Over Thanksgiving I had a chance to visit a cousin of mine who works in architecture. When I brought up the subject of eco-friendly construction, she gave me an interesting perspective on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, the nationally accepted standard for green building. Sometimes, she said, architects and developers opt to build to LEED specifications but not apply for the actual certification because of the time, effort, and expense involved. She cited a new animal shelter in Seattle, where she lives, as an example.
That’s a shame, I thought at the time, because the shelter won’t get “credit” in the eyes of interested parties, for all its efforts. Also, why should anyone trust the shelter’s claims that its facility is environmentally sound if it can't sport the coveted LEED logo to prove it?
Then today I came across a two-year-old story in Grist maintaining that LEED as a system is broken, largely because of the same sorts of criticisms: never mind what the U.S. Green Building Council says, certification is expensive, the article states, typically adding costs that total between 1 and 5 percent of a budget. Many builders would rather spend that money on additional sustainability measures.
Furthermore, the writer holds, the road to certification is overly bureaucratic, and the point system on which LEED is based doesn’t assign appropriate weight to different categories of building features (for example, one project’s $1.3 million heat-recovery system and a $395 bicycle rack each earned one point).
As I mentioned, though, that article is two years old. I’m no expert in this area, but for a broken system, it seems to be thriving. Wikipedia’s entry on LEED states that the application process has been electronically automated, which would seem to cut down on at least some of the bureaucratic hassles.
Cost is clearly still an issue for some, like the Seattle animal shelter. But perhaps having the LEED logo isn’t worth it in all cases. An animal shelter, after all, isn’t analogous to other certified goods, like organic food or fair-trade apparel. There’s only one of it, and only one “buyer.” Once it’s built, it will reap the benefits of being resource-efficient whether or not it has a LEED plaque on the wall.
Still, I’m becoming a fan of third-party certification systems as mechanisms for encouraging and rewarding environmental and social accountability, and it’s discomfiting to think that this system might be discouraging the participation of the very green-minded builders it aims to include.