LEED awards show why ‘green’ criteria need reform

Approximate location of Hope Crossing, LEED Homes national award winner, Oklahoma City

The US Green Building Council, which NRDC and CNU both support 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. 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.

In my NRDC blog today, I have posted photos, renderings, Google Earth location images, Walk Score data and, in a couple of cases, street connectivity for each. Other than the winner in the multifamily category, which does have a good, accessible location, the Walk Scores for the winners (most of which are platinum-certified) are: 3; 6; 38; 43; and 48. I'm posting one of the Google Earth images here as well; viewing all of them will definitely pique your interest.

Now these are not necessarily bad projects, 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 technology 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 the evidence demonstrating that the market for housing is shifting (see also here) rapidly in favor of more walkable, mixed-use, urban settings? Remember all the terrific innovative, green projects on redevelopment sites in accessible locations? (My NRDC blog is replete with examples, e.g., here.) 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 (links in my NRDC blog), 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.” But I am arguing that there are much more deserving examples if we are going to name the very best.

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 and CNU, along with the Green Building Council), 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.

Please see my NRDC blog for the full array of images and data on the winners.


Incorporate Walkscore ratings in LEED-NC, Leed for Homes

In doing this online legwork — or maybe it's now called fingertip work — you've hit on a simple, inspired way to check whether homes that are high LEED-for-Homes performers actually have high-performing green contexts or whether they're found in decidely ungreen sprawl. While there's more to determining a setting's green performance than just walkability (and the LEED-ND system captures many of them, but not all, such as distance to job centers), simply incorporating Walkscores as a form of pre-requisite in LEED for Homes and LEED-ND would be an improvement over these current systems, which despite some adjustments to, which despite adjustments still often miss the importance of context.


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