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In the years that I've been reporting for Environmental Building News, I can't think of another news story that has drawn as much immediate and widespread interest as our recent coverage of the filing of a $100 million class-action suit against USGBC for allegedly defrauding the building industry based on misrepresentations of the performance of LEED-certified buildings. I interviewed several of the parties involved, including the lead plaintiff, Henry Gifford.

The merits of the lawsuit itself aside (and it's got problems, as noted in the EBN article), I have found it particularly striking how many people have used the news as a flashpoint for complaining about LEED and USGBC. Following are some of the more reasoned opinions from around the Web that are generally anti-USGBC and anti-LEED:

Can we agree that USGBC through LEED has gotten too big for it's own (and architects') good? We have an outside party telling the public that they, and not architects, are the primary source of eco-build data and techniques. Architects have been quick to buy into the program, seeing that LEED AP is quickly added to their credentials. I hope the expansion of LEED under v. 3 (finally) makes people in the profession reassess their wholesale adoption of the program. (Anonymous, at GreenSource.com)

The suit is on point, I have been involved with two many LEED AP's that were interior designers in their life before they took the AP Certification and they are telling the MEP Team that we do not know anything about thermal transfer, building shell performance, and proper design for an efficient system. It is time to make this work across all certifications. If you are receiving a professional certification. (Anonymous, at GreenSource.com)

Most LEED buildings have energy performance no better than most new and old buildings, and in too many cases, it is worse. Between compliance with ASHRAE 90.1 and the measures to get more LEED energy points, buildings become so complex that they cannot be operated efficiently, and too often they waste energy efficiently. (Larry Spielvogel, at the Green Real Estate Law Journal)

I've also been impressed by many people taking a more sympathetic view of USGBC, and their own measured view of the situation. Following are some notable comments.

I would only say to Gifford that this discussion is not going to be effective in court. The question is a scientific and social one: How do we create a better built environment and reduce dependence on fossil fuels? Law professionals may not know to answer this question, which is more fitted as the subject of a green building conference. (Gahl, at BuildingGreen.com)

Having been with LEED from the beginning, I have my share of frustrations w/ it. But that's mostly from various blinkered applications of LEED on the part of clients, design professionals, and contractors. We are all learning this stuff together. If LEED was any more stringent than it is, even more building owners would just ignore it altogether. (Julie, at BuildingGreen.com)

To sue the USGBC because LEED buildings don't always save energy is like suing an apple tree because it doesn't deliver oranges. LEED rewards energy savings, along with dozens of other optional strategies like reducing toxics or saving water.... Sustainability is organic and comprehensive, not limited only to energy. (Scott, at BuildingGreen.com)

If Gifford's, or anyone else's foundational belief is that LEED is imperfect, I agree. I have also seen LEED-Certified buildings that were not very impressive once up and running either because of poor operations and maintenance or inacurrate submissions by the engineering & construction team during the process. However, it is still the best prescriptive guideline to incorporate sustainability into a building. (Anonymous, at GreenSource.com)

I don't know of anyone who would claim LEED is perfect- the USGBC itself has acknowledged and tried to correct its shortfalls-- and I don't think it's "sold" as a guarantee of energy savings. It's also entirely optional, run by a non-profit with open participation by members. (Anonymous, at GreenSource.com)

If you're in one of these camps, which I've characterized as anti-LEED versus sympathetic to USGBC, what practical experience have you had in the industry that helped form your viewpoint? Please comment below--no prognosticating without sharing a specific experience that happened to you (such as work on a LEED project), that shaped your viewpoint.

 

Innovation point: based on your experience how should LEED, USGBC, GBCI, or the green building movement change to better advance sustainability?

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Comments

1 Unfortunately LEED is a good posted by KA on 10/29/2010 at 01:23 pm

Unfortunately LEED is a good idea in theory, but right now in reality it is a total mess. It adds cost for the owner, complexity to design and ultimately I think it is a waste of time, money and energy. And it should not be thought of as an "energy efficiency" standard or rating system (even though that is the way the USGBC promotes it) because that is only one portion of it. Over-ventilating a building by 30% and installing MERV 13 filters does not save energy!

I am a LEED AP and have worked on several LEED projects and I will say that it is clear to me that LEED has grown too fast and is being run very poorly at this point. Look no further than their "new and improved" (painfully slow and buggy) website that is used for submitting all documentation. It seems to be running a little bit better now, but was an unusable nightmare when it launched.

As commented by Carl above, they seem to continually tweak credit requirements, but don't even have the decency to issue them as addenda and notify those who have spent hundreds of dollars buying their manuals. Instead they bury these updates in CIR releases.

And now they have subbed out the review process to third party reviewers who, based on their review comments, do not appear to have the technical knowledge to actually review what they are looking at. In order to prove that they have done a thorough review they seem to generate page upon page of comments which make little sense and demonstrate a misunderstanding of the material which they are reviewing rather than a thoroughly performed review. That just means that architects, engineers, and consultants now have to spend more time responding to review comments and completing more paperwork in order to prove credit compliance which means higher LEED costs on future projects.

I wouldn't recommend LEED to anyone. Instead I would tell them to hire a well regarded design team with experience in energy efficient, high performance buildings and to spend the LEED money that they save on solar PV panels, or renewable energy credits, etc.

2 I should have just quoted Bil posted by KA on 10/29/2010 at 01:36 pm

I should have just quoted Bill Swanson above with a +1. He nailed just about every gripe that I have and he said it better than me. Very well said Bill. I couldn't agree with you more and count one more in the Pro-Efficient Building camp!

How about a brand new metric for efficient buildings. Rather than this LEED nonsense and complicated energy modeling, and false promises, just meter all of the utilities for 1 or 2 calander years. Gas, electricity, oil, etc. Then look at the energy use/sf/yr, adjust for heating and cooling degree days and award points or ratings or plaques or gold stars based on the real world efficiency for the building. Then the design teams will be able to focus on well insulated buildings and efficient mechanical systems.

3 Regarding Bill Swanson's comm posted by Carl Seville on 10/29/2010 at 06:10 am

Regarding Bill Swanson's comment above, I heartily agree. While my experience is primarily with LEED for Homes, the same issues apply. In substance, LEED for Homes is not significantly different than any other green building certification program out there. The differences lie in how it is administered and LEED is about as obtuse and complicated as it could possibly be. I once commented to a head honcho at ENERGY STAR that LEED seemed about as complicated as a government program, his response being, "No, we would never make something that complicated, " and I agree with him.

It does seem that the things that need improvement don't change frequently enough while the things that don't need tweaking are constantly changed through CIRs and clarifications issued through addenda. Keeping up with the minute details of each credit is little more than job security for LEED APs and Green raters. I suppose I shouldn't complain as I am one of those whose job is reasonably secure, but it still makes me crazy that the average industry professional needs people like me to help them interpret every single bit of a certification program, reviewing reams of documents, searching for the smallest detail to determine if they can get a credit or not.

Amazingly, LEED for Homes has certified a large number of buildings in the last several years, even with the high cost and complexity of achieving certification. I attribute this to the incredible success USGBC has had in their marketing efforts. I am concerned, however, that many builders and developers are certifying buildings now because they believe it is the right thing to do, but when they start to look at the tangible benefits vs. the cost to certify, we may see the numbers diminish. Unless, of course, the process is simplified and streamlined, while remaining rigorous enough to avoid being green washing. There are good certification programs out there, mostly locally operated, that provide high level performance for a fraction of the effort and cost of LEED. On one level it looks like LEED is the VHS of industry - there are better products out there ,like Betamax was to video recording - but the best marketed product won the war, at least temporarily. Where is VHS now? Will there be an entirely new view of green building that will ultimately leave LEED in the dust? Only time will tell.

4 Tristan, I think the lawsuit, posted by T.C. on 10/27/2010 at 07:09 am

Tristan, I think the lawsuit, merits and validity aside, is doing exactly what Gifford has been trying to do for years; turning an eye on 1: poor application of LEED standards by design teams 2: Highlighting only one aspect (energy efficiency) of a program designed to encompass much more 3: Articulating the shortcomings of LEED to be able to deliver their most publicized benefit. LEED is not perfect, but it is great at what it is designed to be: a map to help the well-intentioned meet their sustainability goals. To expect it to force energy savings on owners and designers seeking certification only is a stretch.

5 Non-profit organization doesn posted by Bill Swanson on 10/27/2010 at 06:20 am

Non-profit organization doesn't mean it's not money oriented. And USGBC does have tremendous amounts of excess cash at the end of each year.

Anything we pay money for should be able to handle a few questions about validity. People are reacting like Gifford declared war on the Catholic Church.

Defining one group as "pro" and the other as "anti" is inherently bias. I'd define it as pro-efficient buildings and pro-LEED.

I think most of the frustration is from high expectations. Satisfaction = Perception - Expectation. LEED was marketed as such a good thing that when people start to see it as average they're upset. And if you're going to claim LEED saves energy then people expect that.

The lawsuit is just giving people a chance to discuss LEED in general. My own frustrations with LEED and USGBC: -The LEED standard should have enough information to earn each point. Being required to buy the Handbook to get all of the tables with needed information is viewed as just trying to get more of my money. -The Handbook should answer questions, that's what we're paying for. The level of confusion for what's required to document a credit is extraordinarily high. Seems like after doing the credit 5 times one is finally comfortable with what's needed, but then it's tweaked with a new version or the reviewers change what they want. -The review teams for projects are idiots. And I'm being nice. They don't seem to have any experience in the built environment and seem to need their hands held. I seriously was asked to prove a building near the project existed. Introduce my new best friend lmgtfy.com. Or the building energy model was different by a couple square feet and the whole project was denied. While one of the Harvard platinum buildings has a blatant basic math error in their energy savings and they show an extra 10% energy savings, no questions asked. You need people who can see numbers and know what's important and when something looks fishy. -The public comment phase for new versions of LEED should be more than proof reading. There are a lot of ideas the community has taken time to offer as improvements to LEED. It's insulting when they are all tossed out so dismissively. 3-4 years ago we had these same problems with LEED. Version 3 was suppose to take care of most of the problems. "Just wait, LEED is continuously improving", is what we were told. v2009 came out and all it did was align the credits and revalue the points. None of the problems with the credits were addressed. It felt more like v2.3. I don't believe the line anymore that "LEED is improving, just wait". If you can't review the thousands of suggestions in a month or two then let people offer comments for more than 45 days out of every 3 years. -KISS - Keep it simple stupid. Evaluate every credit. What is the intent. What is the simplest way to meet this intent. Every extra step added to the end users makes the credit more useless. -Social psychology is your friend. What influences people's actions. If adding a bike rack encourages people to ride bikes great. If it doesn't then throw it out and find what does. Maybe having the site next to X miles of bike lanes works better. Find what works and throw out the rest. -Over reliance on volunteers. Finding the cure for cancer doesn't rely on volunteers to do the research. Neither should reducing our energy dependence and making buildings healthier. You know who the experts are in each field. You have the funds to hire them. Give them the time to work on LEED and improve it. The TAGs cover too many credits. Put two or three experts on each credit. Some experts can work on several credits if it's in their job skill. -What the heck happen with the LEED AP status. It's almost FUBAR. There's still confusion and panic from people. You're a 'legacy', no you're a '+', no your a 'without specialty'. Maybe this should have been vetted a bit more before rushing out the change. And the hard sell last December to scare people into opting in makes me feel this is again about revenue generation. Why 30 hours for the CMP? I don't know of any States that have that high of a continuing education requirement. And the States allow most lunch-and-learns to count towards the credit. I know something else is around the corner, not sure what. -The CIR's were not incorporated into the Handbook as promised. Also, the job specific items that were purposely excluded were the most helpful. They all add up and I've found many people who had the same question I did. Even though they're not allowed to, people are still referencing these old CIR's for the new 2009 projects because they offer more guidance. Again, make the handbook useful. -LEED-Online makes me want to kill my computer. I don't know if this is a complexity issue or time issue or poor work quality issue. -The whole 2009 release should have taught you that if you’re not ready yet, don't push it out the door. I have high hopes again for 2012. But if 2013 will be a better product I’m willing to wait again.

6 Bill, to be clear, for the sa posted by Tristan Roberts on 10/27/2010 at 06:27 am

Bill, to be clear, for the sake of this discussion I characterized there being two camps, "anti-LEED versus sympathetic to USGBC."

I have no illusions that everyone's opinions would fit into one of those two boxes, or that there aren't many other ways of characterizing things. I was interested in exploring this one particular distinction.

7 I feel that the lawsuit will posted by Patrick Pentland on 10/26/2010 at 06:26 pm

I feel that the lawsuit will ultimately prove to be a good thing for LEED and the USGBC. The lawsuit will show that LEED provides better, healthier, more sustainable buildings. Energy efficiency is only one aspect of LEED. LEED is a holistic design and construction process involving minimizing the impact of a building or project on its surroundings and on natural resources, keeping materials out of landfills, bringing in natural light and creating environments that make its occupants feel good. Without LEED the Green Building movement would not have occurred.

8 Throwing the baby under the b posted by Rick F on 10/26/2010 at 04:12 pm

Throwing the baby under the bus with the bath water seems silly. Market transformation is never going to make everyone happy. Changing paradigm' s is bound to ruffle feathers. The problem lies in power and money. When you take either from anyone, prepare for turbulence!

It is the Attorney's turn to exert their 'LEGAL AP' muscles. Fueled by the 'wave' of green, it's time to make Green on a well intentioned initiative.

Everyones doing it. They're just getting their sea legs, so hang on! They interpret, then argue for a living!

Now, the USGBC has been distracted by the velocity and volume of special interest influence and the growth. The warm and fuzzy intentions and grassroots originations have also suffered some dilution, and it's non-profit status purpose is foggy.

All told, it's a natural evolution in a dog-eat-dog world.

Its sad really, since it really is a great story, is an historic seed-to-bloom cycle.

Money and power truly do corrupt. Evolution is not always pretty, especially if mother nature isn't driving. At least when it's about food, water, resources and healthy survival, it's understandable!

It is about more than sustainable building folks, it's about sustainable living, operating and building in harmony with what's right, controlling what matters and accepting what doesn't

Lawsuit? Really? Come on folks- reorganize the Usgbc, maybe. Take Monet out of the equation and watch the program on merit, not based on greed or finger pointing

Best!

9 The USGBC has transformed the posted by Annie on 10/26/2010 at 12:08 pm

The USGBC has transformed the way we look at how buildings are built in only 15 years. If you build to code you are only 1 Kwh or .001% away from being illegal. Building to code is bare minimum and our profession has been doing that forever. Finally there is a way to help the industry THINK differently, and take what we all know to make buildings better than baseline. That is the real story here, if you interviewed 10 different building owners asking them if their building meet their expectations, Im certain half would say no. LEED is not designed to meet the expectations of owners for their buildings, but rater a be catalist to help the design team transform the building to be better than what it would have been. This process then brings the building owners into the process helping the to understand what is wasteful in buildings and start to implement change in large corporations. Look at companies that are golobal and how they have implemented huge changes for corporate sustainability, reducing waste, social programs, and yes reducing energy use.

Change is painful and not everyone likes to take their medicine. So for the ones who resist, you will cause pain, and feel it too.

10 there is a pro-LEED & anti-US posted by mike eliason on 10/26/2010 at 12:40 pm

there is a pro-LEED & anti-USGBC contingency as well. I think the ideals/goals of LEED started out in the right direction, but it has been continually watered down by forces within USGBC (just as design by consensus is usually a fail, 'green' by consensus can also be an epic fail)

continual upgrades which haven't really addressed concerns of LEED APs or energy geeks, basically ignoring issues of metric or performance based-ratings, or 'leadership' in the energy department.

i've watched LEED buildings go up, and developers/architects going after the easy points for LEED certification, rather than the points that would actually reduce the building's CO2 footprint considerably. this happens on a daily basis. i've also watched firms decide to forego dealing w/ USGBC and the whole certification process because the additional time/fee just isn't worth it.

we've seen govermental bodies respond to USGBC's lobbying by mandating or rewarding LEED projects (e.g. seattle mandates new city construction over 5000sf to meet LEED silver, FAR bonuses for LEED, GSA moving to LEED gold) for a program, that by its own board's admission, doesn't 'guarantee anything'.

i think that LEED itself can be fine in the long run, but will require oversight from something other than USGBC (a private, profit driven entity), and requiring hitting increasing energy/CO2 reductions for higher levels of certification. lstiburek's recent article on points being distributed 80% (energy efficiency)/10% (water reduction)/ 10% (materials) is probably a much better place to hit reset.

11 Mike, great distinctions and posted by Tristan Roberts on 10/26/2010 at 12:49 pm

Mike, great distinctions and comments.

One comment -- you seem to say that USGBC is a private, profit-driven company. This is not accurate -- it's a nonprofit -- but I think it's notable that you, along with a number of people out there, seem to share this perception. Or maybe I misunderstood you...

USGBC is even an ANSI-accredited standards developer, which speaks to their competence and objectivity in developing credible standards.

12 All of this reaction amuses m posted by Alan Warner on 11/01/2010 at 01:00 pm

All of this reaction amuses me. LEED is a tool, a tactic to achieve an end. Far too many start with LEED without really addressing the true sustainability needs of the Owner, the site and the community. If you don't start with the Vision, Mission and Culture of the combined team of Owner, Design and Construction teams you really don't address the issues. If you are failing to meet your objectives, your team failed, not LEED. Like any system, there are some frustrations and a learning curve, but, I have found it an excellent means for keeping people on track. Now imagine the world if LEED was not in place. You wouldn't like it...

13 It is my observation, based o posted by M Stadnyk on 11/01/2010 at 08:40 am

It is my observation, based on the measurement metrics that we use, that the LEED system fails miserably in creating "Green" buildings. Whether it is toxic materials like OSB, MDF, foam furniture, spray foam insulation, shingles and prefinished hardwood flooring (to name a few); or silly systems like double wall, forced air heating, SIPs, and geothermal; or supposedly "green" systems like solar pv panels, bamboo and cork flooring and cfl light bulbs; the current paradigm around the built environment has not advanced under LEED. If anything, it has grabbed products and systems and declared them green without any kind of serious investigation while in effect stumbling backwards into an energy hole. The future of building sustainably is firmly rooted in pre fossil fuel systems. Buildings and neighbourhoods must blend in with nature in a way that augments both human habitation and the environment, Anything else must be reasoned as ridiculous.

14 Food for thought. Knowledge posted by sarah holland on 11/01/2010 at 10:48 am

Food for thought. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Seems like energy may be the tomato here. LEED has focused strongly on the many other aspects of the environmental impact of buildings at a time when there was a lot of public confusion about it. They created a systematic way to evaluate design, processes, and material decisions based on resource use, pollution, land use, and healthy indoor quality. One could argue it is cumbersome and fraught with flaws but its main accomplishment was to create this common ground from which to have the conversation and evolve the building industry.

However, if the largest threat to the environment is global warming caused by greenhouse gases caused by fossil fuel use, than addressing energy use has to be the primary concern of any designer claiming to create sustainable buildings. It can not be just one of the many fruits tossed in the salad. Maybe it deserves its own plate. Perhaps LEED and its point system is not the best method to encourage advances in energy performance. Perhaps a separate energy rating system, run by a separate entity, based on actual documented performance is more appropriate. The LEED rating could rank all the other aspects of environmental impact. A building could be both "LEED Silver" and achieve the Henry Gifford Award for Supreme Energy Performance. Perhaps a lawsuit is the only way to make this break, but I hope it does not destroy either side because we need both to stay constructive.

15 The USGBC has been careful to posted by Bing Gueirn on 11/04/2010 at 05:04 pm

The USGBC has been careful to use the "disclaimer", if you will, within the pages of every reference guide that each credit follow or exceed current municipal code. To say that it claims energy efficiencies beyond current methods of building performance modelling clearly shows the lack of sound understanding of the LEED building framework. Even the most efficient design can be ruined by an inefficient building operator.


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