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Nov. 21, 2013

Greenbuild Special Report: Learning from LEED’s Critics

From Left to Right: Rob Watson, ECON Group; Pamela Lippe, e4 inc.; Tristan Roberts, BuildingGreen Inc

From Left to Right: Rob Watson, ECON Group; Pamela Lippe, e4 inc.; Tristan Roberts, BuildingGreen Inc

By Mike Ratliff, Senior Associate Editor

Philadelphia—The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system is not without its share of criticism. While the program has yielded the largest push towards the sustainable design, construction, operation and maintenance of the built environment, many feel the program does not do enough. Others feel it has gone too far. A panel of experts with direct experience developing LEED sat down at Greenbuild in Philadelphia yesterday and addressed some of the biggest concerns.

First, it is important to note that LEED critics are committed to the mission of creating a more sustainable space, according to Tristan Roberts, editorial director of BuildingGreen Inc. Roberts, who is best known for launching and managing the LEEDuser tool, says that the major meta criticisms of LEED fall into three categories: the LEED process is broken; LEED is not rigorous enough; or LEED is too complex and expensive.

“It has been called a death march,” Roberts says. “Some say it is just the racking up of points that don’t necessarily benefit the environment, or that LEED buildings are no better or worse than a regular building. We have even been sued in federal court for being misleading and trying to monopolize the market place, though it was ultimately dismissed.”

These are harsh words for a program that’s a household name and an astounding success. Since its inception, LEED has rated more than 3 billion square feet of space across 125 countries. At present, the USGBC is prepping to launch LEEDv4, the first major overhaul since 2009.

This may be one reason that the square footage being certified as LEED saw a downtick year-over-year in 2013. Builders and consulting firms are worried that the complicated system might become even more difficult to navigate, according to Robert Watson, CEO and chief scientist at ECON, and founder of the LEED Green Building Rating System.

“They say that politics and sausage are two things you never want to watch being made—you can probably throw the LEED development process in there as well,” Watson says. “But we are responding to our critics. LEEDv4 has gone through unprecedented lengths to seek comments. There were a number of listening sessions and extensive beta testing processes.”

A major complaint with LEED has been that there is no centralized way to view data on the program’s environmental or financial successes. The new version looks to change that and has made a major jump in rigor to requiring data collection that will be able to provide feedback in real time. Watson adds that the new version of LEED also steps up the criteria for even landing a rating, as LEED platinum buildings certified under the first and second version of LEED would be unlikely to even certify as silver today.

“There has been remarkable progress, but with what the world faces from a standpoint of environmental peril, there is major concern that we are not moving fast enough,” Watson adds.

On the topic of expenses, people have argued that you are better off spending $100,000 on photovoltaic panels than participating in LEED. Ultimately, the real estate industry has nothing to do with buildings. It all comes back to money and the market, according to Pamela Lippe, president and principal of e4 Inc., a green building consulting firm.

“We all want to save the planet and we all want to make sure that we are doing everything we can do,” Lippe says. “But there is a balance between market acceptance and raising the rigor of LEED. We estimate that 10 percent of the broader real estate industry is participating in LEED. There is concern that if we raise the criteria too high too fast, the market might have a difficult time keeping up.”

In spite of its issues (many of which are technical), the LEED rating program should be touted as a success. No other program has come close to the impact LEED has had promoting a sustainable built environment.

“What we have tried to do is fantastically complicated, but I think that we have done a good job so far,” Roberts adds. “It is the most market transformative program ever, but we also want to make it better.”

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