I've been doing a little early preparation for my New Year's resolution - to take the USGBC's LEED Accredited Professional test (passing not resolved.) Never one to take the traditional path, I've been struggling to convince myself the AP designation is worth memorizing percentages and standards that can be easily looked up in a book (plus the several hundred dollars for study guides and the test itself.)
I finally buckled down this week, but in the midst of being distracted from studying I came across Daniel Brook's article at Slate where he shows how a dubiously green Indian high-rise is gaming the USGBC LEED rating system.
Conversation about the United States Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED rating system always seems to turn into a debate. The Greenwash Brigade took on a LEED project in an unsustainable location a few weeks ago. Recent research shows the uneven success and sometimes failure of LEED buildings to achieve energy efficiency.
While Brook's criticisms are valid, he more importantly notes that LEED critics are are no longer limited to architectural and environmental circles.
Here is the real value of the USGBC: they created a common definition of the components of green building and educated enough people that it's no longer trapped in a corner of architects and environmentalists. With that definition, many people can debate the merits of a specific project. For the first time, policy makers have a tangible, widely vetted standard that they can use to encourage green building.
LEED also challenges projects to meet baseline goals. Is it silly that if a project succeeds in daylighting only 74% of commonly used spaces that it won't get the point that would have been achieved at the 75% benchmark? Of course. But without that framework, it wouldn't have occurred to some designers that daylighting was something to work towards.
I suspect we can thank the LEED credit for monitoring and verifying building energy use compared to what the designer said it would use use for the data Owens, Frankel and Turner used to assess whether LEED buildings are using less energy that standard buildings or not.
In my experience, almost any system allows for gaming. Grades. (Ever take an easy class to pump up your GPA?) Taxes. (We all have a way to keep a little more in our pockets.)
Gamed or not, LEED is a practical tool. It helps architects, developers and contractors newly interested in sustainability to learn greener tactics - and have a measure of their success. It provides consumers (including policy makers) with a way to request the buildings they want and feedback through LEED points and certification to know whether they got what they asked for.
Those deeply into green building will continue to do it right for the same reasons they always have, even if they don't earn USGBC approval.
And, for the rest of us, now that we have a vocabulary to talk about green building, how do we make LEED better?