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Critics Say LEED Program Doesn't Fulfill Promises

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Critics Say LEED Program Doesn't Fulfill Promises


Critics Say LEED Program Doesn't Fulfill Promises

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The business of green building is growing, even though the construction market as a whole has been in a slump. Yesterday, we told you how one company's certification system is swaying the industry, creating cachet around green buildings.

Today, how that company is influencing policy, and how the company responds to critics who say it isn't delivering on its environmental promises. NPR's Franklyn Cater has the second of two reports on the business of LEED.

FRANKLYN CATER: Last month, I went to Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C. It's the site of a sparkling new addition and rehab. Crews were still putting the finishing touches on the landscaping and a new glass wall that blends into a beautiful, 1932 brick schoolhouse. I was there to meet Rick Fedrizzi.

Mr. RICK FEDRIZZI (Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Green Building Council): Architecture can no longer be just sculpture.

CATER: Fedrizzi is the head of the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC. It's a private nonprofit that runs the certification program known as LEED. Architecture must be about performance, he says, especially in the case of schools.

Mr. FEDRIZZI: We have the ability, through the bricks and mortar, to change the way our kids learn, absorb information, interact with their teacher and ultimately, have the ability for a much more productive life. It's a moral objective of all of us to make sure that this happens across the board.

CATER: In Washington, it's more than an objective; it's the law. All new public buildings must achieve LEED certification. LEED stands for leadership in energy and environmental design. It is a force to be reckoned with in the construction world.

Fourteen federal departments and agencies, 34 states, and more than 200 local governments now encourage or require LEED certification. Some places offer incentives to certify. Others, like Washington, mandate it as a kind of code.

Under LEED, the environmentally conscious features of Stoddert School will be tallied up, and the USGBC will award a plaque certifying it as a green building.

Ms. MARY ROSE RANKIN (Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn): Noise levels in the schools, in the classrooms, it's really important for learning.

CATER: This is architect Mary Rose Rankin of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn. She says they paid a lot of attention to acoustics in the design of this building. It's one way LEED requires performance from schools.

Ms. RANKIN: So wherever possible, we have full-height partitions and added acoustical - acoustic blankets and insulation to really keep the outside and from-room-to-room noise down to as little as possible.

CATER: Indoor air quality is another priority. And Mary Rose Rankin points out the school's new geothermal heating and cooling system, which she expects to save a lot of energy.

Ms. RANKIN: Our model shows a savings of around 29 or 30 percent over what a comparable baseline building would be of similar size.

CATER: And that's over a year, or...

Ms. RANKIN: That's 30 percent savings annual. And payback, for instance, our geothermal system should be somewhere around, say, six to eight years.

CATER: This kind of prediction accompanies every LEED project.

But critics of LEED have long said it doesn't put enough emphasis on saving energy. One of the most assertive is Henry Gifford. He's a New York apartment building owner-turned energy efficiency expert.

Mr. HENRY GIFFORD (Energy Efficiency Expert): It's impossible to go out and buy a building with a guarantee for how much energy it won't use. And the LEED system, by basing everything on energy predictions, continues that. This is one of the reasons why it's so popular, because it's painless.

CATER: A couple of years ago, Gifford sparked a firestorm by challenging a study funded by the USGBC. The study concluded LEED buildings save energy. He says the methodology was flawed, and the numbers really show those LEED buildings used more energy than their peers.

Other experts I've talked with say some LEED buildings do perform, and others don't. Data is mixed and anecdotal at this point, one said.

Gifford's bottom line is that LEED awards certification before the energy savings are proven.

Mr. GIFFORD: LEED certification has never depended on actual, measured energy use, and it's not going to. You can use as much energy as you want and report it, and keep your plaque.

CATER: Gifford says LEED should have teeth. If the building doesn't perform as predicted, yank the certification. And as for the growing number of governments that require LEED...

Mr. GIFFORD: It's a tragedy.

CATER: At the USGBC's platinum-certified office space in Washington, CEO Rick Fedrizzi walks me past the two-story waterfall in the lobby to show me some energy-saving features. Natural light streams in, bouncing off white carpet and ceiling panels to illuminate the workstations. He says the lights are rarely turned on.

Do you think LEED buildings are actually more energy efficient than other buildings are?

Mr. FEDRIZZI: LEED buildings are significantly more energy efficient than your typical building stock.

CATER: I asked Fedrizzi about Henry Gifford's charges that LEED doesn't live up to projections. He says ultimately, it's not just about the design, it's about how the building is run.

Mr. FEDRIZZI: What really needs to happen is the transformation of the owners and the operators of the buildings to ensure that the building is being operated properly. You know, I like to say you can get the same mileage out of a Prius that you get from a Hummer if you drive it incorrectly.

CATER: Last year, the USGBC unveiled LEED version three. It didn't satisfy Gifford, but many who had dogged the Green Building Council on energy were encouraged.

Owners of all new LEED buildings must now tell the USGBC how their buildings are performing for at least five years, as part of the existing buildings program.

I asked Fedrizzi if he'll use that data to enforce performance.

Mr. FEDRIZZI: I really believe that that's exactly what will happen in the future. Once a LEED plaque is assigned to a building, and there is proof that the building is no longer performing the way that it should, there's a very good chance that that information will then result in the ability for USGBC to remove certification from the building, most likely on our website.

CATER: Not by removing the plaque. Fedrizzi is walking a tightrope between persuading builders to go green, and alienating customers who don't want the performance of their multimillion-dollar projects scrutinized by the public. And Fedrizzi says sustainability is not only about energy use. He says the program takes a holistic approach and will keep getting tougher.

In the meantime, I asked him: Should LEED be written into law?

Mr. FEDRIZZI: The great majority of municipalities and state governments that are, in fact, using LEED as a mandate are using it for their own portfolios. Used in that regard, I think it's absolutely fine.

The only other place where I think mandates really should be fully adopted right now is in the idea of schools. The private sector really benefits from -more from incentives.

CATER: Back at Stoddert School, architect Mary Rose Rankin says the designers do plan to reveal this building's actual energy use to the students.

Ms. RANKIN: In the main lobby, we'll have a green touch screen, which the kids in the community can use to actually look and see how much water is being saved and how much energy is being saved - how their building is performing.

CATER: The most striking thing about the business of LEED is how the system is being woven into the fabric of the building industry. Even in new buildings that are not LEED these days, many use it as a reference in the project specs.

Regardless of the economic downturn, despite the questions about performance, LEED is capitalizing on the desire for better buildings, and pulling the market toward green.

Franklyn Cater, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can hear Franklyn's first report on LEED at

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