Note: I wrote a follow-up to this post. It's here.
I mentioned NESEA’s public forum Tuesday night in advance of it, but haven’t been able to report on it until now. It was, depending on your outlook, a spirited discussion, a rant, or a mugging. The topic was Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, the green-building rating system administered by the US Green Building Council. It is, without doubt, the winner thus far in the race to establish a nationwide standard for green building. Others exist, but there’s really only one in the public consciousness, which includes the actions by more than a dozen municipalities to incorporate LEED standards into building codes. The question was, does it warrant its status? Judging from occasional hoots and shouts from the crowd of about 200, and a couple pointedly angry comments during the audience portion of the event, a good portion would have answered no.
Their ringleader was Henry Gifford, who has become notorious in building circles for an article in which he asserts that not only is the USGBC’s claim of 25 percent to 30 percent energy savings in LEED-rated buildings not correct, it’s backwards, that they actually use that much more. Gifford was one of five panelists; just to his left was Brendan Owens, the USGBC’s vice president for LEED technical development, who showed, if nothing else, that he can take a punch. One of the main threads in the discussion was whether modeling or performance should be the basis for assessment of green building. Many people don’t know that LEED has no performance requirement; its certifications are based on expectations of what will happen, given the installation of this system or that. This is a major contention of LEED foes. Several people talked about “the plaque,” referring to the certification emblem that building owners can display in their lobbies, reaping whatever benefits it may bring in more tenants, higher rents, or just chest-thumping. Gifford, who was once written up in the New Yorker for his New York City boiler tour and who often gives presentations in the trade on building sciences, is unquestionably a gadfly. Said Paul Eldrenkamp, whose construction business in Newton, Mass., specializes in deep energy retrofitting: “Henry is a prophet, and prophets can be difficult to deal with.” His big complaint against LEED is that it hasn’t been validly studied. “The first study we heard was in ‘07, and even before that, it was becoming law. The study came out and said that LEED-rated buildings save 25-30 percent compared to a national database. “Well, I did a radical thing. I read the study, and I think there’s nothing in the study that supports, related to, or even references the conclusion. I think the conclusion was invented and stuck on. They found a 24 percent difference between two numbers, mean energy used by the national database and the median of the LEED buildings. “Mean to mean would have shown that LEED did 29 percent higher,” Gifford said in his opening statement, adding other critiques as well. Owens, given his chance to respond, said, “I agree with Henry that before this research was done, there was a leap of faith involved, but the characterization of this as a scandal and a con is really unfortunate.” He said USGBC has shared the data with anyone who has asked for it, and though there are those who aren’t as impressed with LEED as the USGBC is, “I’ve never found anyone other than Henry saying that these buildings are using more energy.” Gifford later cast his criticism on building modeling, the basis for LEED awards. He referred to a story in High Performance Buildings magazine that says some developers are running two models, “one for LEED and one to know what’s really going on.” Owens responded, “blaming the model because the modeler isn’t good is like blaming a screwdriver because it’s not a good hammer,” which is perhaps more colorful than analogous. Owens added, “LEED is an assessment of potential for a building to perform. That’s all it is,” which may be so, but it certainly isn’t what the public thinks it is, which Owens tacitly acknowledged when he said, “We could do better to educate the public that the model isn’t good enough, yet. We haven’t really gone through and said ‘this is the first step in a 6 or 7 or 8 step process.” Perhaps it was that comment that prompted Fred Unger of the Heartwood Group of Providence, a former NESEA board member and conference chairman, to challenge Owens from the floor “to commit to not putting ‘LEED’ or ‘USGBC’ on any legislation.” While saying “the USGBC has never advocated putting this into law. … It’s not the best use of this rating system,” he declined Unger’s suggestion. When Unger pressed him, Owens replied, “we’ve never advocated, but perhaps we should have.” Fred Davis, who owns a lighting distributorship in Medfield, called it a scandal (a word Gifford used in his first sentence) that LEED is being put into building codes “when it still has these bugs to work out.” He said he wanted to hear some shame from LEED’s boosters, “or at least an ‘oops,’” he added the next day when queried on the trade show floor. Chris Benedict, a New York architect who often works with Gifford, was unsparing in offering her opinion when she spoke: “I would like LEED to go away, and I would like the USGBC to disappear from the face of the earth.” After the forum ended, she conceded her anger over LEED, and explained it by saying that “LEED has distracted the public, and devalued the work of people who’ve been working on making good buildings for 20 years. Now, unless they have ‘LEED AP’ [the AP stands for “accredited professional” and indicates the holder has passed USGBC’s test] after their name, they might not even get hired.” Though the tenor was emotional at times and the floor comments were extremely pointed, not everyone was impressed. Marc Rosenbaum, who the next morning would give the conference’s keynote address, called it “our least informative forum yet. “There wasn’t much focus on solutions, so it was mostly a rant,” he said.
Note, for the record: Three others were on the panel, which was moderated by Nadav Malin. I chose to focus on the comments of Gifford and Owens in the interest of space.
Also: I wrote a follow-up to this post. It's here.