Criticisms in USA Today Article Prove LEED Works

Winston Churchill once said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” That expression came to mind as I read the recent USA Today series of articles accusing the USGBC of being mercenary and self-serving through LEED. The range of accusations and innuendos are disturbing because the entire series is focused on anything negative it could find to say about the certification process, to the point where the articles begin to contradict themselves.

For example, USA Today author, Thomas Frank, repeatedly writes (USA Today 10/24/12) that some LEED points can be easily earned through “simple purchasing decisions” and by shunning “labor intensive options and cutting-edge technology.” Moreover, he also criticizes the additional cost that environmentally-sound building additions can add when designers and architects choose to use only state-of-the-art technology. You simply cannot have it both ways. Isn’t it better to build affordable buildings with some green features, even if those features do not include the most expensive technology? Isn’t it wiser to incorporate as many green features in new buildings as possible, even if they are simple ones, as opposed to incorporating none?

Praise the Leadership…Don’t Criticize the Effort

It is much easier to criticize the extensive effort to develop a green rating system after it has been completed, than it is to be a pioneering spirit like the members of the USGBC who brought about the development of a green rating system intended to encourage green thinking. Someone needed to assume the leadership mantle, and the USGBC did so. It is difficult to get people interested in something as complex as green building concepts and technology unless there is available training, research, incentives and rewards–all of which USGBC provided the marketplace.

The USA Today author also quotes Paul Torcellini, a building researcher at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as saying, “People figure out the path of least resistance to get to the end goal, and it doesn’t matter if it’s LEED certification or 50% energy savings.” My response to that observation is two-fold. First, the fact an end goal exists in the minds of builders at all indicates that the USGBC has done a good job of raising awareness of environmentally-sound building practices. Second, it is not surprising in such a sluggish economy that builders need to keep costs low as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if it is easy to achieve some points, as long as continual effort is being made to increase energy savings and protect natural resources.

It’s true that builders get enormous tax credits for earning LEED certifications. Any major new initiative needs incentives. That is precisely why President Obama offers low-interest government-backed loans to high-risk businesses developing new green technology like solar panels. Without the right incentives, it is difficult to encourage investment in and development of new resources and technologies.

Departure Point

LEED never promoted itself as the green end-all. It is a departure point from which designers, architects, engineers and builders can advance and test green concepts and practices. As the USGBC points out, LEED is being revised for the fourth time right now because the USGBC continues to strengthen the requirements. LEED is a process and not a fixed point. As the standards bar is raised, builders will have to raise their efforts, too.

It is satisfying to find a LEED plaque on a building because it means people involved in its design and construction considered energy savings and occupant well-being. Without LEED, it is impossible to know if there would be any certification process in existence at all. The other rating systems in the marketplace were followers of LEED, not green leaders.

There is no argument that the point system may need some tweaking to encourage project teams to think beyond minimum levels. However, think about it like this: We would not be discussing what should be considered green standards and building incentives if it were not for the LEED rating system. The USGBC/LEED stood up for something – a greener building environment. If it made a few “enemies” along the way, then all that means is that it was doing a good job.


Diana Webb is the Director of Commercial Operations with Green Building Research Institute, an independent education provider based out of San Antonio, Texas. As part of GBRI’s mission, we support and recognize all entities who promote green building and sustainability – be it a home owner, small or large businesses, or a rating system such as LEED, Green Globes, Griha, Estidama-Pearl or BREEAM. 




  • Eric Truelove  November 8, 2012 at 8:52 am

    I agree that USGBC has done a magnificant job of getting the green building industry going in the United States and I have been pleased to be a part of that process since attending the first annual meeting in 1994. To that end, I am glad USGBC keeps looking at means to improve the LEED system and hope they keep an open mind regarding what is being criticized and how it might be fixed. Ten years ago, I worked with many architects who pushed LEED hard. Now, many of those architects say they do LEED, but are actually relieved when the owner opts-out due to the added cost. We have to do better in providing a system that is streamlined, but rigorous. The continual “improvement” in the web-based system is, in my opinion, headed in the wrong direction. If USGBC could get their systems Beta tested with actual users rather than computer geeks, many of these problems would be fixed before the system is put in place. Furthermore, the strong preference for leaning on energy modeling is totally overdone and shows a strong bias toward acadamia. Those of us who work in the construction industry know energy models are easily tricked into giving optimistic results and, even when done properly, cannot predict to within 35% what a building’s actual energy use is. Prescriptive points for energy-saving upgrades would be a big enhancement to the LEED system and those points must go toward higher point awards, not just minimum requirements.

  • Cathy Higgins  November 8, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Excellent blog on the value, and risks, of creating a high profile and a target. Targets are not just goals but things that draw attention and negative attention and critique can be of higher value if it results in improvement. NBI’s study of LEED-NC energy performance drew a lot of debate on all sides of energy performance and efficacy of the LEED system but we welcomed the criticism because it drew attention and change. Enemies, not so much, allies in change, hopefully.

  • Tom  November 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    The efforts and success of green movements should be highly respected. It was a huge undertaking to introduce the concepts and develop a tiered ratings system. Like many in the building industry, I firmly believe in the principles. Technology paths have been developed which lead to net zero energy.
    The continuous evolution of benchmarks by multiple ratings agencies (ANSI/ASHRAE standards, ICC, local code, LEED, local utilities, federal tax incentives, state tax incentives, etc) is putting design professional through the wringer. The purposes and processes need to become more straight-forward and the frequency of change needs to reduced.

  • basant  December 12, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Let us keep the things simple.Green initiative doesn’t mean the addition on account of Green building will be cost consumption in dwelling unit is high since these are more in nos where extra cost pinches.let us cut unnecessary energy consuming devices to minimum .In USA there is no shortage of space ,we can expand horizontally.We have to nature lover inalrespect.

  • Marje  October 15, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    You pose a very interesting qusioetn. I think it all depends on how interested you are in LEED and if LEED plays a role in your occupation. The CMP requirements will certainly keep you up-to-date on the industry if you do choose to opt-in to the new system. However, if you’re a LEED AP under the old system, you have sufficient knowledge to discuss the matter in general circumstances. I don’t believe there is too much of a dilemma here. I think it’s truly a matter of what you as a professional want to do. Good luck with your decision.


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