Legislating Greenness Updated

Over at the NESEA Blog, where I also write, I posted a significantly revised version of “Legislating Green”, informed by a pretty amazing public discussion at the NESEA Conference between Henry Gifford; Brendan Owens, the vice president of US Green Building Council (USGBC); and few other folks closely involved in the debate over the proper role for the USGBC LEED program.

Perhaps of most significance in the discussion is this quote that Brendan asked me to attribute to him:  “LEED is a leadership standard and it’s not built to be building code. That’s why USGBC has been cosponsoring the development of an ANSI green building code, Standard 189.1, with ASHRAE and IESNA, for over two years.  We’ve been doing this because building codes serve a different purpose than rating systems like LEED and we are committed to providing policy makers with the appropriate tools to accomplish the objectives we all share.”

As suggested earlier, with USGBC clearly acknowledging that LEED should not be used as a building code standard, it’s time for them to responsibly take the lead in actively curtailing the efforts of their members to get such standards promulgated as defacto code standards by governors, legislatures, mayors, city councils and planning agencies around the country.

Whole thing here:


The public forum at this year’s NESEA conference “What’s Right and What’s Wrong with LEED” was in many ways NESEA at its best. It helped separate truth from hype. It addressed the unfortunate reality that real solutions aren’t always easy and don’t always fit into nice simple answers that marketers and politicians can latch onto in their idealized efforts to solve complex problems. It helped highlight the need to focus on real experience, real science and real measurements.

In the recent Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference,  Google CEO Eric Schmidt nailed the essence of the debate on all things green when he said “the way you solve the environment problem is you solve the energy problem.”

Henry Gifford has provided statistical proof, from US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) own data, showing that at least to date, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings have on average proven to actually use more energy in their operation than comparable buildings. The relevant study, USGBC’s initial response and Henry’s rebuttal to that response are available at Henry’s web site. An excellent summary of the issues along with his recommendation for using utility bills for rating buildings appears in Henry’s article in the latest issue of the Northeast Sun Magazine.

I have the utmost respect for all USGBC has done as a marketing effort to promote green building. USGBC’s success has really helped transform the market.

Thanks at least in part to USGBC’s efforts, the markets for all the solutions NESEA has been promoting for thirty-five years have been growing at a blistering pace. In the case of solar photovoltaics, annual worldwide growth has averaged something close to 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. But we have to be careful to not let good intentions get too far ahead of reality.

Pushing growth of these industries further may be possible with relatively straight forward challenges like installing more PV panels or wind generators. The most significant market obstacles in the wind arena are regulatory obstacles, which the government is well suited to address. In the solar PV arena, prices are coming down, production capacity is going up and the majority of the skills needed to get systems built are very straight forward roofing and electrical work. So appropriately designed government incentives can probably help to continue the remarkable growth path for these and other renewable energy solutions.

Unfortunately, in the case of complex issues like improving the performance of buildings, we really 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 simplistic solutions like counting points actually solves problems.

The question of how to best use public policy to encourage environmentally responsible building practice has been going on for a very long time in the professional community and is 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.

I am not at all convinced that mandating greenness will actually improve buildings. And like most hastily implemented good intentions, such measures can, and in at least a few cases have had significant unintended consequences on performance, economics and durability of buildings and the health of their occupants.

The concerns Henry Gifford raises are based on deep experience. 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 one of the most sought after teachers at serious professional building conferences around the country including NESEA conferences and the invitation only Westford Symposium on Building Science.

While some are shocked by Henry’s finding, they are really not at all 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. Taking an eight hour course and counting greenness points is really no substitute for real experience with 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 of us to be the leading green building consulting engineer in the country. In answering the question on the NESEA web site Member Voices:  “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.

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

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)”. The central point of this whole discussion 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.”

Like many long time NESEA members, I am far more aware today of how much I still have to learn than I was when I started in this work 33 years ago.  Part of really starting to understand any issue is confronting the complexities that novices are completely oblivious to.

In the public forum Tuesday, Maureen Mahle acknowledged that the folks monitoring the results of USGBC’s efforts were surprised to find that the vast majority of LEED buildings have been built by people doing green building and integrated design for the first time. With no meaningful training and so little focus on either building science or energy in the LEED rating system, it’s really not hard to understand why people with no experience with this stuff would deliver the results that they have.

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 degree of skepticism toward the whole idea of rating buildings. For those who insist we must attempt to put legislated mandates and certification around this stuff, lets at least make it meaningful.  Rather than counting things like LEED “greenness” points, lets measure the actual performance of buildings with hard scientific metrics like BTU/sq ft/HDD.  Any such ratings should include verified energy use measurements and real scientific and economic metrics. Counting arbitrarily determined points on designs is not remotely appropriate for legislative mandate.

The best solution is the one 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.”

Here in Rhode Island, as elsewhere, legislators are pushing to mandate LEED. 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 unregulated 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.

At the national level, USGBC is very clear that LEED should not be enshrined as the equivalent of a code standard and that it was never intended to be used the way some advocates have been inappropriately suggesting in legislation. Brendan Owens, the Vice President of USGBC  indicated that  “LEED is a leadership standard and it’s not built to be building code. That’s why USGBC has been cosponsoring the development of an ANSI green building code, Standard 189.1, with ASHRAE and IESNA, for over two years.  We’ve been doing this because building codes serve a different purpose than rating systems like LEED and we are committed to providing policy makers with the appropriate tools to accomplish the objectives we all share.”

If it is deemed appropriate and necessary for governments to mandate green practices in designing and building, then legislation should require specific professional and scientific standards and perhaps 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. I am eager to see what the coalition working on the ANSI standards comes up with. I hope it is focused on real measurements and real science.

In setting 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 single private organization  with arbitrary unregulated monopoly power to set public building standards. Overly eager advocates and legislators should slow down a little and allow time for the ANSI process Brendan references to develop. They should also take the time to engage local professional stakeholders in developing and appropriate state version of the code.

We have to be very careful to craft legislation that separates good public intentions from the private interests and benefits 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 even be constitutional if challenged.

My three decades working professionally in the field have convinced me that doing things right in buildings unfortunately is not 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.

The government should perhaps insist that real measured performance information be provided for buyers and leasers of buildings and then let the market sort out good designers and builders from the others. Perhaps labeling like that done by the Building America program and like Energy Star provides for appliances should be used for selling buildings. Ideally records of actual utility bills for all buildings would be publicly available and realtors would start paying attention to them.

The best thing the government could do is stop subsidizing fossil and nuclear energy and responsibly address the “economic externalities” of incumbent energy sources so that green solutions are fairly priced in the market. (please see Actually Mr. President, There Is A Solution). With realistic energy pricing and good information, the market would sort out winners and losers based on appropriate criteria.

If society insists we must regulate this stuff, there are lots of good ways to encourage environmentally responsible building that don’t require enshrining a single private organization with completely unregulated monopoly powers over vast swaths of the public sphere.

The key issue is not about how or even whether to regulate “greenness” in buildings, but the problem of governments at various levels enshrining a completely unregulated private entity with essentially monopoly powers in defining and charging for “greenness” certification.

While we all share the goal of improving the way buildings are built, there are far more fundamental concerns regarding defending the rule of law in our country from such totally inappropriate encroachments.

USGBC should very publicly lead the way in assuring that LEED retains its real value as a set of voluntary guidelines and is never again suggested or used in any legislation or government mandate.


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Filed under Energy Policy, Fundamental Perspectives, Politics

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