LEED, Not So Clear-Cut

Some argue that the big business of sustainable design is a fraud

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Image by Flickr user: D H Wright / Creative Commons

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LEED-certified architecture was conceived by a nonprofit to save energy on heating and cooling, but it also makes for big business. According to the watchdogs at Mother Jones (Sept.-Oct. 2011), an office building certified for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design costs $171 more to build per square foot than a typical structure—and the standards may be better at generating publicity than at encouraging truly cost-effective, environmentally friendly energy. At least that’s the contention of energy consultant Henry Gifford, who has filed a series of lawsuits against the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the internationally recognized rating system.

Gifford argues that showy details like solar panels are worthless unless other fundamental design principles are followed (improving boiler room piping, for instance, or adding insulation). “Going to so much trouble and expense to end up with buildings that use more energy than comparable buildings is not only a tragedy,” says Gifford, “it is also a fraud.”

The building council is also under attack from conservationists protesting a proposed change to LEED standards pertaining to timber, reports Grist (Oct. 10, 2011). According to Todd Paglia, executive director of the nonprofit Forest Ethics, the new rules would allow developers to use wood “from some of the worst clear-cuts in North America” and still get their houses certified. The council defends itself, saying that LEED certification is based on a point system, which rewards architects for making a certain number of sustainable decisions. In other words, low-flush toilets or solar lighting could compensate for clear-cut wood. A policy that Gifford would argue proves his point.

Cover-169-thumb.jpgHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.