Gallery: Is LEED Still Leading the Way for Green Building?


For the past five years Inhabitat has written about many LEED buildings. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system has proven to be enormously successful at pushing commercial buildings to reduce their environmental footprint. However the New York Times featured an important story on the under-performance of some of these buildings and has just published an opinion piece by Alec Applebaum in which he suggests that governments add-long term energy management initiatives to a LEED building in order to keep the project from “going gray after its grand opening.” Is the LEED system dropping the ball on energy efficiency?

The USGBC is a consensus-based membership organization and has developed a broad array of certifications for almost any kind of building, including entire neighborhoods. To its credit the USGBC has been very adaptive in its twelve years developing the LEED system. Many oversights, vagaries, and priorities have been addressed by LEED, which is now on version 3.0. One of newest changes is that a building needs to report annual energy use and compare it with the designed energy use. According to a USGBC study, approximately half of all certified buildings would not even make Energy Star. Currently there is no penalty (such as a revocation of the certification) for buildings that miss their projected energy targets. Mr. Applebaum would like to see an aggressive incentive program for buildings to go beyond a basic LEED certification, a baseline that is relatively easy for many projects. We fully agree.

What Mr. Applebaum overlooked in his piece, though, are options within the LEED system itself that encourages ongoing energy efficiency. The system is flexible so that design teams can find the best options for their specific projects. There are some basic requirements supported by a menu of options to get to certain levels of certification. This provides a design team with a lot of latitude to “cherry pick” points that are cheaper or easier, but ignore some that may be a larger initial investment but can have significant energy savings and payback in a short time.

When it comes to energy, for instance, two available options are enhanced commissioning and measurement and verification. These two credits have been proven to be the greatest energy-saving measures with the best payback in a building, but projects often balk at pursuing them. When a design team is “point chasing” for certification, the project often fails to meet expectations. The responsibility is on the project team to take integrated environmental design to heart throughout the entire process. The LEED system can only be as good as those who use it.

What do you think is the cause for buildings to not live up to their promised energy performance? What should be done to ensure that our buildings use less energy long after the plaque goes on?


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  1. Greenbuild Kicks Off Ne... November 12, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    […] a hundred learning opportunities and a sea of vendors, the conference goes beyond an education in LEED standards and applications. Among the speakers will be Natural Capitalist’s Paul Hawken, […]

  2. Andrew Michler June 2, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Posted by Ira Goldschmidt, P.E., LEED-AP

    Yes LEED is clearly still leading the way for Green Building; if not, then tell me what other program has eclipsed LEED…none. OTOH, is LEED doing what it should be doing to make LEED buildings truly “Green”? Not as much as I’d like. Why? – like any other bureaucratic endeavor participants have learned to “game” system to minimize what they need to do to meet the requirements rather than to truly meet the spirit and intent of the program. I also don’t think that many very green credits are given enough weighting (i.e., points) vs. some that appear to be more marginally “green”…don’t have any hard facts about this – it’s just what my gut reaction is to the point system.

    Is LEED in danger of losing its leadership position? Possibly. ASHRAE has recently released standard 189.1 for “…the Design of High Performance, Green Buildings”. It was created jointly w/ the USGBC so it is very much modeled on LEED but puts it into code-friendly language. And since ASHRAE is an ANSI-sanctioned standards-making organization this document may eventually become a model code that would be adopted by building departments. If that happens then LEED pretty much goes bye-bye…a loss I hope the USGBC would see as a victory for Green Buildng. But this is probably years away….

  3. affectingchange May 25, 2010 at 12:20 am

    LEED doesn’t do enough to ensure that buildings are passively designed and sustainable. Too much point chasing deludes people into thinking that they have done the right thing, and pats them on the back for trying. In reality, we all have to do much more with much less. Tweaking a building’s orientation, shading devices, insulation levels and mechanical efficiency just won’t get us to net positive.

    We have start designing our buildings so that they work for us, and provide a shelter that nearly gets us to our comfort zone without massive amounts of mechanical systems. LEED does not encourage this path.

    It does, however, encourage us to be a conscience creator, and to make decisions about the building that we are co-creating. But we can’t rest on those laurels.

  4. DianaDriscoll May 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Relative to Europe, LEED and the entire sustainability industry is still in its infancy. LEED continues to evolve and improve, and I wouldn’t encourage throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Most everyone is encouraging stricter energy monitoring, and LEED is headed that way. I continue to support LEED – a non-profit that invites input, and it is not regulated by the government. I’d recommend that if someone has anything to offer to improve LEED, that they do so! Help and comments are always welcome, and many brilliant volunteers give much of their time and knowledge to help it grow and improve constantly. Is LEED perfect? Absolutely not. Is it changing and growing? You bet it is!

  5. auzzie22314 May 24, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    One way to mitigate this criticism of LEED would be to incorporate the Passive House standard into LEED. In order to achieve Platinum, Passive House energy reductions would have to be achieved. Below Platinum the HERS score reached would determine the points achieved in the energy component.

  6. dantiston May 24, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Well, LEED could be fixed to advocate for passive temperature control and other non-traditional climate control mechanisms. LEED could mandate solar panels, long-term installations such as LEDs, or call for long-term building plans and policies. LEED could get rid of their point-based certification process, and rather lay out non-specific guidelines for building, and then certify based on test results and real-world functioning of the building.

  7. caseyg May 24, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    There is opportunity at every phase to decrease the construction/performance of a building. A lot falls to contractors (me included) cutting small corners, where even dismissing a caulk line can cause air infiltration and start the performance down that slippery slope.
    Certifications like the up and coming Living Building Challenge are the way to go! LEED must change or fall away, like they have been called to do for years.

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