The Green Façade

LEED-certified buildings are clean, innovative, and environmentally friendly. But why are they wasting so much energy?

Rick Fedrezzi, the founder and president of the U.S. Green Building Council, is a fresh-faced man with the exuberance of an evangelical preacher. And his flock is rapidly growing. On a warm Phoenix evening earlier this month, 28,000 architects, engineers, and real estate developers crowded into Chase Field for the opening session of the USGBC’s annual Greenbuild conference. A giant screen at the front of the stadium displayed cheerful animations of solar panels curving toward the sun and green skyscrapers shooting up like flowers. As the euphoric soundtrack reached a crescendo with the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started,” Fedrizzi bounded onstage. “Our movement has reached not just a tipping point but a leverage point,” he called out jubilantly. “And we finally have one long enough to move the world.”

At the moment, the end of that lever is stretching toward Copenhagen. When delegates from 192 countries arrive in Denmark on December 7 to hash out the details of an international climate treaty, buildings are sure to be on the agenda. In America, homes and offices account for 40 percent of carbon emissions. And as they choke the atmosphere, buildings drain the economy: each year, companies spend billions of dollars on energy bills instead of using that money to fuel growth and investments. It’s no surprise that the stimulus package expanded the tax credit for insulation, HVAC upgrades, geothermal heat pumps, and wind turbines. All of this is good news for the green building movement. Venture capitalists, anticipating the end of fossil fuels, have poured 27 percent of their investments into clean energy technologies during the second quarter of 2009. And Hollywood has joined the crusade, with a growing list of celebrities—including Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Cate Blanchett—launching their own green building initiatives.

But two studies released this fall added a sour note to the clarion call. At the beginning of November, Greener World Media issued a report by Rob Watson. The editor of GreenerBuildings.com, Watson is renowned for developing the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system (popularly known as LEED). Watson’s report included impressive data on market trends, land impact, and water efficiency for LEED projects. When it came to energy savings, though, the numbers were discouraging. “Some LEED buildings are not performing as expected given their design and technology elements,” Watson stated bluntly. “This is an area of controversy and a source of great attention by the U.S. Green Building Council.”

Another report—released at the end of October by the USGBC’s Chicago chapter and its partners—put a finer point on the problem. The study looked at the median efficiency of LEED-certified buildings in Illinois and found that they were performing only 5 percent better than their non-LEED counterparts throughout the region. Fewer than 30 percent of the buildings were eligible for the government’s ENERGY STAR label. And the Platinum and Gold LEED buildings were no more efficient than those that had Silver or basic LEED certifications.

Given all the buzz and optimism surrounding green buildings—and the meticulous detail of the LEED rating system—these findings might seem puzzling. But they make more sense up close. Anyone seeking LEED certification can choose from a menu of eco-friendly credits. Instead of selecting energy-minded features like efficient mechanical systems, developers often reach for the low-hanging fruit. They might use paints that have low levels of volatile organic compounds or install cabinets made from rapidly renewable wood. They may opt to recycle their construction waste or increase airflow throughout the building. All of these choices fulfill the “Environmental Design” half of the LEED bargain, saving trees and improving the quality of human life, and many of them help minimize pollution during the construction phase. But none of them prevents an occupied building from guzzling fuel and pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for years to come.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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