LEED Green Building Myth

I don’t know if it is a mainstream thing or what but I don’t get LEED.  I even became a LEED AP in the hope that I would see what the big deal is but I still don’t get it. Why would you want to spend all that money and time so that you can get some plaque to put on your building. It just seems like a big game that makes no difference to anything. People have bought into it so it is a great PR and marketing move, but what does do to make the world a better place?

“Oh look! A LEED Platinum skyscraper!” Wow great. Let me tell the folks in the Amazon jungle they can relax.

Maybe it is because I am a Brooklyn green builder who builds green no matter what. I don’t care if I’m given a Brownie Badge. Building green is the most logical, ethical and financially intelligent way to build after not building at all, which is the greenest.

The reason I say this is that Eco Brooklyn just recently posted an add to hire a Green Architect. We got over 100 applications.  Most of them were LEED AP. And pretty much all of the Architects were not green. So clearly LEED and green are not connected. LEED and eager hoop jumping is connected. LEED and a warped desire for approval. LEED and an insecure need to jump on a bandwagon. LEED and anal paper-pushing bureaucracy. LEED and the belief that green can be put into a neat list of bullet points. LEED as part of your marketing budget. LEED as an attempt to greenwash your business. All that I’ve seen.

But LEED and green building so far have very little in common. In fact anyone who uses LEED as proof of their green building kudos is either a newbie wannabe or a marketing agent wanting to sell you something (and it aint green building).

LEED is better than building crap. LEED is better than chopping down the rain forest. But LEED is a deterrent from practical, affordable, ethical and easy green building.

You can build a LEED Platinum building by fudging the numbers and spending lots of money on useless elements, but it takes a lot of time and paper-pushing. Wow hat sounds like an ethical way to spend a fun day!

LEED sucks. I am happy to say that I spend my days building LEED Platinum buildings and the only reason I have the time, money and excitement to do so is that none of them are LEED Certified.

About the author: Gennaro Brooks-Church

6 comments to “LEED Green Building Myth”

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  1. John M. - July 5, 2014 at 6:42 am

    I first became aware of the USGBC in 2002 and was very enthusiastic about their efforts. Several things became apparent that were very disturbing.

    The first was that, at least from a mechanical engineer’s perspective, the USGBC had little technical expertise in matters that they were including in their certification requirements. One of the earlier templates used for the energy efficiency prerequisite and credit had a table in which units of energy consumption (kWh, BTU) were confused with units of rate of energy consumption (kW, BTUH). I corrected the error and made the submission. It was rejected because I had done so. I fired off a letter and the mistake was finally rectified but, good grief!

    Another example relates to the fact that there is a prerequisite and a credit for commissioning. Like getting pregnant, commissioning does not have gradations of completeness. Did you commissioning a given system or not?

    A second problem with LEED is the extent to which the LEED certification requirements are shaped by what appears to be commercial interests – whether filtering in through the board or by other means, I don’t know but there are clearly strings being pulled.

    Example one: In the early days, it was put out that DOEII was somehow superior to some of the commercial programs even though all of them used the same ASHRAE methodology, did 8760 hours worth of calcs, etc, etc, etc. Turns out there was somebody on the board with a firm that did a lot of energy simulations and had spent the years needed to convert DOEII into something almost workable. But it was still an inferior program to Carrier HAP.

    Example two: For years photovoltaics were pushed as an alternative energy source while solar heating, whether through flat plate or concentrating collectors, were not even allowed as alternative energy. Was that because there was something inherently different from capturing sunlight and turning it into heat rather than electricity? Or was it because the solar collector industry has a number of relatively small firms while the photovoltaic industry has a few large firms. And so despite the fact that photovoltaics could not pay back the investment before they began crapping out and despite the fact that they were made by what is arguably the absolute dirtiest industry on this planet – c’mon, LEED, we’re talking about the semiconductor industry, right? – PV’s were touted and collectors pushed to the side. Oh, guess where the highest concentration of superfund sites on a square mile basis is – yes, that’s right – silicon valley.

    Example three; There was a time when displacement ventilation was considered (by LEED) to be the only good way to ventilate. Did this have anything to do with the fact that there were large companies with tons of raised floors originally designed for main frames which were now just sitting in warehouses? Because if you ever pull up a floor tile on a raised floor and do a vermin census, you will find roaches, mice, and all sorts of lovely things down there touching the air right before it gets forced up your nose.

    Is it the behind the scenes commercial influence or just the fact that the people working for the USGBC have an overpowering fascination for shiny objects and the latest buzz word?

    LEED helped give firms with the programs (and the minis that could run them) for computation fluid dynamics new life after the demise (or current near-death experience) of NASA. It’s flashy, it has interesting false-color graphics, no one knows what the hell it means, so it’s just right to be pushed for natural ventilation schemes (gee, how did they do natural ventilation before they had computers?).

    The fatal problem that the USGBC has – and it is a characteristic that is killing it off, not just among professionals but among owners as well – is that it thought it could write building code without understanding just how much knowledge and expertise that requires. And then enforce it with all the grace of a Nazi storm trooper.

    The USGBC has become a monster – one that generates itself a lot of funds (getcher LEED for wooden, one-and one half story, south facing dog houses, only $300 for the reference guide – how many flavors of leed are there now?), adds unproductive cost to projects (partly because it has never tried to equilibrate the sustainability value of any of there credits with the credits costs), makes the federal bureaucracy look fast and efficient, and insists on having a computer system apparently designed to frustrate those with the patience of Job (that’s Job – not Job).

    If the people at the USGBC knew how many times during one little project you would hear the phrase “ah, but LEED, in their infinite wisdom has decreed that…..”.

  2. Alicia Silva Villanueva - March 19, 2014 at 5:42 am

    I think you are missing the big picture and the impact in the world from your Brooklin office. I have been working on LEED project in Mexico and latina america for the last couple years, in markets where everybody claims green with no education whatsoever and with very low standards in construction. Outside the US in the developed world the corruption is a constant that thirdparty certification totally overcome. We sure are building better buildings, you should see our design reviews for the engeneering where no fresh air was provided in buildings, if it wasn´t for LEED the quality in all this building would have been very very bad in so many aspects. Green building is trying to make a difference. LEED might not be for everybody but it is sure making a difference in so many places and it is really bad that it has to defend itself against people that are also trying to make a difference. I have to hire people all the time, and yes the can be LEED APs with no green mentality, I have trained them and inspire them to go further and really make an impact. LEED is only a tool, what we do with is depends on the person implementing it. We are really making a difference in our markets. We are helping our industries to raise above their ignorance in so many levels. Hope you all can. LEED paperwork and documentation is a piece of cake compared to government burocracy, LEED has influence so many legislations enhancing their standards. I participated in the Mexican Green building norm and it has a strong influence. Please do not loose the big picture, We need more green not less. We need to use the tools when ever applies. It is not perfect, well make it perfect, there are so many volunteer opportunities to influence it, get to work. We are participating and our voice is always heard at the International round table.

  3. Howie - November 15, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I just came across your article when I typed “LEED sucks” into google. I want to thank you for spelling out what I have thought for years, but aprehensive to say anything about it since I am in the architecture profession and have worked with plenty of people who I consider are LEED militants.
    Anyway I think LEED is a detriment to innovation. I have just spent hours digging through LEED documentation that was obviously written by a Freshman architecture student, or at best a C-average graduate who could find nothing better to do with life than to devote his career writing regulation for the government while updating his sports blog during the remainder of the work day.
    You would think the majority of the environmentalists would realize the number of trees that could be planted with the funds (and time) wasted on filling out LEED paperwork, or how many mouths we could feed in third world countries.
    The good news is, I have seen a shift in the profession. People I work with are really starting to question LEED and its validity in our changing economy.
    Thank you for being so outspoken on this subject. Slowly but surely, organizations like LEED are eroding our profession, dragging us down into the cauldron of endless paperwork and government regulation. I hope more people will soon see the light.

  4. John - April 13, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    As a mechanical engineer. LEED sucks. It sucks time and money and poops out paper work and a placard.

    I agree with you. I can design an efficient building without nearly doubling my design fees by trying to figure out a energy model.

  5. Gennaro Brooks-Church - January 7, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Having had a night to reflect, I admit I was harsh in my post. It was my gut reaction after wading through over 100 architect applications. It felt that most of them became LEED APs to boost their resume. One or two of them spoke about LEED with enthusiasm, which is great. They will probably use LEED to build greener buildings. But most of the applicants…well, I can’t read their minds, but it was my impression that it was one big collective hoax: if we all believe that LEED is green then it will be and therefor our buildings are no longer damaging the environment. Hooray! Problem solved!

    Lets take Gene Keyser who commented above, a passionate Corcoran agent who is also involved in the green aspects of building. Tell me honestly Gene is the world a better place if the luxury condo you are selling is LEED Platinum? My opinion? No. A LEED Certified luxury condo is like a fur coat made from organically raised animals. You aren’t fixing the problem. You are just covering it up. If everyone in the world built to LEED standards the world would be destroyed immediately. The only reason everyone in the world is not building is that most of the world lives in poverty. They are too busy fighting off hunger.

    So those of us with money (that is most of NY if you compare us to the world) are justifying this unsustainable building amount by saying it is built greener. How about the luxury hotel built in Manhattan for millions of dollars to serve 1% of the world population. Who the hell cares if it is LEED?! It makes no difference to the health of the world. Either way it will increase the need to chop down forests, mine the earth and pollute the air. It is an astronomical waste of resources and burden on the environment. And there are thousands of buildings like this built every year. Great now they are LEED. I can relax now.

    Gene to be honest with you I don’t know if you would have a job if you really bought into what I am saying and I am not somebody to judge another persons need to feed themselves and their family in a comfortable way. So the change needs to be done incrementally otherwise we’ll have other problems on our hands. But the change has to happen fast. Time is ticking and the problem is already exploding.

  6. Gene Keyser - January 6, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    Gennaro, you are sounding angry:)

    Most people need a system to follow, and either don’t have the time to approach green building as an art form, or are interested in government incentives.

    Many are not end-users, and intereted in selling their property to others, so marketing is important to them. I would be willing to bet that there are few LEED projects that actually hurt them environment more than non-leed, and that’s a good thing.

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