Nau is a budding clothing products company that is committed to sustainability and social awareness in various facets of its business.  They build very cool stores (pictured above) and build them green.  I noticed their website has some info on LEED certification, and just had to use their conversation as a partial vehicle to continue to discuss the green building certification system.  Here’s what they said: 

We are committed to constructing more sustainable store options, and providing healthy spaces for our employees and our customers.  We choose to pursue LEED certification when the circumstances make sense (our Boulder store has received LEED Gold certification).  Why don’t we pursue it in all instances?  Like many things, LEED certification is not a magic bullet, and it has some drawbacks.  While we believe in its goals and positive elements, it’s not perfect. 

I applaud Nau for thinking about the LEED program and what it means for their business.  Nau also listed the pros and cons of LEED certification

Pros of LEED Certification:

  • It’s quantifiable and measurable.
  • It’s a broadly accepted standard, providing agreed-upon measurements, which means there’s substance behind the claims.
  • There’s a third-party certification process, further ensuring substance behind the claims.
  • It provides very specific direction (and parity) for people and companies desiring to decrease their buildings’ impacts, essentially making green building accessible to a much broader audience than would otherwise be the case.

Cons of LEED Certification:

  • It’s incredibly detailed and time-consuming, and therefore expensive.
  • Not all points are created equally, although they’re often measured equally.  For example, the presence of bicycle storage and changing rooms earn a similar number of credits toward LEED certification as the installation of solar panels.  While both are important, they do not necessarily each equal the same decrease in environmental impact or upfront and operational costs. 
  • There are many junctures along the way where companies incur added cost, time, certification fees, etc. – where the same end result could theoretically be achieved without certification.
  • A project can receive LEED certification even if it is located in environmentally inappropriate areas, such as a sensitive watershed, wetland, forest, or prime farmland. This is green sprawl.
    It only goes so far. 
  • There are some processes, materials, and approaches that now go beyond the current LEED certification categories.  Therefore, marketing LEED as "the answer" may be limiting companies’ efforts to make further strides in the area of sustainable building. 

So Nau continues to evaluate whether to pursue LEED certification with its green stores on a case-by-case basis based on the pros of LEED certification.

But, I have this itch to usurp their conversation a little bit and discuss the program that’s becoming our de facto standard for green buildings.  I like criticism and analysis of LEED, but I want to make sure it’s being done right.  So, with respect to of the above cons: (1) bike racks and (2) too green for LEED — is the criticism well placed?

Thoughts on Too Green for LEED:
I understand some of the issues with LEED, and I’m certainly not drinking the Koolaid.  I avoid bureaucracy, councils, and regulations just as much as the next free market American.  But that said, I think we’re seeing a lot of phony green claims out there and LEED helps me gauge the level of authenticity. 

I also agree that a building can go beyond LEED and do some incredible things in terms of legitimate sustainability.  I mean, with some LEED projects we’re at the "less bad" stage, whereas with others we’re at the "Wow! You can do that with a building" stage.  That’s cool.  Those that experiment with the former will be convinced and seek after the latter.  But still, I don’t think LEED is mutually exclusive with super green structures that are legitimately sustainable, net carbon neutral, and/or positive energy buildings.  On a building’s path to greatness, the road can be paved with LEED certification.  I do believe. 

The Bike Rack Argument:
This argument is so jaded that I can’t understand why it continues to be regurgitated all over the web.  So many complaints about the bike rack.  Let’s just think about the argument, here’s how it works:  you get one point for bike rack/ changing rooms/ lockers and you get one point for PV solar (nevermind the fact that not everyone buys the expensive on-site renewables).  PV solar is way more expensive than the bike rack, but each gets one point.  But that can’t be right!  As Nau says, the environmental impact, first costs, and operations costs are not the same, but they still get an equal point.  So LEED must be messed up, right? 

Wrong.  None of the LEED points are created equal, but it doesn’t matter because you can’t buy 26 bike racks and earn certification.  You need the aggregation of a certain minimum number of green elements to achieve certification.  For example, reused materials might be cheaper than recycled materials, and both will be cheaper than solar PV.  LED lights are probably more expensive than setting up a recycling program.  The recycling is required.  LEED requires expensive commissioning, which is more expensive than some of the energy and atmosphere points you can get.  We could go on and on and on. 

But who cares if points are unequal?  You still need a certain minimum level of points to achieve certification.  With new construction, there are seven (7) prerequisites and you need 26 points to earn certification.  Are you telling me you can monger the cheapest nineteen points, apply the prerequisites, and end up with a building that is not very green?  If so, which points?