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?

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Sustainable Design, green design, leed, leadership in energy and environmental design, green building certification, green architecture

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.

LEED, Sustainable Design, green design, leed, leadership in energy and environmental design, green building certification, green architecture

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?