The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Matthew Yglesias quotes a DC blog citing a New Yorker writer about LEED and its failings. I have some other thoughts about the DC blogger's post, but I want to address the bit that Matt quotes:
But Owen reserves his most pointed criticism for the very tool we hope will make our cities greener, one building at a time: LEED. It’s a little known fact that most architects, particularly the ones who take sustainability seriously, all hate LEED. With its prescriptions and brownie points for bike racks and proximity to alternative fueling stations, LEED is—in Owen’s estimation—both too difficult and too easy. Too difficult because the process is stupifyingly bureaucratic, requiring even LEED accredited designers to hire expensive LEED accredited consultants to manage the paperwork. And too easy because even after much refinement, many designers and developers still game the system with a few cosmetic changes to achieve LEED certification with a minimum of effort, expense, or innovation.

I’m a LEED-accredited architect who is passionate about sustainability, and I don't hate LEED. Although there are plainly flaws in the system (a lot fewer in the newest version), it’s far more comprehensive than a carbon tax or any other regulation-based effort to push green architecture.

A few points:
requiring even LEED accredited designers to hire expensive LEED accredited consultants to manage the paperwork “Require” is not actually correct here. In practice, it tends to happen, just as, in practice, architects – whose licenses permit them to design structural, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems – tend to hire licensed professionals in all those fields. It’s called specialization, and it’s worked pretty well for post-hunter/gatherer humanity.

As for the paperwork, that’s an inevitable side-effect of trying to be comprehensive and swimming against the tide. Some of the most pain-in-the-ass paperwork is gathering the packaging for every case of zero-VOC caulk used in a project (if you want that point). It sucks, but it’s the only way LEED – or anyone – can determine that the contractor isn’t claiming to do one thing while actually doing another (this happens, you may be shocked to know). Until the day that zero-VOC is the law of the land (which will probably be never – it’s not an appropriate metric for every need), there will be no other way to ensure that a building has been built with non-VOC materials – which is a real, valuable goal.

brownie points for bike racks This is precisely what LEED does not do. A developer who wants to greenwash his project without going to the trouble of LEED will install a couple bike racks and trumpet his efforts. But a developer who actually wants to get LEED needs to install covered or otherwise secure bike parking as well as shower and changing facilities (exact requirements vary a bit by building type) in order to get credit, because the reality is that, without support for bike commuters, bike commuting will be an occasional activity for pleasant days, not an all-weather option.

many designers and developers still game the system with a few cosmetic changes to achieve LEED certification with a minimum of effort, expense, or innovation. Aside from the perfect vs. good situation being set up here (no one should claim to be green unless they put in a great deal of effort, expense, and innovation? Really?), it’s simply not true that LEED certification can be achieved with a minimum of effort, unless you’re getting certain big things right. Rehabbing a building in a dense location with good transit access gets you about a quarter of the way to certification (at which point it isn’t that hard to go the rest of the way); is this supposed to be a flaw? Alternatively, if you’re building in a greenfield, you can get a big chunk of points for being ultra-energy efficient (which isn’t technically challenging; it’s basically smart design + budget); again, is this a problem? The latest version of LEED is much stronger because it has increased the values for important factors (like urban location) relative to the old version.

Product manufacturers, like packaged food makers, have big incentives to oversell their merits. Developers, contractors, and disinterested architects, like ordinary consumers, are in no position to judge those claims. In contrast, LEED-accredited professionals are trained to judge the claims, and have a framework in which to do it. It’s easy to mindlessly select materials with recycled content without paying much attention to whether it’s adding up; but if you’re seeking LEED certification, then you need to actually track your materials, and pay attention to where you can select a 100% recycled ceiling tile to offset the 20% recycled baseboard that the client loves.

As a general comment, LEED in no way competes with efforts to write green building into law – no one opposes cap and trade because LEED exists. Incorporating every LEED consideration into building codes, even if it were desirable and practical, would be a decades-long effort. In contrast, the LEED system has had a real (and lasting) impact in a scant decade of existence. Self-righteously bitching about it is treating green building and sustainability as an expression of your own merit, not an effort to, you know, make things better.

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