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Keeping up the Green: recertification on its way?

Sep 11, 2009

by Peg MacDonald, VIA Architect

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece that exposed some “green” buildings that were not living up to the promises made by their LEED plaques. The follow-up blog entry on Green Inc. reinforces the notion that LEED is not an indicator of overall energy efficiency in a given building.

The available Energy and Atmosphere credits make up just 24% of the total available credits (17 of 70). The lowest level of Certification starts at 26 points, so it is entirely possible to deliver a building with totally conventional heating and cooling systems and still achieve some level of LEED certification. The fundamentals of sustainable design require a balance of energy and environmental design components to really improve the performance of a building within its site; with LEED a moderate landscaping plan and an accessible bus stop may just be enough to move you into the realm of stardom and commercial promotion afforded by the certification.

What’s interesting about the articles is that the market is starting to realize that a LEED-certified building is not necessarily the greenest of the green. Building professionals have been clamoring for stronger, harder, more comprehensive standards since LEED 1.0, while waiting patiently for the marketplace to catch up. LEED 3.0, with its more stringent requirements and greater regional flexibility, is a far cry from its grandfather. (But still just a step…) Even now as LEED moves into the realm of urban planning and Neighborhood Development, it should be expected that this design tool will not be a true calculation of community sustainability – something that is not as easily quantified by energy usage and native plantings.

A truly green building must be more than the sum of its checklist. Some firms have been instrumental in pushing LEED and helping it become the brand that it is, building by building. Others understand it, support it, and quietly go about working in the larger context of sustainability, in places where the structures don’t necessarily fit into the credit framework. LEED is, and always has been, just a tool.

What an existing LEED plaque should signify is that the design team took some care and thought to address environmental issues (like reducing water consumption, or using local/regional materials) when putting that building together. Future LEED plaques may be a better indicator of overall energy efficiency, embodied energy, and longevity, if the plans for five-year monitoring and recertification go far enough.
The recertification process could bring another paradigm shift in the project delivery process. It’s rare to find a client who opts to require (and pay for) post-occupancy monitoring ; especially if they aren’t the end-user. The current LEED certification process is already very good at keeping design teams accountable through the construction and implementation process – when quick decisions to substitute one thing for another often have far greater consequences than anticipated.

Recertification could lead to more liability on the design team and the developer.
(Bad – if it’s out of proportion to the appropriate sphere of control.)

It could lead to more responsibility for the architect.
(Good! Let’s take this on! No more complaining about how the influence and greater role of the Architect is being incrementally stripped away because of liability concerns.)

It must lead to more responsibility on the user group, and a greater emphasis on follow-through education. People need to understand that all buildings have a character and a need to interact with their inhabitants in order to function properly. Simple or sophisticated, the building’s systems need to be watched and adjusted if goals of comfort or energy efficiency are going to be realized.

As we demand more from our green buildings, we must allow them to demand more from us.

Image Credits: Image 1