It’s not such a big secret that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has had a tough time living up to the hype. LEED certification gives property owners bragging rights, tax credits and an opportunity to charge tenants premium rents. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a quarter of new LEED-certified buildings do not save as much energy as their designs predicted, and most do not track energy consumption once in use. Without proving a building is energy efficient by obtaining regular “check-ups” at least once a year, these buildings receive benefits that they do not deserve. Does the LEED certification really set out to achieve a more sustainable community? Not according to some. In a 2009 article, Henry Gifford, an energy consultant in New York City, told the New York Times “[t]he plaque should be installed with removable screws… Once the plaque is glued on, there’s no incentive to do better.”

In order to receive the benefits of LEED, developers can and often do focus merely on outer design principles, such as landscaping with native plants, rather than on structural energy processes. The Federal Building in Youngstown, Ohio is recognized as a LEED-certified building, but has a gas guzzling cooling system, according to the Times — the main reason it failed an EPA test for energy efficiency after it was built. It received its LEED certification by getting enough points from use of natural light and white rooftops.

One Bryant Park, Bank of America Building, Manhattan

One Bryant Park, in New York City, was the first LEED Platinum certified skyscraper.
Inahbit / Flickr

Easy-to-get points and inaccurate energy efficiency projections defeat the purpose of LEED certification. LEED certification, which continues to evolve, has also been awarded before buildings are put to use. The Bank of America tower in Midtown Manhattan made headlines for reaching LEED’s highest level of certification — Platinum status — the first tower to do so. As it turned out, evaluation inaccurately predicted the skyscraper’s energy savings. According to Sam Roudman of The New Republic, author of “Bank of America’s Toxic Tower: New York’s ‘greenest’ skyscraper is actually its biggest energy hog,” the project “[s]ymbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.” That flaw is the over reliance on programs like LEED, programs that take a superficial, “add-on” approach to the energy problems that face us today.

Not only are the outside design characteristics not living up to the hype, but the inside quality of buildings is also slacking. According to John Wargo, professor of Environmental Policy and Political Science at Yale School of Forestry, LEED places little emphasis on making indoor air quality better.

Wargo found that, In December 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of chemicals that “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to health and the environment.” The EPA list includes four classes of chemicals widely used in the building industry and approved for use by the LEED rating system. These chemicals include phthalates (used as softeners in flexible vinyl products, such as floor and wall coverings), short-chain chlorinated paraffins (used in plastics), PBDEs (used as flame retardants in textiles, plastics and wire insulation) and perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOA (used for non-stick cookware and stain resistant materials). Many LEED-certified buildings have been constructed using some of these compounds.

Other programs are picking up the slack that USGBC leaves behind such as the Living Building Challenge. While LEED certification addresses the design of green buildings, the Living Building Challenge scrutinizes how buildings actually perform, gauging their effects on the environment and measuring their performance a year after construction.

But LEED is attempting to keep up with critics as well. The latest version of LEED, v4, was announced at the Green Building International Conference in late November 2013. The new version of LEED is challenging critics who say LEED buildings are not doing their part in sustainability. The v4 initiative is, according to USGBC CEO and president Rick Fedrizzi, a “quantum leap for LEED.” LEED v4 starts to look at how buildings  actually perform, instead of just looking at design principles. From a sustainability perspective, including economics, environment and equity, the newly created LEED v4 seems to provide more than earlier iterations of the standard. New water and energy-metering requirements are included, and LEED buildings now have to keep track of their water and energy consumption and report back to the USGBC. This is beneficial to both building users and to future of the planet. Building owners will be able to determine where they can improve energy savings, and in the long run be able to save money.

Not only is this new version of LEED designed to improve the “check up” function, but it may also encourage historic preservation and adaptive re-use. Now any building that is listed as historic (either locally or nationally) will receive five points. The new energy metering system may strengthen the common refrain that “the greenest building is the one that is already built.” LEED v4 provides planners with tools and developers an added incentive to pursue historic preservation — and it may help create a more sustainable city.

One of the major, remaining criticisms of the new LEED v4 is that it is raising the bar too quickly, making it challenging to get LEED certified. But isn’t raising the bar for sustainability the right thing to do? The previous LEED system was failing in its attempt to create a more sustainable future and more of an incentive for building owners so they could charge higher rent.

It’s hard to tell this early if the new LEED v4 will be successful. Based on one’s view of success, it could enhance the design of buildings or  drive people toward other standards. LEED will still accept the old standard until 2015, but there are numerous groups already pursuing accreditation under the new system.

A few of these include:

  • University Place in Philadelphia was pre-certified for LEED v4. After modifications it will look like this:

    via Eco Business

Considering the three goals sustainability initiatives attempt to meet: environmental, economic and equity based, LEED buildings may not be as sustainable as previously thought. Yet 34 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have policies either requiring LEED construction or establishing strong incentives for it in public buildings. The U.S. Federal Government does, as well. Community planners looking to create more sustainable communities may want to look beyond the LEED certification as a requirement for new buildings. The lack of checkups on buildings to ensure that they are performing energy efficiency has been a flaw in the system, along with the other critiques discussed here.

Planners should focus more on the process of green buildings and how they are going to achieve actual energy efficiency. More important than having a plaque in your building is actually being able to live up to the hype of “sustainability.” In addition, planners may be able to leverage the new LEED v4 system by creating economic incentives for building owners who upgrade. This is the next step for LEED. By monitoring actual energy consumption, the program can do what it set out to do.

This post first appeared on the Planning Required blog at Boise State.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.