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, 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.

When the Illinois study looked at cases where engineers had taken the time to labor over sophisticated energy models, it found that 75 percent of those buildings fell short of expectations. The fault presumably lay with building managers who made numerous small mistakes—overheating, overcooling, misusing timers, miscalibrating equipment. The buildings’ owners, with LEED banners already hanging in their lobbies, had little incentive to demand better day-to-day performance. At a building science symposium in Westford, Massachusetts, former heating systems contractor Henry Gifford roundly criticized the USGBC for letting LEED recipients rest on their laurels in this way. “They don’t have to do a good job,” he noted, “because nothing they do will screw up the greenness of that building.”

That may be changing. The USGBC recently started requiring all buildings to submit water and energy bills for a full year after earning LEED certification. The council has not yet threatened to revoke LEED status for projects that miss the mark. But the new directive does underscore the importance of building performance and not just design, and the emphasis on follow-up evidence brings the USGBC more closely in line with other environmentally conscious agencies. The USDA, for instance, requires growers and processors to submit records for five years after they receive organic certification.

Newer LEED applicants will also find it more difficult to sidestep efficiency during the design phase. As Wilson’s report notes, half of the projects certified after October 2005 acquired the LEED seal of approval without earning any energy points at all. The rules have now changed: All projects registered after June 2007 must achieve at least two energy-related credits before they can be granted LEED certification.

Meanwhile, the USGBC is widely touting LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB), a program that might inspire more owners of LEED-certified properties to walk their talk. Instead of rewarding owners for getting their buildings off to a good start, LEED-EB looks at where they are along the track. A LEED Platinum office building might have earned points for having public transportation options near the office, but the LEED-EB equivalent requires that employees actually take the bus or subway to work.

In the eyes of many environmentalists, the LEED-EB certification has another advantage: it gives owners of traditional buildings a chance to earn the coveted LEED label without digging new foundations. “In a world of existing buildings,” points out Walter Simpson, a senior fellow at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, “constructing yet another building is environmentally questionable from the get go. Even the greenest new buildings have sizeable environmental footprints.”

Eventually, LEED-EB will likely supplant LEED for New Construction as an emblem of credibility and prestige. Rick Fedrizzi seemed to hint as much when he interrupted his homily to make a brief point about performance. “Green buildings are only as efficient as their operations,” he admonished the crowd. “A Prius driven badly won’t perform any better than a Hummer.” Then he shifted back into inspirational gear, reminding participants of their role in history. “Green buildings,” he proclaimed, “are not our last hope but our first salvation.”