The Science of Sustainability

LEED or Get Out of the Way

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This is a LEED-certified building on Columbus Circle
in New York City. Anything wrong with this picture?
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program has been around for many years, and has became a well-known "brand" among builders, developers and much of the general public nationwide. The program was developed and is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). There are LEED certifications (certified, silver, gold, and platinum) for commercial and residential buildings, building retrofits, and the USGBC is developing a LEED certification for neighborhoods. The focus of LEED is to mark buildings (and now neighborhoods) that are sustainable, healthy, and energy efficient. The program has become so popular and well known that many cities now require that new municipal buildings be built to LEED standards.

But there is some question as to whether LEED buildings actually save energy. Henry Gifford, an engineer and mechanical system designer in New York City, "…the best data available shows that on average, they (LEED-certified buildings) use more energy than comparable buildings." His view is controversial, but I have seen the data he used and have studied his analysis and it seems reasonable to me, though I am not a statistician and have done a limited amount of number crunching in my short career as an engineer before becoming a writer.

I have heard the arguments from the other side and haven't been convinced. Even from a common sense perspective, it seams unrealistic that LEED buildings are built to save energy. I've seen too many LEED certified buildings with a large percentage of windows as exterior walls–that is like trying to build an energy efficient building without walls. Also, LEED certification does not require performance testing of buildings. A building can achieve points for energy efficiency from modeling alone. In my role as editor of Home Energy Magazine, I have wanted to publish in-depth articles about LEED-certified homes, but I have been unable to find a LEED-certified building owner or designer who is willing to publish a full year of performance data, post-occupancy.

The LEED program has made green building a common term and a sought after designation among architects, builders, and developers across the nation. LEED buildings may use more environmentally friendly materials and be healthier for their occupants. But it is not yet clear to me that they save energy compared to business as usual. If we want to achieve energy independence, combat the worst effects of global warming, and grow a green economy, we can't afford to build–and celebrate–buildings built as usual.

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Category: Energy, Engineering, Environment, Partners

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Jim Gunshinan

About the Author ()

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.
  • http://www.flgreenliving.com FLGreenliving

    Hi,

    Just read your post, Glad to hear your good news from LEED standard. Thanks for this program, Yeah! let's fight global warming, and grow a green economy. Go Green!

  • Joan

    You should do some more research before making these claims. First of all, the reason that LEED certified buildings have a large percentage of windows-they are tinted and therefore maximize natural light while blocking heat. Second, your claim that LEED certification does not require performance testing on buildings is completely false. LEED for existing buildings requires a re-certification application to be filed at least once every 5 years to maintain certification. The documentation in the application must include reports of the buildings operating performance data for the entire performance period. The "Green Building Impact Report 2008" is published proof of the ongoing efforts to keep track of LEED certified building performance and its impact on our environment. Here's a link to it: http://www.greenerbuildings.com/greenbuildingimpactreport/html?page=0%2C1

  • http://www.homeenergy.org Jim Gunshinan

    Joan,

    I did the research. Tinted windows don't provide near the insulating value of walls. And I was talking about LEED new construction, which has been around for a while. The LEED existing building program is fairly new and a response to the poor energy performance of LEED buildings.

    Now if LEED would require that new buildings meet the performance standards of the existing buildings program for certification, than that would be something to crow about.

  • http://www.everblueenergy.com/ Everblue

    The USGBC completed a study of 500 LEED Certified buildings. The study compared the LEED building's actual energy usage vs two benchmarks. One was the energy model of the building required under LEED and the second was the commercial equivalent benchmark taken from the DOE's Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey. You can find the study on the GBCI website.
    The results were interesting. The buildings overall did not measure up to their energy models but a full two thirds were more efficient that their commercial counterparts (some exceeding so). Many of the remaining third that did not save energy had some type of unplanned usage change for the space (like extra people).
    The study concluded that much work needs to be done to make Energy Models more realistic and it also did an analysis of energy usage compared to buildings that did commissioning, daylighting, and assorted other things to see if those items had an impact on energy usage. Overall, they did not but the daylighting actually slightly reduced energy usage (attributed to lower light loads).