Legislating Greenness

I have dedicated my entire three decade career to green building and renewable energy.

The markets for these solutions have been growing at a blistering pace. In the case of solar photovoltaics, annual worldwide growth has averaged approximately 40% for a decade. Lately, with increased interest in government as a solution to all problems, there is accelerating pressure to push growth in these spheres even harder through policy mandates.

This may be possible with relatively straight forward challenges like installing more solar panels or wind generators. Unfortunately, in the case of complex issues like improving the performance of buildings, we don’t have nearly adequate levels of skilled experienced practitioners necessary to implement the idealized goals of well intended people who seem to think that simply mandating solutions actually solves problems.

The questions of if and how to best use public policy to encourage green building practice have been going on for a very long time in the professional community and are still very much unresolved. My own sense is that the market demand for these solutions over the last several years has been very successful in spurring remarkable growth and success for those providing green building solutions.

I am not at all convinced that mandating greenness will actually improve buildings. And like most hastily implemented good intentions, such measures could have significant unintended consequences.

The following is derived from a discussion of testimony I presented recently at a State Senate hearing here in Rhode Island regarding attempts to enshrine the US Green Building Council (USBGC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards as public law.

I have the utmost respect for all USGBC has done as a marketing effort to promote green building and for LEED as a set of voluntary design guidelines, which it was originally intended as.

But I have very serious reservations about mandating that a private out of state organization like USGBC be enshrined with essentially carte blanche authority to design, price and enjoy an exclusive monopoly on verifying compliance with a significant aspect of state law. Such efforts that cross the appropriate line between public and private spheres in such critical areas of regulation are just bad public policy.

And with statistical proof from USGBCs own data showing that at least to date, LEED buildings  have on average proven to actually use more energy in their operation than comparable buildings, we have to be careful to not let good intentions get ahead of reality. The relevant study by Henry Gifford, USGBC’s response and Henry’s rebuttal to that response are available at Henry’s web site

Henry is the mechanical system designer who has designed the HVAC systems on architect Chris Benedict’s remarkable buildings and who Chris credits with much of the success her firm has had in repeatedly building apartment buildings in New York City which use only fifteen percent of the energy of comparable buildings at no extra cost and with no subsidies. Along with his practical experience, Henry is also one of the most sought after teachers at serious professional building conferences around the country including the exclusive invitation only Westford Symposium on Building Science at which 200 of the leading building science practitioners in North America gather each summer to learn from each other.

While some are shocked by Henry’s finding, this is really not all that surprising considering the questionable methodology involved in LEED. Proof like Henry presents confirms what many of the best building experts in the country have been saying for years about LEED. Counting greenness points is really no substitute for building science; or good design, detailing and construction management; or measuring factors that actually matter.

USGBCs questionable statistical methodology in analyzing that data themselves highlights real questions about whether what is fundamentally a marketing endeavor should really be enshrined as the standards setting agency for the building industry.

Marc Rosenbaum is considered by many the leading green building consulting engineer in the country. In very publicly answering the question on the web site of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association:  “What’s the most irritating example of ‘greenwashing’ you can think of?” Marc answered “That you get your LEED rating without proving the energy performance in real life.”

Joe Lsiburek is the best known building scientist in the nation. You can find his opinion on this subject in his article Mis-LEED-ing: or his article “Prioritizing Green – It’s the Energy Stupid” which was first published in the ASHREA Journal, the publication of the nation’s professional organization for heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration engineers.

The most thoughtful conversation I have seen on this subject is over at the BuildingGreen Blog entitled Lies, Damn Lies, and… (Another Look at LEED Energy Efficiency)

One of the critical points of this whole debate is highlighted in Henry’s own comment on that Blog. “LEED is based on a compelling idea: that anyone can take an 8 hour class, pass a test to become an accredited professional, and use a checklist or points system to profoundly improve the way buildings are designed, built, and operated. Sorry, life isn’t that simple, and neither are buildings.”

You may also want to check out the article in Grist Magazine: LEED is Broken; Let’s Fix It.

Having watched the evolution of USGBC and LEED along with Energy Star Homes, Energy Crafted Homes, R-2000 and numerous other green rating brands that have come and gone over the decades, I have developed a high degree of skepticism toward the whole idea of rating and measuring “greenness”. Rather than counting things like LEED greenness points, I am far more in favor of measuring the actual performance of buildings with hard scientific metrics like BTU/sq ft/HDD.

Henry suggests in his article: “Building energy use is perhaps the largest field of human endeavor in which almost nobody measures anything. But, the situation is actually a bit worse than that: measurements are taken by utility companies every month, and are largely ignored. Utility company records should start to be used to rate our country’s buildings immediately.”

For those who insist we must attempt to put legislated mandates and certification around this stuff, we should at least rate actual building performance and any such ratings should include verified energy use measurements and real scientific and economic metrics. Counting fairly arbitrarily determined greenness points on a design is just not appropriate for legislative mandate.

And we have to be very careful to craft legislation that separates good public intentions from the private interests of any one private organization. USGBC is a private organization that sets and changes the definitions of the LEED standards at will, sets the pricing for getting LEED certification and has an exclusive national monopoly on granting LEED certification. It would be totally inappropriate to have any standards set and enforced in that manner be enshrined in public policy. I question whether it would  be constitutional if challenged.

The brand name LEED should never appear in any legislation. If it is deemed appropriate and necessary for governments to mandate green practices in building, then legislation should require specific professional and scientific standards, perhaps including requirements for energy modeling, requirements for building commissioning, requirements for building waste reduction and recycling, requirements for low VOC materials, requirements for ventilation standards, requirements for life cycle costing analysis, and other specific pragmatic details. It is a bit harder and requires real professional expertise to craft good legislation in this realm, but the extra effort is worth it.

And in setting public policy there are a variety of professional stakeholders that should be at the table sorting through the appropriate compromises rather than precluding their participation by enshrining a private organization like USBGC with arbitrary unregulated monopoly power to set public building standards.

My thirty years working professionally in the field  have convinced me that doing things right in buildings unfortunately isn’t as easy as many advocates might idealistically wish for. This is very much true in the legislative and regulatory arena as well. Good legislation, like good buildings, takes real care in crafting.

My experience tells me that we should let the market sort out good designers and builders from the others. But If society insists we must regulate this stuff, there are lots of good ways to encourage green building that don’t require enshrining a single private organization with completely unregulated monopoly powers over vast swaths of the public sphere.

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