LEED Exposed

Questionable Science

Evaluations of actual energy and water usage of LEED-certified buildings calls into question whether LEED buildings are really "green."

LEED Buildings Don’t Have to Prove Energy Efficiency

Oddly enough, to achieve any of the four LEED certification levels (certified, silver, gold, or platinum) buildings do not have to prove that they’re more energy- and water-efficient than regular buildings. LEED-certified buildings only have to meet a certain energy-efficient standard based on projected use and a USGBC-approved energy and water modeling computer program. Once the building is occupied, it does not have to submit data of energy and water usage to the USGBC to verify the building is actually water- or energy- efficient. (A third party can technically challenge a building’s LEED certification, but the USGBC has yet to revoke any building’s LEED status.)

If buildings were required to prove energy or water efficiency as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program requires, many would not maintain their LEED-certification status. The USGBC notes that there is disconnect between projected and actual building performance. “Buildings have a poor track record for performing as predicted during design.”  It also notes that, “Current information indicates that most buildings do not perform as well as design metrics indicate. As a result, building owners might not obtain the benefits promised.”

Meanwhile, to earn the EPA’s Energy Star seal, a building must prove, based on a year’s worth of utility bills, that it is energy efficient. Not surprisingly, some buildings certified as LEED green buildings fail to receive the EPA’s Energy Star seal. For instance, Youngstown, Ohio’s Federal Building has LEED certification, but failed to achieve Energy Star status based on its actual energy usage because its cooling system was a “major gas guzzler.”

The New York Times reviewed a USGBC study of 121 new buildings certified through LEED as of 2006 and found that 53 percent did not qualify for the EPA’s Energy Star label. Another 15 percent used more energy per square foot than at least 70 percent of comparable buildings. Similarly, a 2009 study of LEED buildings by Oberlin College found that there is “no evidence that LEED-certification has collectively lowered either site or source energy for office buildings.”

A new analysis of D.C. government buildings by the Examiner found that “in general, government buildings built to LEED specifications in D.C. do not perform any better than non-LEED structures.” A review of buildings’ energy use discovered that some of the city government’s worst-performing buildings are LEED-certified.

Scientists Question LEED’s Environmental Benefits

Unlike federal agencies, the development of LEED standards isn’t open for comments from the general public. This is probably for good reason considering the scientific community does not accept that LEED-certified buildings are more environmentally friendly than regular buildings.

Henry Gifford, author of “A better way to rate green buildings,” sums up the criticism of LEED: “Going to so much trouble and expense to end up with buildings that use more energy than comparable buildings is not only a tragedy, it is also a fraud perpetuated on US  consumers trying their best to achieve true environmental friendliness.”

In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Dr. John H. Scofield of Oberlin College stated that “There then appears to be no scientific basis for institutions such as colleges, universities, or the Federal Government to require LEED certification as a GHG or energy reduction strategy for its buildings.”

He further commented that: “The Federal government would not require or fund wide-spread use of a drug without scientific research that demonstrates its efficacy. Data from a few, hand-selected cases would not suffice. The standards are clear. Similarly the Federal government should not require or spend my tax dollars on green building certification absent scientific proof that these measures have achieved significant reduction in primary energy consumption.”

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“There then appears to be no scientific basis for institutions such as colleges, universities, or the Federal Government to require LEED certification as a GHG or energy reduction strategy for its buildings.”
Dr. John H. Scofield, Oberlin College