Green Building Law Blog

The Role Of Critics In Green Building Progress--Or How The USGBC Needs To Be Like Paris Hilton

As I mentioned here, there has been a lot of tongue wagging on the internet about LEED performance issues.  Yesterday, Rob Watson, USGBC Board Member and Executive Editor responded. The gist of his response is that critics of LEED should really be participating in improving it:

The thing that really pisses me off is when people who should be helping something like LEED succeed cut it down. The only thing that benefits is the status quo. So stop your whining and moaning and put your energy into moving toward what Elaine Gallagher Adams calls the seeds of the municipal carbon economy where LEED is playing a key role in getting buildings beyond code minimum.

Many of Rob's points are good ones--tearing down LEED without providing constructive suggestions for how to improve the problem is about as useful as throwing rotten tomatoes.  Also, critiques coming from those that are not engaged in the processes for developing the standards--be it USGBC, ICC, ASHRAE, etc.--may not be fully informed about the efforts that are ongoing to fix the issues, and those critics certainly are not participating in the hard work that is necessary to build something, which is much more difficult than tearing down what others have done. As Secretary of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, member of USGBC's legal advisory board and participant in the ICC green building code team, I try to do my part in being fully informed and active in the process of creating great green building standards.

However, Rob takes a very harsh stick to the dialogue about LEED and building performance:

People need to stop pretending they are providing any insight on issues LEED needs to deal with. Honestly, anyone who thinks that the issues of energy use per square foot, how to get at operations energy though a design standard, how to make energy modeling more representative of what actually happens in a building, etc. haven't been discussed at LEED since 1995, needs to stop sniffing whatever it is they're sniffing. Really . . . it's bad for you.

There is an important role for analysis and critique in any complex process.  Not only do outside observers from different points of view pick up on things that participants in the process may not see, they may have constructive suggestions about how to improve either the process or the underlying problem. 

But even thoughtless criticism has a place.  It serves as an important temperature gauge for the institution about how well it is communicating its message, and where opponents to a given position may have a toehold.  The gun-toting, expletive shouting health care contrarians may not have much constructive to say about how to fix the healthcare system, but they gave a big indication of the fact that Obama's message was not being effectively received, and where the plans needed to be shored up. 

The New York Times article was, as Rob and I have noted, old news to those of us who have been working in this field.  But it gives the USGBC an excellent opportunity to highlight the efforts it has made, as Rob notes, for years to manage the energy issues, and to spotlight buildings which are performing well.  When the Grey Lady is choosing to report on energy performance, you know you have made it into the mainstream.  Now the USGBC should take its publicity--good and ill--and, like Paris Hilton, use it to promote the brand and move green building forward. As Oscar Wilde once said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

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Comments (5) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Mike Sealander - September 9, 2009 1:13 PM

After finding a link on Elaine Hsieh's Twitter blog, I read Rob's essay, and have to admit I've got half a foot in the anti-LEED establishment. My problem is not with LEED, but with the way "LEED" as a word has become synonymous with "high performance building" in the minds of many clients. There is also the perception that nobody was thinking about building performance and resource efficiency prior to LEED. I sat in on an interview with a potential client who was sure that because our electrical engineer was not LEED-accredited, we were an inferior design team. Ouch.

Christopher G. Hill - September 9, 2009 3:13 PM

I agree. I am not Anti-LEED (and am a LEED AP) but also see that LEED does not in every instance mean energy efficient. I applaud the efforts of the USGBC toward energy efficiency, but to give a blind eye to the issues is just as bad as to attack without any basis. LEED is great, but sustainability and efficiency are better.

Tim Hughes - September 9, 2009 4:58 PM

I think the NYT article was interesting but certainly not only behind the times (pun intended), but also picking a weak example and method of approaching the performance v. credits questions. Even with that, commentary and even criticism of USGBC and LEED is entirely appropriate when deserved -- how else do we accomplish both economic sustainability and improvement of the planning, design and construction of our buildings and infrastructure?

Christopher G. Hill - September 9, 2009 7:16 PM

Agreed Tim. If we can't debate when appropriate, how does it improve. We aren't yet to where LEED equals Energy Efficiency, but USGBC is headed in the right direction.

Bill Swanson - September 14, 2009 2:39 PM

I've been a LEED AP for 5 years now. After documenting several credits for a few projects I had ideas for improving the LEED system. I tried to participate in the LEED system by submitting ideas for clearing up vague credits (FEV parking), misguided credit calculations (site lighting, daylighting), and basing energy savings on metered data rather than 90.1 modeling. It's depressing when cycle after cycle the review committee ignores the public comments to improve LEED. I wouldn't mind so much if my ideas were shot down because they were flawed in some way but the most common response has been to ignore based on superficial reasons. 'Your comments address subject matter outside of the scope of review.' or 'USGBC is trying to understand the alignment between the 2003 CBECS and ASHRAE 90.1.' It’s a little pathetic that in all of these years they’ve never verified the accuracy of their most important tool. I have no interest to spend more of my time on the process when I'm likely to be ignored.

I think USGBC has become a victim of their success. They've gotten too busy and gone in too many directions to be effective in their core business model. The main focus now seems to be marketing and expansion rather than development. Any criticism is seen as a challenge to their marketing efforts rather than an opportunity to improve their product. Improvements can only come from within their inner think tank or as a reaction to an embarrassing article.

I think the New York Times article was accurate to talk about the lack of energy savings. It doesn't matter if the project didn't try to earn any energy points. USGBC actively markets their LEED rating system (to the public and to Congress) as a solution to global warming since buildings use 39% of the nation's energy. If this product fails in this area then they should be called out for it's failure. Why did USGBC sign up in support of the 2030 Challenge when they don't take a single step towards meeting it's goals for building efficiency.

Shari Shapiro, Esq., LEED AP
Suite 300, Liberty View, 457 Haddonfield Road, P.O. Box 5459
Cherry Hill, NJ 08002-2220,