Blog Post

Green Building Laws: Are We LEEDing Legislators Down the Garden Path?

Green building is about more than saving money, but policymakers are embracing the business case for LEED and other rating systems--with sometimes confusing results.

A school bike rack is standard, but it doesn't help anyone if the bike rack stays empty. Schools, like all buildings, need to find ways to bridge the gap between design features and the people who end up using them. (Photo: Century Cycles)

What is it about the bike racks?

They seem to come up every time someone has a bone to pick with LEED. So it was in a recent op-ed about public buildings designed to state-mandated LEED Silver standards--the subject of a preliminary report (PDF) on energy savings in public buildings in the state of Washington. I've been keeping an eye on the responses to this report, because I think we'll be seeing green building rating systems used more and more frequently as political footballs as budget-starved states start to rethink requirements established during better economic times.

In the op-ed, the regional director of a conservative think tank lashes out against what he perceives to be green frills:

Only 18 percent of the extra cost to make Lincoln Heights a green school ... was spent on energy efficiency elements. The other 82 percent was spent on mandates like electric car outlets and large bike racks, which did not yield energy savings. Those additions, while costly, were included not because of any real need, but solely to help meet the state's requirements.

This critique has some pretty serious flaws. LEED rating systems do not require bike racks or electric car outlets, so neither is a "mandate." LEED has very few absolute requirements, in fact--the main reason it doesn't work very well as legislation unless the law gives specific guidance on which credits must be achieved.

Furthermore, the credit for bicycle storage and changing rooms (SSc4.2 in LEED for New Construction), is a pretty popular credit to pursue--in part because it costs almost nothing in a building whose program already includes changing rooms and showers. The report doesn't give us fine-grained data, but the idea that even a "large" bike rack could account for a significant portion of a multi-million-dollar construction budget is simply laughable. And don't we normally put bike racks at schools anyway? That's standard equipment, not an extra cost.

LEED is not a building code

With all that said, though, I think this commentator has hit upon a very important point: if I understand it correctly, the State has required that all public buildings be designed to certain standards (LEED and some similar statewide systems), based on the assumption that energy savings will pay for any added construction costs. But it failed to require any actual energy savings.


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"The whole standard ends when the design is over," points out Mark Frankel, technical director of the New Buildings Institute. LEED and Washington's own similar programs offer "the potential for better operation"--but how the building is operated and occupied is beyond the designers' control. "There is this wide misconception that you can design to LEED standards and everything will be OK," Frankel continued. "LEED is not a code. It leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding for jurisdictions to use it as a code."

The report estimates that these buildings cost 1%–3% more, and legislators want to know when they'll get their money back: that's why they commissioned the report. LEED, though, is not just about saving energy, water, or money. Depending on the choices the client makes, it can also be about protecting people from carcinogens, supporting the local economy, providing habitat for wildlife, and many other public goods. Like bike racks.

Measuring ROI means tracking energy

While we can certainly look at such choices and see how they improve quality of life and might even save a community or a state money in the long run, we don't get a monthly gas bill letting us know that Little Johnny won't get lung cancer when he's 62 or that our bioswales will help prevent a disastrous flood in 2045.

No, it's probably not fair to mandate a whole-building design standard and then measure its cost-effectiveness by looking at nothing but utility bills. But the green building community has put a lot of effort into making the business case for sustainable building practices. Can we back up our claims with actual performance outcomes or not? Now that policymakers are paying attention and want to calculate their ROI, we have to stick with results we can measure in the short term.

And then we have to measure them. Apparently, building owners in Washington aren't any better at this than anyone else in the country, despite the legal requirement that they do so. While the report pushed some people's political buttons by showing mixed energy results from buildings that actually had data--along with a more promising trend showing better results after the first year of operation--its main finding was uncomplicated and apolitical: there's not enough information. Most people either didn't have a way to collect it, didn't know how to use the equipment designed to collect it, or didn't dedicate staff time to collecting it.

Better performance requires better operation

"Our recommendations were focused on improving data collection," said Keenan Konopaski, legislative auditor for Washington's nonpartisan Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), which conducted the study. Such a recommendation is a tricky business in the current legislative environment, since state agencies "need to improve how they are collecting data" (which means dedicating labor hours to the task) while "they are also reducing budgets."

That's a bit of a Catch-22, though, since energy managers usually end up paying their own salaries. As the report shows, the building managers who could boast the most impressive energy savings were practicing resource conservation management in all their buildings--not just the new ones--and achieving Energy Star across the board, even in historic buildings.

While designers cannot have direct involvement in resource conservation management, the green building community as a whole could certainly do a better job of acknowledging that good energy performance comes from good building management--not just high-performance gadgets.

The latest trend: mandated energy disclosure

Frankel thinks we may need to face the music sooner rather than later. "Things are changing really fast now with disclosure ordinances," he said. "People are not going to be able to run away from that data anymore."

What do you think? Have green building advocates oversold the economic advantages of sustainable design? And can people working on the design side do anything to ensure that building operators and occupants do their part to save energy? Should energy and water tracking just be a standard part of every green rating system? We welcome your comments below.

Published September 26, 2011

(2011, September 26). Green Building Laws: Are We LEEDing Legislators Down the Garden Path?. Retrieved from

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September 29, 2011 - 6:01 am

LEED is not a government program.

September 27, 2011 - 4:27 am

I've worked with several contractors lately who would like to obtain LEED accreditation. In pursuing LEED, ee have found barriers to entry high, ROI low and overall "feel good" status VERY low. Typical of most government programs it breeds inefficiency and greed while promoting sub-par standards. We are hopeful of many international standards and a general rise in public awareness driving truly "green" building.