The NY Times picked up on a trend that's been gaining momentum for a long time.  In "Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label," Mireya Navarro discusses the "gap between design and construction, which LEED certifies, and how some buildings actually perform."  Navarro's not breaking any new ground here, especially for those ensconced in the green building world; however, like the ingredients of a hot dog, the general population needs to understand what LEED is made of. 

Would you be shocked to learn that a LEED building may or may not be energy or water efficient?  Don't be.

It all comes down to an understanding of what LEED is.  When people talk about LEED, they're talking about the third-party green certification of a structure.  LEED is by far the most popular certification system, but there are several LEED systems depending on the project type (and some of these are getting simplified with LEED v3).  Depending on the system, you're certifying a different thing (i.e., the design and construction of a commercial building).  See below.


Note an important aspect of this chart.  LEED for New Construction and Major Renovations (LEED-NC) — the system that most people are familiar with — provides third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built (BUT NOT NECESSARILY OPERATED) using strategies aimed at improving performance across all metrics that matter most, including water efficiency, emissions reductions, indoor air quality, and materials impacts.  

These strategies "aim at performance" but we're not talking about actual performance.  A LEED building may actually perform, which means it may actually use water and energy efficiently, but such is not required for LEED certification.  We're not mincing words here, either.  There's a big difference between certification and actual performance.

You have to pay close attention, but it's still hard to catch the difference.  For example, the description of LEED on the USGBC's home page says LEED is a "voluntary, consensus-based national rating system for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings."  Wait, "high performance" and "sustainable?"  Doesn't the word "performance" mean that a building actually performs?  Meaning it actually uses less water and energy?  And doesn't sustainable mean to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? 

If, as the NY Times reports, the USGBC's own research shows, "a quarter of the new buildings that have been certified do not save as much energy as their designs predicted and that most do not track energy consumption once in use," is it fair to say that LEED is a rating system for developing "high performance, sustainable buildings?"  I'll let you answer that question, but recognize that green building also includes indoor environmental quality, recycling programs, use of materials, sourcing of materials, etc.  LEED is doing some good things in these areas. 

A few years ago, I didn't quite catch this distinction between "certification" and "performance" and said some stupid things about Thom Mayne.  It turns out that Mayne was right, and I still feel bad about not absorbing his message.  In an interview published by Green Source in November 2007, Thom Mayne said, "LEED should give performance requirements and let the architect solve the problem … the LEED point system is overladen in the construction phase versus lifetime energy consumption and secondary effects."  

Mayne is not alone.  In fact, if you want to read some serious material on the subject, check out LEEDing from Behind: The Rise and Fall of Green Building.  The article documents a number of LEED criticisms that have been discussed in the past several years.  While you're reading it, you should also know that the USGBC is working on a fix for all this.  LEED is evolving and it's trying to bring the entire market with it, which is a hard task to accomplish. 

Here's one way LEED is already evolving.  You've probably heard about certification revocation, which we discussed in detail a few months back.  The idea here is that projects must do a certain number of things to be eligible for LEED v3 certification.  One thing is to share energy and water data.  The data is confidential and there is no performance trigger or anything that yanks certification for lack of performance.  LEED is creating a data pipeline, and I'll let you imagine what can happen with that data pipeline in the future. 

Although the current iteration of LEED (with the exception of LEED-EBOM and LEED-H) does not have an actual performance requirement for energy efficiency, the Living Building Challenge provides a glimpse at how the system could evolve over time.  As of today, there have been no Living Building Challenge certifications, but the Omega Center is vying to be the first.


In order to obtain certification pursuant to the Living Building Challenge, among other things, a project must must generate its own energy, use no outside water, and be built with locally sourced, sustainably harvested materials that do not contain any harmful chemicals on their "Red List."  It's a strenuous process.  After monitoring the building for a year, we'll see if the Omega Center earns Living Building Challenge certification.  And that's the point.  The project has to operate for a year and actually perform. 

Of course, LEED could change in a number of other ways, too.  So far, the program has facilitated massive change in the real estate market and a lot of the innovation in the green building world is thanks to the program.  This is why we've mentioned hundreds of LEED projects and will continue to do so.  The system is worth supporting, but we'll also keep it in mind that some LEED projects are better than others.  Some are less green and some are more green — sustainable even.  Hopefully you will to. 

Photo credit: Eric Laignel (top); USGBC (graphic); BNIM Architects (Omega rendering).