Monday, September 29, 2014

LEED Buildings that are not Really "Green"

The Four Sins of LEEDwashing: LEED Green Buildings That Perhaps Aren't Really Green

Henry Gifford, photo by Travis Roozee
"Is LEED a Fraud?" is the provocative title of an article on the Fine Homebuilding website by Kevin Ireton. It appears that mechanical designer Henry Gifford thinks it is, and makes a few good points in his paper A Better Way To Rate Green Buildings. (PDF Download here)
It is a good starting point in a discussion of what one might call the Four Sins LEEDwashing: using the LEED system to make a building appear green, when for any number of reasons, it really isn't. The Sins are:
1) The Sin of Not Following Through
2) The Sin of Valuing Gizmos Over Appropriate Design
3) The Sin of Laughably Inappropriate Use
4) The Sin of Wretched Excess.

Gifford makes the controversial case that LEED certified buildings use more energy than comparables, not less- as much as 29% more.
Gifford gets some solid hits, when he complains about the money wasted installing solar panels at the wrong angle and blocking them with other equipment just to get some LEED points.
Building energy use is probably the largest field of human endeavour in which almost nobody measures anything.

And he is right, that engineers and architects should be able to show that the decisions they make and the designs they produce actually work.
LEED is, in terms of the pace of architecture, brand new and still going through growing pains. It is also constantly evolving, so things that we complain about one year may be gone or changed in the next update. Many of the things I complain about here might already be fixed.
But it is interesting nonetheless to look at past TreeHugger posts and see what was passed off as being green, and why it might actually be questionable, our own list of the Sins of LEEDwashing.

The Sin of LEED Green Buildings that Don't Follow Through

Used with permission from Vidiot
Henry Gifford writes of the Hearst Tower:
"The building is reportedly equipped with sensors that turn the lights off based on occupancy, yet lights throughout the building stay on through the night, night after night....Energy efficiency is dependent on specific procedures at least as much as on the use of special products or technologies. But, because better procedures do little or nothing to promote the image of energy efficiency, they have been mostly ignored in the rush to rate buildings as green."
One might point out that the Hearst Tower houses the operations of newspapers and magazines, and they often have deadlines that keep people working at night, but his point is generally valid; if people don't operate a building in a green fashion it doesn't matter how it was built.
More in TreeHugger: Hearst Tower Leed Certified in "Gold"Hearst Tower Leed Certified in "Gold"

LEED also has a program designed around follow through. Discovery Headquarters got LEED Platinum for its operations and improvements, a ""top to bottom effort to become carbon neutral through the use of carbon offsets and wind power renewable energy certificates, and a robust employee engagement program to challenge and motivate employees to become involved in recycling and reduction programs."
More in TreeHugger: Discovery Headquarters Get LEED Platinum
But I have also been in LEED certified spaces and looked in the janitors closet and seen the usual toxic supplies and a kitchen full of styrofoam- the LEED practices ended as soon as the plaque went up. There is really no point in doing it if you don't follow through.

Next: The Sin of LEED Green Buildings that Value Gizmos Over Appropriate Design 

This is Canada's first LEED Platinum house. It has ground source heat pumps, lots of insulation and a pile of other tricks that are good for LEED points. It also has a black asphalt roof, double car garage, no shading of its windows and an impermeable driveway. In short, it has almost none of the features that we know can make a better, more energy efficient house. As James Russell wrote in Bloomberg:
Homes designed today can be much more efficient at low cost. Whether they're high-tech or old-fashioned, houses with awnings, porches and carefully placed windows can harvest natural breezes for cooling. Just shifting the primary orientation from east-west to north-south keeps summer's roasting sun off glass and lets windows grab winter heat. It can knock several percentage points off fuel and lighting bills. Backyard windmills, solar panels and planted "green'' roofs are chic, yet walls covered with shading vines offer most of the benefits for much lower cost.
See more in our Eight Ways to Build a Better House when They Start Building Houses Again and LEED Platinum in Canada: Designed to Bore

Donovan Rypkema is angry that we are losing so many good existing buildings, with so much history, not to mention embodied energy and real efficiency, to build new buildings that won't last as long and that are covered with expensive green gizmos. He suggests that LEED stands for "Lunatic Environmentalists Enthusiastically Demolishing."
Rypkema points out that architects are using LEED to justify demolition of perfectly good buildings. If one complains, they respond "Yeah, but we're going to be LEED certified."
More: Donovan Rypkema: LEED stands for "Lunatic Environmentalists Enthusiastically Demolishing"

In fact, the key to building a greener building is not to throw more technology at it, but to use less, like the Terry Thomas Building by Weber Thompson that we go on about. Instead of heat pumps, it has awnings, natural ventilation, courtyards and vines. More: "Smart Architect Builds Dumb Building."
Terry Thomas Building By Weber Thompson

As I learned at Greenbuild in Boston, gizmos rule. When the head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation was the headliner to talk about how green old buildings were, Richard Moe spoke to an empty room while you could not get into the gizmo workshops downstairs. LEED practitioners demonstrated with their feet that they really couldn't care that The Greenest Brick is the One That's Already in the Wall.
More: GreenBuild: Richard Moe Has a Tough Row to Hoe

Next: The Sin of LEED Green Buildings That Are Laughably Inappropriate 

It is in the middle of the New Mexico desert, miles from anywhere, which is a good thing, because they are going to be firing off rockets powered by burning rubber and nitrous oxide to give very rich people a seven minute space ride. And it is going for LEED platinum. Really, what is the point of being ""both sustainable and sensitive to its surroundings" when your purpose for being is neither?
Contradiction in Terms Dept.: a LEED Certified Spaceport

LEED should be a challenge for an above grade parking garage, even if it was made from site-grown bamboo and ventilated by flapping butterfly wings. I even came around and did a Santa Monica Mea Culpa where I concluded that it was a lovely thing. But can you truly call it green?
More: Santa Monica Mea Culpa
Contradiction in Terms Dept: Sustainable Parking Structure

The new HSBC headquarters has a gaggle of green gizmos and gold certification, but is in the middle of nowhere. Ken Benfield of NRDC put it best:

"God, where to start. What we really have here is yet another high-tech building calling itself “green” but that warrants the label only if you completely discount the sprawling, totally automobile-dependent location. Research proves that buildings in sprawling locations cause far more carbon emissions from employees and visitors driving to and from them than they save with energy-efficient building technology.

Proximity and land use are only a few points on the LEED scale, and the building does a lot of good things. A commenter pointed out that
"the fact that it was a farm screws over 1 LEED credit. If there is no local public transit, that's another 1 LEED credit. Most LEED buildings fall short in a few categories. Should we attack every LEED building that isn't off the grid? I don't think this is "greenwashing" because in a number of regards it is indeed green.
This all-or-nothing attitude so many people take when it comes to sustainability is ridiculous. You should be happy this building was green at all."
I am not so sure, I do not think we are being all-or-nothing or overly doctrinaire. Really, there should be some kind of dealbreaker clause that suggests that if any one thing is so out of whack as to bring the whole program into disrepute, then certification can be questioned.
Greenwash Watch: HSBC Headquarters

The Sin LEED Green Buildings that are models of Wretched Excess

Criticizing Frank McKinney's Aqua Liana House in Manalapan Beach, Florida is like shooting $29 million fish in a barrel, with its fifteen thousand feet of excess.

Speaking of fish, were they harvested sustainably? Yet the builder claims that
it is the first to be built and certified to the rigorous "green" standards (environmentally responsible) as defined and mandated by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Florida Green Building Council and Energy Star for Homes. Acqua Liana is the only known residence to receive "triple" certification.
No, it isn't green and demeans all three organizations.
Who Cares If It Is Green, Is It Ethical?
In the end, one has to consider what Leo Hickman wrote about ethical living:
Ethical means above all taking personal responsibility. This in turn means considering the "sustainability" of everything you do- making sure that your actions do not have a negative influence on you or more importantly the wider world. As more and more people around the world, rightly or wrongly, aspire to and obtain western lifestyles, the pressure on natural resources will become even more intense. Therefore, a major tenet of ethical living is to attempt, wherever possible, to reduce one's own demand for resources... Simply, it is a call to consume a fairer and more proportionate slice of the pie. "
I have noted before that LEED is an evolving system, and category weights change. Could the HSBC building be Gold with the 2009 community connectivity credits? Shari Shapiro writes at Green Building Law:
LEED 2009 has attempted to fix one of my major criticisms, that LEED does nothing to prevent “green sprawl”—green buildings built on unsustainable sites—first voiced here. Although there is still nothing to prevent a “green” big box store surrounded by acres of parking lot on the urban periphery from being LEED certified, the increases in points to the Sustainable Sites credits are an attempt to give more weight in the LEED system to green buildings built in mixed-use community settings linked by public transit.

Is Henry still right about monitoring of buildings when there are increased points for measurement and verification? Will buildings still be as ineffective at reducing energy use as Henry says? According to an engineer commenting at Green Building Law,
It will be almost impossible to get any level of certification without making meaningful attempts to reduce the building carbon footprint and water use.

So perhaps we won't see too many posts like this in the future.

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