LEED Certification: The Snobby Solution to Looking Better than You Are

I go to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio where our most prized, novel building is the new North Residential Village complex on the north end of campus.  This Hogwarts-esque monstrosity replaced maybe half of the sub-par dormitory units on that side of campus, which houses pretty much everyone but sophomores and Greeks.  It also serves a dual purpose as a sports and event facility, surrounding with bleachers on one side a 400m track which encloses an Astro-turf football field.  The general effect of the NRV when you see it is, “Wow, that’s a really freaking big building…”

When I first saw the NRV, I thought A) waste of money, B) waste of energy, and C) only here to impress prospective students, I mean, parents with wallets.  I was taken aback when I first learned that the NRV was actually designed and built so that it earned LEED silver certification.  On closer inspection, you can see the signs in every window bragging about this achievement.  You realize the lights tend to shut themselves off and on by a trigger.  And, in the case of my one friend’s room, you can feel how sometimes the air conditioning just doesn’t work properly… anymore.

So… what exactly is this LEED certification and why do people invest in it so much?  Being in environmental engineering through the Civil department at Case, this topic obviously intrigues me.  If you’re interested too, then here’s me breaking it down… and telling you what I really feel about it:

Green Certification
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  It is perhaps the most popular of several green building certifications, a standard by which to award projects recognition for their supposed environmental-friendliness.  The projects can be new or major renovations to existing buildings.  LEED attempts to market sustainable buildings by convincing prospective builders that, although sustainable buildings may seem more expensive to build than the buildings following common code (although they don’t have to be more expensive), the energy efficiency of the building over time with cause the builder to save considerably.  In theory, it is a win-win situation: green and profitable.

How the System Works
LEED awards points through a pre-determined system that can award a project up to 100 points, like an exam at school.  You only need 40-49 points to be “certified”, 50-59 to be “silver” (like the NRV), 60-79 is the larger span that awards “gold”, and 80 points and above gets you “platinum”.  The five categories for point-awarding include Sustainable Sites (SS), Water Efficiency (WE), Energy and Atmosphere (EA), Materials and Resources (MR), and Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ).  There is also the Innovation in Design (ID) category addressing noteworthy measures not classified by the other groups.  There are also “Regional Credits” which are awarded on a region-by-region basis and have to do with awarding green design and construction solutions for a particular site and situation.  You get points that are weighted different things depending on their efficiency and emissions considerations.  Lighting, aesthetics, all of these things come into play.

 

Controversy
First of all, some people reviewing LEED certification question the point weighing in the system.  A classic example of this is “The Bike Rack Argument”, as explained by this article: http://www.jetsongreen.com/2008/04/nau-examines-th.html.  Basically, installing a bike rack gets you one point in the certification, the same number of points granted to you for installing photovoltaics.  Bike racks versus solar panels?  Obviously bike racks are cheaper!  Why are they the same?  You could just install a million bike racks and save up.  Except, not really.  You have to have a combination of several design aspects and point kinds to get certification.  And there are motives behind making these two things the same value.  These motives include the incentives they imply, like the availability of bike racks encourages people to park their bikes, which means they take their bikes rather than their car, and that is considered as valuable as using energy that just happens to come from solar power.

One thing that genuinely makes no sense about LEED certification is that you could build a LEED certified project in a sensitive watershed or other vulnerable ecological scenario and get full recognition for your design.  Anyone who actually cares about the environment wouldn’t build in such a location, but how does that stop greedy people looking for the certification as a marketing strategy?

Also, there are different branches in LEED certification.  Most of these branches are in the design-build aspect and they award the planning, construction, and completion of the project.  However, the least common is the post-construction certification.  One would think this is the ultimately important project.  The function of a building in itself relies on green planning (although maybe not actual construction).  Yet projects are being constructed left and right which meet the standards upon completion, but then fail to function as designed.  These buildings may even be detrimental to the environment!  (Inefficient air conditioning sound familiar to anyone?)

Finally, this is my favorite point: So much (albeit green) energy is spent in planning, designing, constructing, and completing a project to these snobby, high standards set by LEED that no one takes into consideration the durability of the buildings themselves.  The idea is to rate the function of the building over a theoretical lifespan, but what if that lifespan is much shorter because eco-friendly materials were the concern and not durability?  This is something that was discussed on campus in regards to the NRV and similar buildings.  I remember a professor suggesting that a LEED building might be great when its build, and might theoretically work well if operated as designed, but the cost and energy used to demolish and rebuild over the same period of time as another building negates much of its environmentally-friendly implications.  I have no statistical evidence on this latter point, but, unless LEED is planning to make some adjustments to its policies, I can totally see the truth in that theory.

Conclusion
All-in-all I think LEED is a good idea.  It is a good initiative to motivate people; the only problem is I feel like it motivates them in the wrong way.  Its main strategy is to attract people to save money in the long run in exchange for some serious project planning and then a stamp of approval at the end of the day that they can flaunt to their competitors and customers alike.  Sadly, these are usually not the kinds of people who actually care about how they’re impacting the environment.  They want to do all the planning and say they did it, then sit back and rake in money without bothering after ten years to make sure they’re still living up to that standard they originally laid down.  It just seems like an arrogant, snobby, easily-abused program to me, and it makes people look better than they really are.

I work in a LEED certified building, but they don’t flaunt the paperwork.  They’ll tell you why they have skylights and so many windows, and why the lights are never on, but they don’t go “look at how good we are”.  The owners of the company are genuinely intrigued by the allure of sustainability, and so they choose to practice it – even without all the bells and whistles.  To me, that is being the true green champ.  That is what makes Case’s Hogwarts a nauseating come-to-my-school advertisement for snobs.

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