Concerns About LEED Program

Concerns About LEED Program

I read your Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) coverage in


Vol. 7, No. 10 [November 1998]. My information tells me that LEED won’t work with a self-assessment model. The Colorado self-assessment tool in the residential sector has done a good job at building market share, but the energy part still needs Home Energy Rating System (HERS) or Energy-Efficient Mortgage (EEM) third party certification. And future credits for IAQ, worker productivity, and insurance will need third party certification as well.

The Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) works due to assessments by bonded professionals, such as appraisers, and a market that expects higher rents or lower vacancies in a green building as well as lower operating costs. Is the market so unsophisticated here that commercial tenants can’t tell the difference between a rating given by the developer’s own team and one done by a person whose credibility as a rater can be lost for going south on just one job?

The Vital Signs program clearly shows that highly regarded buildings don’t work as well as claimed and often don’t even work as designed. This is true even after wide exposure in the architectural and professional press. I can’t believe that among the stakeholders there were not members present who took the position that it costs almost as much to do a self-rating as a third party one, and that a third party system would carry much more weight. Maybe the commercial banks, the pension funds, the insurance companies, and the underwriters were not at the table.

Finally ISO 14000 requires third party assessment for environmental quality management, which means that LEED is useless in its present form for this purpose, while 14000 work is a growing share of BREEAM work. There is even question whether the LEED tool would meet the reporting requirement of the CERES [Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies] program. BREEAM uses a self-assessment tool as part of its marketing program to get building projects or existing buildings engaged in the program. The reports coming out of architecture schools using the Vital Signs need to be held up to the USGBC and DOE as an indication of what is sure to happen with the self-assessment model.

Ambrose Spencer

Boston, Massachusetts

The U.S. Green Building Council Replies:

The author raises a number of excellent points regarding the pitfalls of self-assessment, and we welcome the opportunity to clarify some of the points he has raised regarding the LEED rating system.

Although LEED has been characterized as a self-assessing system, that is not entirely accurate. Through LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council provides third party verification/certification of developers’ self-assessment.

The developer’s submittal must be sealed by a registered architect or professional engineer, which addresses the author’s issue of involving “bonded professionals” in the certification process. In addition, applications must include plans that have been approved by the local building department, as well as other documentation for credits claimed. These submittals will be verified by qualified professionals and on occasion checked in the field. If one of these verification steps finds a discrepancy, there is a possibility that the building’s rating might be withdrawn. Our belief is that this possibility is sufficient to discourage gaming with the system.

The USGBC chose the path it did not without significant consideration of different alternatives by many stakeholders. Our research indicated that the infrastructure required to launch a national rating system based on a network of field verifiers was prohibitive at the outset. The markets where BREEAM has been successfully launched are small—both in terms of size, as well as geographical and climatic variance—when compared to the building market of the United States. Naturally it will be easier and less expensive to start a rating system under those conditions.

Indeed, BREEAM countries are fortunate to have markets that “expect higher rates and lower vacancies in a green building.” The USGBC certainly expects this performance from a LEED building. But, as the author points out through the experience of the Vital Signs project, even bread-and-butter issues such as advanced energy efficiency performance are difficult to get a handle on in the field. To address some of these issues, LEED requires building commissioning and encourages the installation of measures to ensure adequate monitoring and verification of building performance in a number of different areas.

The USGBC is very concerned with “greenwash.” LEED is a rigorous system that will require significant effort to achieve, but we need to balance these rigors with what the U.S. market will accept. While certain elements of sustainable design—such as indoor air quality and energy efficiency—are reasonably well accepted in the United States, the whole field of integrated design is just beginning to catch on. It will be some time before there are sufficient “raters” who are recognized both by the lending and insurance community and by the green building community to allow for a BREEAM-like approach. We did not want to delay the launch of LEED to wait for the development of this infrastructure.

With regards to ISO 14000, all we can say is that it’s better than nothing. As Annex A of the ISO 14000 standard itself says, “The establishment and operation of an [environmental management system] will not, in itself, necessarily result in an immediate reduction of adverse environmental impact.”

The USGBC accepts the fact that we are still working toward sustainability, even though nobody really agrees on what that means. Our first step is to build market acceptance of green building practices and proven superior performance based on real experience in the United States. We’re not there yet, but we believe that LEED is the best first step there is.

Robert K. Watson

Vice-Chairman, USGBC

LEED Coordinator

William G. Reed

Vice-Chairman, USGBC

Tom Paladino

Lynne Barker

Co-Chairs, LEED Committee

Published February 1, 1999

(1999, February 1). Concerns About LEED Program. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/concerns-about-leed-program

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