Green Buildings Move Into the Future
What does LEED mean, other than a seal of approval for a landlord seeking environmental cred? As of this year, the certification will mean a landlord’s agreement to keep a building performing efficiently as it ages.
In the past generation, the United States Green Building Council, which administers LEED, has sprouted 78 chapters across the country and accredited more than five billion square feet of space. LEED ratings now exist for schools, homes and even entire neighborhoods. Institutions and multinationals swear by the rating, even if few people know its meaning. (It stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.”) Vanderbilt University boasts of having seven LEED-rated buildings, Princeton promises to retune its campus to LEED specs, and the reviled Citigroup bragged recently that it has “100 LEED-certified branches.” But LEED ratings reflect a list of promises and installed features. Nobody can reliably say what LEED-accredited projects do after the buildings open. As of June 25, LEED requires owners to show that all the socko features they show off during the ribbon-cutting actually lead to more energy-efficient performance when the building has been open for a year.
Until now, a developer or institution has earned LEED points on a checklist of environmental features. These include using local materials, recycling construction waste, investing in renewable energy or providing parking space for bicycles. More points earn gold, silver or platinum status. (There’s one LEED platinum office building in the United States: One Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, designed by Cook+Fox.) Historically, the ratings have had no mechanism for context.
A developer installing solar panels in a city where coal-fired electric plants dominate, notes LEED volunteer Kirsten Richie, would make a bigger environmental impact than one in a city that uses lots of hydropower. But their moves would affect their LEED scores equally. Likewise, moves like bike garages (or showers) can add up to a high score for a relatively lax project. I once toured LEED-rated buildings in Chicago and heard a developer, who I won’t name to protect him from speaking out of context, talk about racking up points for being near the El: “it’s fairly easy to get LEED points.”
This will change with the new system in some ways: a developer who scores LEED points for energy efficiency will have to re-earn them. “There’s been realignment of point weighting toward site selection, water and energy,” says Richie, an engineer with global design firm Gensler who serves on LEED’s materials committee. (Disclosure: I’ve written for Gensler’s client magazine and for a book it sent clients, and a woman I met when she repped Gensler on stories I wrote now writes for the Faster Times.)
LEED 3.0, as the new system calls itself, flirts with a standard for carbon use. It requires owners to recertify every two years, or submit annual data on energy and water use, or let the Green Building Council effectively audit the building’s operations. Richie says the move is timely because carbon-tracking software from vendors like Autodesk is now affordable enough for developers to try. “Some modeling software, such as for natural ventilation, is young,” Richie said. “But now we have data, and once we have the tools there will be a pretty straightforward reference point for a carbon footprint.”
Numbers are there for the fudging, of course. But adding the dimension of time to the measurement of green makes a key step toward making landlords compete on environmental performance rather than feel-good marketing.
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