Is There a Problem with LEED?

Christine Bullen, GSC Board

If you are not familiar with the publication Miller-McCune, I recommend it as an extremely useful source for information on leading edge issues in our society. In a recent issue, there was an article about a lawsuit challenging the claims of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. This program is run by the U.S. Green Building Council and their website is a source for information about the certification and its application. It was officially launched in 2000.

The lawsuit is being brought by Henry Gifford, who designs mechanical systems for energy-efficient buildings, and works primarily in New York City. While admitting that the LEED certification has had a very positive effect in making people aware of the need for energy-efficient buildings, he challenges the notion that LEED-certified buildings save as much energy as the US Green Building Council claims. His lawsuit was filed in October 2010 for $100 million. There are other building industry experts who agree with Gifford and have documented energy shortfalls in LEED-certified buildings.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration was used by a nonprofit called Architecture 2030 to demonstrate that 46.9% of the carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. in 2009 came from the building sector. This compares to 33.5% generated by transportation, such as automobiles. The current data on their website indicates an even higher number:


John Scofield, a physicist from Oberlin College, independently examined studies done comparing LEED buildings to conventional ones and agrees: “There is no justification for claims that LEED-certified commercial buildings are using significantly less electricity or have significantly lower greenhouse-gas emissions associated with their operations than do conventional buildings,” he says. “LEED buildings do not save energy.” He goes on to discuss the difference between “site energy” and “source energy.”

“Measured at the building, site energy is the amount of heat and electricity represented in utility bills. It does not, however, account for the conversion of primary energy sources into electricity, which delivers more than half of the energy consumed by typical buildings. Generation of electricity elsewhere and transmitting it to a building is quite inefficient; three BTUs of energy are required to produce one BTU of electricity. Source energy measurement therefore more accurately reflects the true on- and off-site energy costs for a particular building.”

Scofield compared LEED to Energy Star and points out that Energy Star does measure source energy and is therefore a much better guideline. Interestingly, LEED scores are based on projections of energy use which are calculated before construction begins rather than measures taken on actual energy use.

To its credit the Green Building Council has been addressing some of these criticisms and since 2009 has been collecting data from LEED buildings to compare actual savings to the predicted savings. The entire LEED rating program is being revised and there will be a new version anticipated for release in November 2012.

The complexity of measuring energy efficiency in a building is illustrated by this comment from the article:

“Indeed, before electricity became cheap and plentiful, buildings were relatively efficient because they often included features such as thick masonry walls and simpler mechanical systems. Plus, tenants and building owners now increasingly fill structures with electric devices such as home electronics, computers and security systems.”

Gifford is in the process of designing a new apartment building in Brooklyn using a standard from Germany called Passivhaus Standard that emphasizes the use of insulation in managing energy use.

The lawsuit is seen as an indication of the evolution in the efficient building industry. Edward Mazria who founded Architecture 2030 did so to lobby building professionals, governments and industry to “reduce fossil-fuel energy consumption by all types of buildings from 2003 levels by 60 percent by 2030. The program also sets increasingly tighter standards so that all new buildings and major renovations will be “carbon neutral” by 2030 as well.”

All these efforts are seen as critical in the process to prevent major global issues related to energy use and the buildup of carbon emissions in our environment.

Source:  Ben Ikenson, “Is LEED the Gold Standard in Green?”