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.
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.