Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
—Alice in Wonderland
As I was sitting in LAX airport on my way home from a green building speaker and consulting engagement, I got to thinking about what’s true and not true about the green building industry. I’m offering the following 12 assertions about the current state of green building and LEED certification as an incitement and/or an encouragement for you to engage with me in a conversation about our industry.
What do you agree with below? And what’s just plain wrong and why!? I’d love to hear your opinion:
1. Green building is not only about energy or carbon. It’s about a holistic approach to building design that considers five key environmental goals, of which energy is just one. A low-energy building is fine, but if it’s done with poor indoor air quality, few windows or less-than-effective daylighting, why should we bother to call it a green building? We have to guard against the “energy hegemonists” in the green building movement who insist that their viewpoint is the only correct one.
2. Most green buildings actually do deliver predicted energy savings (or better) but that’s not the real problem. The larger problem is that the expected savings (typically 25% to 35%) really don’t do the trick of moving us toward meeting the 2030 Challenge goals. The issue: we’re aiming too low because we allow clients to set artificially low “paybacks” such as three years, instead of 7 to 10, which would be reasonable in a time of very low interest rates.
3. Most engineers and architects know how to deliver low-energy buildings but don’t do it, because they don’t use or follow integrated design process, or because they are not effective advocates for high-performance goals. Don’t ever believe that budget or schedule is the reason projects don’t achieve high-performance goals. (The alternative and far less charitable explanation would be that they really don’t know how to do it, and are unwilling or unable to learn, or even worse, that they don’t think it’s important.)
4. More LEED-registered projects DON’T get certified than DO, and this has been true from the beginning. Typically only about one-third of LEED registered buildings are certified at any given time (and the actual percentage that finishes within 3 to 4 years is still less than 50%). What amazes me is that no one at the USGBC has attempted to find out why, though I have urged several times that this be the primary research question. If an industrial process resulted in defective products, designers would not rest until they found out why.
5. “Designing to LEED,” as many projects do, or registering a project without any intent to certify it, is a total cop-out. Without production of verifiable data and a third-party review of documentation, how does anyone know what was actually done in a given project? What amazes me is that any owner or developer would spend $10 million or more on a building and not want to KNOW what they bought or what it would cost to operate.
6. LEED buildings could provide 25% of all carbon-reduction requirements, with a far better return on investment than your 401k or an institution’s rate of return on its endowment or portfolio investments. Why aren’t architects and engineers making this case to building owners?
7. No architecture firm does even half their projects as LEED-certified buildings (prove me wrong on this one.) Many partners and senior designers in leading or recognized sustainability design firms still haven’t educated themselves in green building or simply don’t really think it’s important, and the other partners are not calling them to account on their lack of performance in sustainable building.
8. The number one reason that ALL buildings are not LEED certified green buildings is that architects are UNWILLING or UNABLE to advocate for LEED with owners. Too many architects have the attitude that their job is to do whatever the client wants them to do, and “the devil take the hindmost” in terms of consequences.
9. LEED projects DO cost more than “conventional” projects, but they are worth it. You get what you pay for, particularly as you move toward higher certification levels. Why does a BMW cost more than a Chevy Cruze? Because it’s a better car, likely to hold its value much longer. Why shouldn’t a LEED building that results in higher rents, increased occupancy and greater resale values (commercial real estate) cost a slight premium?
10. ZERO NET ENERGY LEED Platinum buildings can (and have been) built on conventional budgets, but in general are going to be 5% to 10% more expensive. I’ve written extensively about the business case, but the bottom line is that someone has to pay for the renewables, even if it’s not the owner.
11. Architects should spend more time trying to secure owner’s commitment to performance results than assembling a design team. Design process is the number one determinant of high-performance outcomes. Definition of being crazy: doing projects the same way over and over and expecting different results. See my book, Green Building Through Integrated Design, for how and why design process is the critical (and often missing) element in generating high-performance outcomes. The building owner is the prime person driving high-performance success.
12. Not one LEED-certified green building project in 100 has yet tackled water conservation in a holistic way. Reductions of total water use of 70% or more are quite feasible in most LEED projects with a different approach. The LEED approach of concentrating on fixtures and irrigation basically ignores what is often the largest single water user: cooling towers. My book Dry Run: Preventing the Next Urban Water Crisis, offers good guidance as to how to do this.
This is my list of 12 “impossible things” that we actually know to be true in green building projects. What’s yours?