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LEED Certification: Is it really all it’s cracked up to be?

By Sustainability Office on January 30, 2014

By Sammi Leroy ’14

LEED Certification Plaque from the Trudy Fitness CenterThis summer I was an intern at New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. I worked in the Energy Management Division, which is tasked with minimizing the energy usage of the agency and, in turn, money spent on energy bills. One of my fellow interns was given the job of assessing what it would take to get our office building LEED certified. After a while, he got frustrated with the project, saying that it wasn’t worth it to get LEED certified anyway because the certification was illegitimate.

This confused me.

Not worth it to become LEED certified?! LEED certification is illegitimate?! LEED is the most well-known green building certification in the world! And not only is it a big accomplishment, but also a way to ensure that a building operates efficiently and has a minimized impact on the environment. Or at least it seemed that way to me.

I decided to investigate, and was surprised by what I found.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most influential “green building” ranking in the country (USA TODAY). It was launched in 2000 by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). Though other green building ranking systems had been created previously (Koepke et al. 2010:11), LEED was the first to be developed in the U.S.

According to the EPA, in 2009, buildings accounted for almost forty percent of total energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, 12 percent of water consumption and 68 percent of electricity consumption in the U.S. (EPA 2012). With stats like that (which were undoubtedly worse before LEED was launched), a system like LEED was sorely needed. LEED was designed to create a systematic approach to constructing green buildings. Points are awarded to a building if certain measures that aim to minimize water consumption, energy usage, indoor pollutants and the building’s overall impact on the environment are incorporated into the building’s design.

All different kinds of buildings can earn LEED certification upon being newly constructed, from commercial buildings, healthcare venues, retail and shopping centers to schools, universities and homes. LEED also has a certification called “Existing Buildings – Operations and Maintenance” (EBOM). A building is eligible for EBOM certification after it has existed for two years. EBOM was designed to encourage continued, diligent management of a building’s operations and systems so that buildings are operated as efficiently as possible.

So that all sounds great, right? You apply for a LEED certification for your building, you do what’s necessary to earn as many points as possible, and get a nice shiny plaque to display proudly on a prominent, highly visible part of the building that says “We’re LEED certified!” Though the certification process can add millions of dollars and hours of administrative paperwork to construction projects (Schnaars and Morgan 2013), thousands of builders worldwide have chosen to pursue the certification. Often, getting a LEED certification means considerable tax breaks and grants, the ability to charge tenants higher rents, and assistance from the USGBC in expediting permitting on certain projects (Schnaars and Morgan 2013). The rating also often brings publicity and praise. Hence, the nice shiny plaque.

But does a “Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design” certification bring a decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, minimized resource consumption or superior energy efficiency?

Not necessarily.

Professor John Scofield of Oberlin College has written extensively about the LEED ranking system. Most recently, he analyzed the results of a USGBC-funded study done by the New Buildings Institute, which found that LEED buildings use 25-30% less energy than the national average (Scofield 2012). After doing his own analysis, Scofield, along with many of his peers, found that the NBI’s report was deeply flawed, and concluded instead that LEED certified buildings do not use a significantly higher or lower amount of energy, on average, than buildings that are not certified (2012).

This, however, is not hard to believe. As I mentioned above, a building is given a LEED ranking before it is occupied and in use. The certification is awarded based purely on design and projection, and often, buildings do not perform as their models project. Certain studies have found that LEED certified buildings use less energy, while some find they use more. And others, like Scofield’s latest, find they don’t differ in energy use at all (Scofield 2012).

This is LEED’s Achilles heel. Buildings are given tax cuts, allowances on their building permits and immense amounts of praise because it has been predicted that they would perform efficiently. But there’s no guarantee that they will.  If there’s anything I learned from working at Park’s this summer, it’s that continued and preventative maintenance of a building’s systems, and certainly NOT its initial design, is the only determinant of a building’s operational efficiency. A LEED certification upon construction, which certainly IS based off of initial design, cannot accurately determine a building’s operational efficiency, and this is seen in the literature.

Of course, this is where EBOM comes in. After doing all this digging, I couldn’t be more psyched about the EBOM certification! But LEED certification upon completed construction and the EBOM certification are different in that EBOM is awarded much later in a building’s life. And from what I can see, buildings that have achieved LEED certification upon being constructed are not required to renew their certification, or achieve EBOM certification.

So what does Colgate have to learn from all of this?

Well, first of all, LEED isn’t an evil, awful institution. LEED certification was revolutionary in that it brought green buildings onto the international agenda and provided a systematic way to construct a sustainable built environment. And on a case-by-case basis, LEED can be truly excellent. Take, for example, the Trudy Fitness Center. Trudy’s design lends itself to efficient energy and water use, and provides a healthy atmosphere for its users. Colgate also has a centrally-monitored energy management system that ensures for the efficient usage of energy in all buildings.

However, we must not take Trudy’s certification for granted. Only continual and diligent monitoring of its systems will ensure that it’s running at peak efficiency. Additionally, we should look to get Trudy LEED-EBOM certified so that we remain committed to the efficient operations of the building. This goes for all existing buildings on Colgate’s incredible campus, and all of the buildings that have yet to be built.

Works Cited

“Why Build Green?”2012. , Retrieved October/31, 2013 (http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/pubs/whybuild.htm).

Koepke, Kristina. Portalatin, Mayra. Roskoski, Maureen. Shouse, Teena. 2010. Sustainability “How-To Guide” Series. Houston, Texas: IMFA Foundation.

Schnaars, Christopher. Morgan, Hannah. 2013. “In U.S. Building Industry, is it Too Easy to be Green?” Usa Today, .

Scofield, John H. 2012. “The Science Behind Green Building Rating Systems.”

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