The Better Way to Know if a Building Is Green

An exhibit at the American Institute of Architects headquarters shows off the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system

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The architecture firm Farr Associates, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the U.S. Green Building Council have produced a fantastic exhibit on how to create green neighborhoods. It opened in Chicago last year and is now on display at the American Institute of Architects headquarters in Washington.

This carries some symbolism. When it comes to sustainable communities, the architecture profession has been both hero and villain. It has been a hero because many of the early (and continuing) leaders of smart growth and sustainability in our built environment have been architects, from William McDonough to Peter Calthorpe, from Andres Duany to David Dixon. Frankly, in my opinion, architects were way ahead of the environmental community in forging solutions to sprawl. And it's a good thing that they were, because they gave us environmentalists something positive to advocate.

Should we really be giving prestigious awards for making something better when the only environmentally sound thing to do is to discontinue the practice altogether?

And yet, as an institution, the profession has always seemed a little uneasy about community issues, much more comfortable regarding individual buildings than their neighborhood contexts. The AIA has a wonderful small staff in its Center for Communities by Design that does great work for sustainability. But its budget has shrunk, and its advisory committee (of which I was once a proud member) was unceremoniously disbanded some time ago by the organization's management and board. I still don't know exactly why; surely we weren't that radical. AIA's annual green awards are given to buildings that are sometimes (but, to be fair, not always) in startlingly un-green community contexts.

Until recently, one could say much the same about even the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED, its industry-leading green building rating system. One can still get the highest possible (platinum) green building rating even if the building in question is located in the middle of a remote cornfield, such that visitors emit far more carbon traveling to and from the building than it theoretically saves with internal green technology. The argument in favor of bestowing the honor is that the building was going to be put there in any case: why not make it as green as possible?

Well, sure, but one could say the same about mountaintop removal mining. Should we really be giving prestigious awards for making it better when the only environmentally sound thing to do is to discontinue the practice altogether?

For architecture at least, LEED for Neighborhood Development has changed the game. Created by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Congress for the New Urbanism, LEED-ND evaluates both a development's internal environmental performance and that of its context, resulting in a far more true green rating. I've written extensively about the system and needn't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that, while nothing is perfect, LEED-ND is a great start to defining what is smart about smart growth and what is green about true green development.

But LEED-ND, its 56 technical prerequisites and credits, its 47-page "certification policy manual" and 400-page "reference guide," are not for those short on time and patience for hyper-precise measurement, or for planning and construction trivia. As good as the system is for technical evaluation, it is lousy as a public relations instrument.

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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