LEED: The Good, Bad and Ugly

The following article was prepared by Scott Wick, summer associate at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz:

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a widely recognized but often misunderstood program in the world of “green” construction. Many times local government officials and others will push for LEED certification in a development project with all the best intentions but without truly understanding the consequences of such requests.

What follows are some points that demonstrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of the LEED program.

I. LEED Is a Certification Process

LEED is a certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The purpose of LEED is to measure how successfully a building meets various environmental standards, such as energy savings, water efficiency, and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. The newest version of LEED (LEED v3), introduced in early 2009, rates building projects on a 100 point scale (plus 10 possible bonus points for region specific concerns and design innovation). The better the score, the higher the level of LEED certification:

  • Certified (40-49 points)
  • Silver (50-59 points)
  • Gold (60-79 points)
  • Platinum (80 points and above)

II. LEED Is Not a Substitute for Building Codes

A common misperception is that LEED is a standardized design guideline intended to replace building codes. However, LEED is not meant to be a building code substitute -- it is simply one method of certifying that a building’s design and construction meet various green standards. LEED represents the cutting edge of green development, not a baseline for all construction projects. The simple truth is that LEED is not the answer for every situation. Even when LEED is an option, it is only one of many available alternatives.

III. The Good

The goal of LEED is a good one. The promotion of green building programs helps to raise awareness and bring about real change that has a positive impact on the environment. The LEED process is rigorous; from the initial design stage, through construction, and ultimately in certification, LEED projects are undeniably greener than building only to code. LEED has been instrumental in helping more and more builders become aware of and interested in building green. In fact, recent studies demonstrate that green building has actually increased despite the current market realities in the construction industry.

IV. The Bad

Despite the positive impact of LEED, there are many factors to consider when deciding whether LEED is a good fit for a specific project. The inherent cost is an obvious factor. Generally, LEED certification results in a 1-10% increase in total project costs. And it is important to note that these figures are not compared only to building strictly to code, but also to similar green projects that are not LEED certified. The reality is that the money used to pursue the LEED certification could often be better spent on the construction itself to allow for additional green concepts that might otherwise be unavailable due to limited funding. In other words, money spent on LEED certification could be spent on other materials or procedures to make a project greener. The same study which demonstrated that green building is on the rise also showed that most builders’ view of LEED has become less favorable.

V. The Ugly

The reality with the LEED program is that builders are able to manipulate the certification system in a manner so that a project earns LEED certification without having a truly significant environmental impact. It has been demonstrated that some LEED certified projects have achieved as little as a 14% improvement in environmental impact over standard construction. Although not the norm, the reality is there are many LEED certified projects that are green in name alone. This is especially true in comparison to proven green builders who spend less on administrative costs and labels and invest more money directly into truly green changes. This reality demonstrates the true ugly side of LEED -- the real problem is not with the program itself but rather how people see LEED. The worst scenario is being a slave to labels or blindly turning to LEED, believing that it is the green replacement for building codes or that it is the only way to build green.

VI. Leed is not the only option

The introduction of LEED has had a positive impact on green building . However, green building and LEED are not synonymous. The reality is that LEED represents only one of many green construction alternatives. Other organizations are developing true model 'green' building codes and other guidelines that may work better for a particular project. Before choosing to pursuing LEED certification, it is advisable to investigate all options, their respective costs to a project and the potential result that will actually be achieved by each option before proceeding.

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