Is Certification Really Necessary?

There is no question green building as a concept has had a powerful attraction for many people, not just building industry professionals; otherwise, how would it be so intuitively obvious to so many ordinary citizens and so easy to explain to people in government? But the truth must be told: If all green building certification systems now on the market are destined to reach less than 5-10 percent of the US building area and less than 1-2 percent of the buildings, do we really need them at all?  

Consider a simple idea: a 25 percent improvement in energy use (about what LEED buildings are estimated to achieve on average) in 4 percent of the building stock (about where LEED currently reaches) is less than half (only 40 percent) of what we could get with a modest 5 percent improvement in 50 percent of the building stock (or a still-modest 10 percent improvement in a quarter of the building stock).

If our overriding concern must be cutting carbon emissions shouldn’t we figure out how to get half the existing building stock to become somewhat more efficient, instead of worrying about making a relative handful of high-end buildings “really green”?

In this respect, we must ask: Has LEED become irrelevant to achieving building sustainability, especially with respect to cutting global carbon emissions more rapidly? If so, what new approach (or approaches) would prove more relevant and create a faster response to the carbon issue? Other approaches that are already used in to reduce carbon emissions and water use in buildings include regulation, education, incentives and policy directives, as shown in the figure below.

Four key approaches for reducing building energy use that could replace green building certification.

Four key approaches for reducing building energy use that could replace green building certification.

LEED became successful by selling its label as the “only” way, or certainly the “best” way, to measure a building’s green-ness. For other “wannabes” such as Green Globes or Living Building Challenge, it’s become almost impossible to challenge LEED in commercial real estate and in the institutional market, with high-profile government projects, office buildings for large corporations, and university projects.

Additionally, third-party certification is still required by those who have to report their actions to outside stakeholders, such as institutional real estate investors, lenders, public stockholders, politicians, employees, school boards, and university leaders.

Beyond energy, green building certification is still useful to account for other important environmental and health criteria, such as water use; materials and resource use; buildings’ impacts on local ecosystems; and human health, productivity and well-being. But it’s perfectly understandable that if we want all buildings to contribute to reducing global carbon emissions, then we should insist that green building certifications do a better job in reaching a broader marketplace and that they document significantly better energy reduction performance in its certified buildings.

This is the challenge we face. In the next blog post, we sketch the outlines of a solution: Focus on Carbon and Leverage Technology.