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Leed 1

March 9, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Category: Remodeling Contractor

According to the Department of Energy, buildings account for 71% of America’s electricity use and 38% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Anything that cuts those numbers–as USGBC-certified buildings do; by an average of 25% to 30%–is surely a plus. But what does the plaque on the front of a $700 million glass tower really mean? Asking that question exposes some serious cracks in the world’s biggest green-building brand name–Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED–as well as a very human tendency to reach for easy solutions to difficult problems.
As alarm over the environment intensifies, LEED has been in the right place at the right time. Two federal agencies, 22 states, and 75 localities from Seattle to Boston have instituted policies to require or encourage LEED; in New York, the new rules affected $12 billion in new construction since 2007. A host of major New York projects, including new luxury condos in Battery Park City, a 2 million-square-foot skyscraper on Bryant Park in midtown, and the rest of the buildings around the World Trade Center site, have all sought the council’s stamp of approval.
Critics say that the LEED standard falls short of what’s possible in terms of saving energy. While a 25% to 30% improvement in energy use over conventional buildings sounds impressive, it pales compared with, say, the 50% target adopted by the dozens of firms that have signed on to the Architecture 2030 initiative. Assessing LEED is further complicated by the business growth of the Green Building Council. Awarding gold–and silver and platinum–certification has been a gold mine for the nonprofit organization. Once a small operation with seven paid employees, it now fields a 116-member staff and earns 95% of its $50 million annual budget. Could the council’s financial success be standing in the way of cutting-edge green-building standards?
The Green Building Council started 17 years back with an unlikely alliance between a real-estate developer, David Gottfried, and a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rob Watson. The Current CEO of the council Richard Fedrizzi says, “The great majority of environmental organizations had invested in keeping companies on the other side of a fence. David [Gottfried] thought that we could do things differently. If we could invite business to the table, we could develop standards relative to building performance, buy in at the very top, and be able to transform the marketplace toward sustainable buildings.”
The result, introduced in 2000, was LEED. The LEED rating system is simple in concept. Architects and engineers shoot for points in six categories: sitting, water use, energy, materials, indoor air quality, and “innovation in design.” Once a building is complete, a representative from the Green Building Council reviews the documentation–plans, engineers’ calculations–and awards points out of a possible 69: certified (at least 26 points for new construction), silver, gold, or platinum (at least 52 points).The point system was specifically constructed to entice builders and drive the market in a green direction. One definable action equals one point. Bike racks, one point; recycling room, one point, etc, and it worked. Power-suited developers and hard hats have signed on. More than 6,500 projects have registered for LEED certification since 2000, and new categories such as commercial interiors and existing buildings have been added to the original LEED for new construction. Forty-two thousand people have paid $250 to $350 and passed exams to become “LEED-accredited professionals.”
The council’s revenue has been growing at 30% or better a year, with close to 20% coming from certification. Getting the LEED plaque is not cheap. In February, the mayor of Park City, Utah, told a building-industry publication, “On the Park City Ice Arena [$4.8 million project cost], we built it according to LEED criteria, but then we realized that [certification] was going to cost $27,500. So we ordered three small wind turbines instead that will power the arena’s Zamboni.” Much of this growth is credited to Fedrizzi, a former marketing executive for an air-conditioning company who became CEO in 2004. “We realized we were getting the messaging wrong, leading with the environmental story,” he says. “We had to lead with the business case.”

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