Seattle City Hall: A 20,000 square-foot, LEED Silver certified building completed in 2003, has a green roof and rainwater harvesting system for toilet flushing and on-site irrigation. It drew criticism shortly after opening for using more energy than the old city hall building it replaced.

I gave a Green Specifications presentation recently in a new, LEED-certified college classroom building with state-of-the-art lighting controls and AV equipment. The audience and I spent several minutes trying to figure out how to kill the first bank of fluorescent lights so the screen could be seen more easily, but all we could do was switch the lights in the room completely on or completely off.

to kill the first bank of fluorescent lights so the screen could be seen more easily, but all we could do was switch the lights in the room completely on or completely off.

Finally, someone suggested that we turn the lights off and draw a blind. Voila! Letting just the right amount of daylight into the space, lights off, provided the perfect balance required for viewing the screen and scribing notes. Sometimes we become so intoxicated with the idea that technology can solve our problems that we ignore the obvious.


In 2000 the US Green Building Council (USGBC) unveiled a “green” building rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). After eight years in existence and use, LEED is no longer something known only to a small circle of architects and environmentalists. It has entered the mainstream.

There is no doubt that LEED has had a tremendous impact in the design and construction industry. The rating system has raised an acute awareness about buildings, their impact on the environment, and things we must consider in building more environmentally-friendly buildings. But, in its haste to find a way to build greener buildings, has the public hitched their wagons to a green building rating system that may be doing very little? In many ways, LEED is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, less-bad approach to building. Think of a LEED-certified building as you would a hybrid Lexus–it’s still a gas-guzzling luxury automobile, and we are still driving it alone to work each day.

LEED has continued to make gains, but has not become the powerful market transformation tool it was meant to be. To date, only a fraction of newly constructed buildings are LEED-certified. But in light of the recent criticisms leveled at the rating system, that might be a good thing.

One of the most truthful statements about the sustainable building movement I have ever heard is this: “In driving 80 mph toward Canada, slowing down to 60 mph gets you to your intended destination of Mexico no sooner.” As LEED has gained wider acceptance and greater use over the last eight years, some embarrassing observations and criticisms have surfaced.

In a 2005 article that sent shockwaves throughout the sustainable design community, “LEED is Broken: Let’s Fix It,” authors Auden Schendler and Randy Udall wrote “… for many reasons, LEED is fast becoming its own worst enemy. The program’s early bloom is fading. Green building has a robust future, but LEED may not.” The authors go on to highlight many of the glaring problems of the rating system and offer possible corrective solutions but ultimately conclude that “the world needs green buildings a lot more than green buildings need LEED.”


In a Dec. 2007 article in Slate magazine, “It’s Way Too Easy Being Green–The decidedly dupable system for rating a building’s greenness,” author Daniel Brook writes that LEED’s system of acquiring points “creates perverse incentives to design around the checklist rather than to build the greenest building possible.” He cites an example that installing a $395 bike rack is worth the same under LEED as installing a $1.3 million energy-efficient heating system.

In a Feb. 2008 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce article, “LEEDing to Lawsuits?” author Katie Zemtseff reports that a survey of LEED building performance by the Cascadia Chapter of USGBC found energy savings were about 10 percent less than the modeling had predicted. The article goes on to say that the energy modeling method LEED requires is flawed, so much so that some buildings end up using 50-100 percent more energy than predicted. The article ends with a quote by a well-known and respected building scientist Joe Lstiburek: “The people in the know realize that green is a joke, and it ought not to be, but it is. The developers in the know are looking at green as a way to get permits, they know it’s mostly smoke and mirrors.”

In a February 2008 KUOW radio interview architect Stephen Kieran, University of Washington Professor of Sustainability, is asked if LEED certification is a guarantee that a building is green. He answers that LEED rewards “point-mongering” by encouraging the design of a poorly performing building in order to add things to the building to make it better performing, thereby acquiring more points. He cites an example in which using a building material coming farther from the arbitrary 500-mile radius established in LEED is environmentally better, but receives no credit in the rating system. When asked if he thinks it’s difficult to get a LEED certification for a building he replies: “Frankly, no.” He points out that prior to LEED, there was no adopted measuring system in existence-anyone could claim a building green with the weakest of reasons. But is LEED an effective, meaningful measuring stick? Professor Kieran admits that it is “entirely possible” to make a sustainable building without using LEED, which puts into question just how valuable a measuring stick LEED really is.


Highlighting not only just how mainstream LEED has become, but also the depth of the public’s skepticism, the March issue of Outside magazine unflatteringly references LEED in the context of green fads to avoid. Under “The New Rules of Environmentalism,” Rule #3 instructs the reader to choose fads carefully and proclaims that only a fraction of green trends are grounded in sound science and economics. It illustrates the hypocrisy of a rating system that bestows green certification to buildings constructed using sustainable practices that simultaneously occupy pristine, open land.

The true measure of a building’s greenness ultimately boils down to performance and environmental benefit. If we cannot definitively measure a building’s performance with the tools we have, then we need better tools. The USGBC has made changes to LEED both in response to legitimate criticism, and also because it understands the urgency in having better tools that will result in better performance. Recognizing that LEED did little to require better energy use in buildings, the USGBC recently imposed a requirement that all buildings registering for certification must now be modeled to show at least 20 percent less energy use over a baseline condition. And that’s just the beginning. The USGBC is currently in the process of a radical redistribution of available points and promises to have a very different rating system in place sometime before the end of 2008. A weighting exercise has been completed across all credit categories. That single point now available for throwing down some carpet will no longer be on an equal par with the point available for generating on-site renewable energy. Candidly, it never should have been. Materials points will also be addressed differently. The current single attribute-based materials credits will give way to a Life Cycle Assessment/Analysis (LCA) evaluation. The tool to make such an evaluation is under development now at the USGBC. The LEED of tomorrow will look nothing like the LEED of today.


And LEED is no longer the only game in town. A brand new, ANSI-developed green building rating system for the United States called Green Globes, by an organization called the Green Building Initiative (GBI), is about to enter the marketplace. It promises to be a much better tool than anything the USGBC has so far created. Based on the hugely successful British and Canadian Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) systems, Green Globes US has been designed as a single system for use across all building types, unlike the sometimes confusing and contradictory multiple rating systems and application guides currently offered by the USGBC. Green Globes has been designed to eliminate the point-mongering that exists with LEED by providing 1000 points on a sliding scale and by not penalizing a building for points that are entirely inapplicable. Not reusing an existing building? No problem, the available reuse of existing building points drop out and do not count against you. Can’t get to a 50 percent minimum certified wood use threshold? No problem, whatever percent the project is able to use is accounted for, from 1 to 100 percent of the available points in that material category. Energy efficiency? In Green Globes this is tied to the EPA’s Target Finder, which is a performance measure based on actual operating building data, recognized by the USGBC as a more meaningful measure of a building’s energy use. Green Globes addresses this through a LCA database and modeling system developed by The ATHENA Institute. Registered users of the rating system will be allowed to use the LCA database free of charge in evaluating a project’s life cycle impacts for major building assemblies.

I have worked long and hard for many years as a member of both USGBC and GBI committees. With the introduction of a new rating system, and the changes that are being made to the old system, the public will soon have systems available to it that are not especially difficult to use, are not especially expensive to implement, and most importantly will result in buildings that have measurable, credible performance. Criticism and competition are vital to the process and will result in wider acceptance and adoption of sound scientific and economic green building practices. With the emergence of new and better tools, the future of sustainable building in the U.S. looks very bright.

Editor’s note:
This month we introduce Chris Dixon, who is writing a monthly column titled Straight Green on “green” issues. Dixon is a registered architect, Certified Construction Specifier, and LEED AP. He serves on USGBC’s Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group and on GBI’s Green Globes Technical Committee. He is based in Seattle, Washington.