  The area of the Villa Trieste site and its immediate surroundings has been measured at 15 intersections per square mile. 

the Sage residence (by: SW Oregon Architect) 

“In the Outstanding Single Family Project category, Arbor South Architecture’s the SAGE home in Eugene, OR was recognized an as example of leadership in the green residential movement. The SAGE home earned 109 points in the LEED for Homes rating system, among the highest scores ever achieved.”

location of Sage residence (by: Google Earth) 

From the Google Earth image, the Sage residence appears to be in a typical suburban setting.  Its Walk Score is 43 out of 100 (“Car-Dependent: Only a few destinations are within easy walking range. For most errands, driving or public transportation is a must”).  73 percent of Eugene residents have a higher score.  In addition, the neighborhood has an exceptional lack of street connectivity at only four intersections per square mile.  On the plus side, there at least is a bus stop a quarter mile away. 

Keesler AFB housing (via Shwinco) 

“Hunt Yates received the award for Outstanding Commitment to LEED for Homes for its Keesler Air Force Base project in Biloxi, MS. Hunt Yates is a unique partnership between the Hunt Building Company and W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company. The Keesler project currently has 792 registered single family homes pursuing LEED for Homes certification.”

Keesler’s on-base housing was totally destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and is being rebuilt to LEED standards.  Data were not available for Walk Score, transit or connectivity and, frankly, a military base is a very special situation.  While the housing design looks extremely automobile-oriented in the photo, and better models are available for military housing, I’m glad these airmen and women and their families are getting new homes, and we should all be grateful to them for their service and their post-Katrina patience.

home in Hope Crossing (by: Central OK Habitat for Humanity) 

“Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity’s Hope Crossing project was selected to receive the Outstanding Affordable Housing Project award. The project is a 59-acre affordable housing development that once complete, will be the largest LEED certified Habitat for Humanity community in the U.S. OG&E, the local energy utility, donated upgraded windows, efficient foam insulation and compact fluorescent lights that help contribute to an expected 50% reduction in monthly energy bills.”

location of Hope Crossing (by: Google Earth) 

Since Hope Crossing’s homes have not yet been rated by the Green Building Council, we do not know what the level of certification will be.  We do know that the project appears to be on the outer fringe of the region and that the plan comprises 217 homes on the 59-acre site, for a raw density of between three and four homes per acre.  The Walk Score is a shocking 3 out of 100 (“Car-Dependent/Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car”).  While Oklahoma City is not exactly known for its urbanism, fully 95 percent of the city’s residents enjoy locations with a better score.  There is no transit information for the location in Google’s database.

There is always much to appreciate about a Habitat project, and one hesitates to be critical of their important work.  But many providers of affordable housing, including Habitat elsewhere, have chosen more accessible sites and more walkable design.  This is especially important to their clients because the affordable housing constituency more than any other needs convenient access to keep transportation costs down.  Judging from the Walk Score data, the only thing that likely kept this site from scoring even worse is a park 0.59 miles away - but, due to poor street connectivity (I don’t have the intersection number for this one), the actual walking distance is well over a mile.

Los Vecinos (by: Wakeland Housing Devt Corp) 

“In the Outstanding Multifamily Project category, Wakeland Housing & Development Corporation’s Platinum certified Los Vecinos project in Chula Vista, CA was selected for its outstanding performance within the LEED for Homes rating system. The affordable housing project consists of 42 apartment units rented to families earning 60% or less of the area median income. With 90% of its energy generated onsite, the property is on average 39% more energy efficient than comparable properties following California energy efficiency standards.”

location of Los Vecinos (by: Google Earth) 

May we have some applause, please, for the one winner that can rightfully claim to be green not only in building technology but in actual environmental performance in a holistic sense, and with true affordability when both housing and transportation costs are considered?  The project earns a Walk Score of 72 (Very Walkable: It's possible to get by without owning a car”), higher than two-thirds of Chula Vista residents as a whole.  That makes it the only one of these winners that beats its community’s average for walkability.  See those orange lines in the Google Earth image running right by and all around the site?  Those are transit lines, punctuated by little blue squares marking transit stops.  Bravo.

Rosewood Hills (by: Columbia Housing Authority) 

“The Columbia Housing Authority received the Outstanding Affordable Developer award for its Rosewood Hills project in Columbia, SC. Rosewood Hills features a diverse mix of apartments, townhomes, senior citizen housing and single family homes catering to a range of incomes.”

site of Rosewood Hills (by: Google Earth) 

This is the best-scoring of the car-dependent projects, with a Walk Score of 48, the same as the average for Columbia residents as a whole, and just two points short of the lower end of what Walk Score considers to be “somewhat walkable.”  One can tell from the Google Earth image that it is in a somewhat more urban setting than the other sites, much more so than BrightBuilt Barn, Villa Trieste and Hope Crossing.  It looks like a redevelopment site, which is good.  But it is still car-dependent and only average, not superior, compared to the rest of its community when it comes to walkable destination accessibility. 

There are no transit data available in Google’s base, because the local transit provider has not made its GIS information fully accessible to the public.  But the data available show that the Rosewood Hills site (where are the hills, by the way?) is a quarter-mile from the University of South Carolina’s athletic center, a public park, and the End Zone restaurant.  Most neighborhood amenities, however, are between a half-mile and two miles away. There is much to like about this project's concept and its design, and if asked to take a position I would absolutely support it.  But given its distance from places where its residents will be running their errands (and the emissions they will release when they do) I have a hard time agreeing that it is environmentally "the very best of the best" of its kind.

Which sort of brings us to the ultimate point:  These are not necessarily bad projects at all, and the ones with subsidized affordability are praiseworthy apart from environmental concerns.  (I am pleased that three of the seven winners are affordable to working families and a fourth is for military personnel.)  Given their building features it is not necessarily wrong for the Green Building Council to certify them at an appropriate level of "greenness."  Perhaps doing so will give sprawl developers and luxury second-home builders more incentive to at least incorporate green technology in their designs. 

But to certify them at the highest level attainable?  Don’t you think that, if we’re going to highlight not just certified projects but award winners deemed to be the very best, we should select more of them in high-performing (or, jeez, just better than average) sites?  Remember all that evidence demonstrating that the market for housing is shifting (see also here) rapidly in favor of more walkable, mixed-use, urban settings?  Atlanta's Glenwood Park (by: Loren Heyns for Green Street Properties)Remember all the terrific innovative, green projects reported in this blog on redevelopment sites in accessible locations?  (For example, DenverAtlanta, image left; Cincinnati; Rockville, MD; Seattle; San Mateo; Oakland.) Apparently the Council didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t believe what it says.

Beyond changing market preferences and common sense, research proves that we use more energy getting to and from a building than does the building itself, and that even the greenest suburban household, on average, will not match the energy- and emissions-reduction potential of an ordinary household in a more urban location (see also here), to say nothing of a green urban household.  Nationally, transportation is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions, contributing more to the total than do either residential or commercial buildings (and only slightly less than those two categories combined).  Location matters immensely to the sustainability of development.

Yet LEED for Homes assigns only ten of its 136 available credit points, and none of its prerequisites, to the “location and linkages” category.

The usual arguments in favor of continuing to give location such short shrift are (1) to transform the market, we must meet the market where it is, not where we wish it were, and (2) “but the architect/builder/engineer doesn’t choose the site.”  I’m not persuaded by either. On the subject of market transformation, building site choices are part of the market that must be transformed.  We must reward those who make the right choices for the environment much more than we reward those who don’t.  Besides, the market has changed already, so that these award winners are much less representative of the housing market as a whole than they used to be. 

As for who chooses the site, LEED certifications benefit developers every bit as much as they do designers, perhaps even more so.  Developers do make site choices and absolutely should be encouraged to make better ones.  As I said above, I’m not arguing here that these platinum-certified, national award winners aren’t at all “green.”  DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood has lots of new housing and is loaded with walkable destinations (by: Walk Score)But I am arguing that there are much more deserving examples (including virtually any of the many green, affordable, urban housing projects built by Jonathan Rose Companies - full disclosure: a friend and NRDC trustee) if we are going to name the very best.  (Image with this paragraph: DC's Columbia Heights, where much new housing has been built; Walk Score 92.)

A better answer might be that LEED for Neighborhood Development does emphasize location, transit access, walkability, and proximity to shops and services (in addition to green technology).  It is the new-generation definition of what is green under LEED, and it has now been piloted, completed, fully approved by the partners who developed it (including NRDC, along with the Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism), and published for all to see.  But, for reasons best known to the Green Building Council's leadership, developers are not yet allowed to use it.  Past LEED-ND chair Doug Farr has suggested that compliance with LEED-ND’s standards should be a baseline requirement at least for platinum-level certification under other parts of LEED.  How about it?

As noted, I salute the Green Building Council for their outstanding work for sustainability.  The environment is better for it.  Without exception, the staff members I have met from the organization have been bright, dedicated and professional.  I also am proud that NRDC has contributed as much as we have to the Council's undertakings, and I hope we will continue to do so. 

But It is past time to take the important work of promoting green building to the next level. We know a lot more about the factors that determine the performance of our built environment now than we did when the LEED template was established.   It is time to be much more candid to ourselves, the public, and policy makers about the environmental damage done by even good buildings in bad or mediocre locations, and to start doing something about it.

For a parallel discussion on the LEED for Homes award winners, includng a critique of their design, see Steve Mouzon's the Original Green.  Many thanks to Hank Dittmar for pointing me to articles about the LEED awards.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.


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Doug FarrJan 12 2010 09:32 AM

Kaid's blog entry does the a great job of illustrating the disconnect between green buildings and urbanism. As you cite I think the best way to change the siloed culture of sustainability is to change the Platinum criteria; require that all LEED Platinum building projects meet the LEED-ND pre-reqs and that the buildings in LEED-ND Platinum projects be required to meet all LEED-building pre-reqs. Keep blogging!

Lisa NisensonJan 12 2010 09:45 AM

Hi Kaid - Thank you so much for pointing these out - I will Twit-Face these extensively. However, I would also like to point out the experience of Low Impact Development. Early LID projects were also in remote locations, though as it turns out, this was a necessity for field testing the concepts (LID has a well-duh appeal, but regulatory agencies don't include that box to check). While there was (and continues to be) a tense dance between LID and smart growthers, some of the strongest voices for both are emerging from both camps together. Despite the popularity - green and LEED are still a tough sell out here in the boonies. The listing of military projects is not so different from the trajectory smart growth took - and those projects helped with the numbers and making the case. Consider this round as the jump off point for next year's improvements.

For going forward, there are two critical actions to take: (1) conduct and publicize the math at both the site and supra-site scale for LEED projects. WalkScore is a good proxy, but a larger scale picture of the neighborhood on runoff, emissions, eco services, lost, etc is more to the point. While some smart growthy projects come out looking less than green, the location factors drive the conclusions. (2) Make sure to get the points out before cities and counties adopt "model codes" that window dress existing crappy codes with green fixes. A lot of local-level environmental groups are plugging conservation subdivision codes as the fix [heartburn]. Eliot Allen is probably one of the best people to recruit to end the nonsense of fake green. Keep plugging.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 12 2010 10:03 AM

Thanks, Doug.

Lisa, fair points. We can certainly use your help on them!

David HoldenJan 13 2010 01:36 AM

Lisa, good points and in moving forward you should have a look at what has been developed here in Australia for the building industry. Having come from planning and sustainability in the US, back to Sydney, I am convinced we need to move well beyond check lists to quantifiable, measurable and verifiable sustainability tools. In essense we have spent 2 years developing a tool that quantifies the energy (kWh and peak loads), greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, stormwater quality and quantity, and transport (VMT and emissions) as well as total affordability, taking into account housing costs as well as total cost of living. See: It is currently used by the government's land development agency, Landcom.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 13 2010 08:59 AM

David, I just went to the site, and the tool you describe does indeed look promising. I may highlight it in a future blog post. Even if such omnibus sustainability measures are perfected, though, I think we still will need nonquantified standards as well to capture important values such as landscape ecology, preservation, embedded resource conservation, and public participation. The environment has never been fully quantifiable.

Tom MoesJan 13 2010 12:17 PM

Hi, Kaid. I've have been following your blog for a short time now. I'm in the urban planning/design field. While I have much praise for your independent thought, I want to play the devil’s advocate. Your statement about how "Developers do make site choices and absolutely should be encouraged to make better ones" is vague. In many cases, developers are limited in their site choices because of land affordability or availability of supply. I mean, look at where schools have to locate nowadays—on urban/township fringes. That is not entirely their choice. If schools wanted to locate in the center of a neighborhood, they most likely would have to buy up 2-10 parcels of property to piece together a reasonable size of land for a new school. Unfortunately, schools use an archaic siting system—the 10/20/40 acre rule—for building new schools. But I digress.

My point is that you might want to advocate for the long vision (100 years) of how these highly sustainable homes built away from city centers and transit will eventually get filled in around them. Granted, most likely we will see the disappearance of agricultural land, and ex-urban areas will get further extended beyond the bucolic nature they were meant to be. Thus, let's advocate for the long(er)-term vision that progressive planners are trying to encourage with developers. We might think these are poor decisions now (such as building just a single 10-home standalone subdivision, er, community), but future generations will see the rewards. That is, if one small neighborhood in the middle-of-nowhere started all green then all the future housing and commercial (infill)development around it can follow its leaders. And, that my friend, is what I hope progressive government planning agencies will encourage developers to do when deciding to build more housing (and even pushing for green infrastructure) around already existing green housing (LEED for Homes certified). To me, that is the much bigger reason why LEED for Homes was developed in the first place.

T. CaineJan 13 2010 12:48 PM

Great post, Kaid. I think your comments in your final paragraph of LEED, and our use of it, evolving alongside our understanding and technological capabilities are keenly relevant.

As an architect, when I hear critics of LEED and its imperfect system I always say that it is easy for people to miss the real accomplishment that the USGBC made with LEED. America is a consumer-driven economy, for better or worse. LEED turned green building into a product that could be bought, sold, advertised and benchmarked. It allowed the removed and sometime esoteric fields of design and construction to find talking points with people outside of the industry. It is hard to believe we would have nearly as many supporters as we do now without LEED as this translator for goals and possibilities.

That being said, you are exactly right. We have accomplished that and now the market is more educated and better equipped to tackle sustainability in the built environment. LEED has to continue to reinvent itself to keep pushing the envelope and accomplish its goals better.

As an aside to Tom, I do not think that we should be supporting greenfield development or accept it as a inevitable result of settlement resulting from cheap land. We should be discouraging that kind of construction and focus more on adding density to our existing town and city centers. I would hope that 100 years from now, those houses built out in the boonies are just as lonely then as they are now.

Luwanna StrawserJan 13 2010 02:28 PM

These problems are typical of our culture and society. There is a disconnect between where resources/goods are coming from or made, how they are transported, and the 'true' costs that we should pay as consumers. If we paid the 'true' cost for an orange in the supermarket, I dare say none of us could afford the orange. When you apply this to larger consumer items like cars and homes the 'true' costs sky rocket. Until 'true' costs are posted and people are made aware of these costs we will never be able to achieve true sustainability.


Kaid @ NRDCJan 13 2010 03:20 PM

Thanks, Tim. Love your blog as well.

Tom, remember that I said I was not opposing certifying these projects and even conceded that it might do some good. My qualms are with holding them out to the public and policy makers as the greenest of the green when their performance doesn't warrant that. I could rattle off a dozen more deserving winners without blinking an eye.

And, even if you're persuaded that the owners of Spruce Mountain and Villa Trieste need "cheap land," that's not sufficient in my opinion. Why not cheap building materials or cheap technology instead of going green? LEED rewards those who go the extra step. As for school sprawl, don't get me started. I would be satisfied simply with rehabbing old neighborhood schools without buying any new lots for schools in city districts.

I appreciate the readers and comments that don't always agree with me, though. This is a conversation, and thanks for stopping by.

verdedudeJan 13 2010 05:03 PM

use - the best online resource for quickly identifying regionally manufactured products that can help earn LEED points for certified wood, recycled content, reclaimed material, rapidly renewable material and low VOCs

Tom MoesJan 13 2010 09:29 PM

Hi everyone. I wanted to come back here and check out some of the latest comments. I agree with all the responses. I was trying to play the devil's advocate, while also attempting to offer reasons why there is a potential to create a critical mass around highly sustainable developments that aren't always located near transit or walkable destinations. Don't worry, my DNA lives and breathes high density.

Last year, I helped organize a panel of experts in the Milwaukee area to discuss how new urbanism should fit into the federal stimulus program. The main point of the panel was about density, density, density. That is, stimulus jobs should really be directed at inner cities and used to improve existing infrastructure especially around economically distressed areas.

As to the issue about school sprawl, I wrote my entire master's thesis on school siting and how school rehabilitation is the best option.

Thanks again everyone. –Tom, Chicago

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