LEED, Trump, the #Resistance, and Alternative Facts

The green building movement isn’t going to progress in the US when its leaders insist on not confronting the reality of declining support and instead promote misleading narratives and “alternative facts” that don’t pass the “sniff test” to disinterested observers.

We've shown in the past two blogs (and in next week's conclusion to this series) that LEED has continued to stumble in 2016 in key markets for green building certification: higher education, K12 (secondary and elementary) education, healthcare and existing buildings. In fact, use of LEED in these all-important building sectors is basically de minimus.

This doesn't mean, of course, that other projects are not using green building methods and sustainable design criteria - just that they are not bothering to certify the projects under the LEED system. In my 2016 book, Reinventing Green Building: Why Certification Systems Aren't Working and What We Can Do About It, I discuss the myriad reasons why this is occurring and suggested major overhauls to the LEED system to put it back on a growth path. 

As I have maintained in last year's blogs and in Reinventing Green Building, one would expect that any product such as LEED that has shown very low market acceptance, outside of a few limited sectors, would continue to change itself (and challenge itself) to gain greater market acceptance. I showed in the book several ways this could be done, without throwing out the entire system.

However, for the past two years, under both old and new leadership, the US Green Building Council's response has been not to undertake a wholesale revamping of the LEED system, but rather to double-down on PR, promotion and propaganda.

Just last week, the USGBC took out very expensive ads (- a full page in the New York Times, Feb. 28th, page B3 - and two-thirds of a page in the Wall Street Journal) that propagated a number of false, misleading and in fact, "alternative facts" about LEED and green building. Take a look:

In keeping with the spirit of the times, the USGBC #Resistance is now prepared to debunk some of these alternative facts and myths. We should note that there is no reference or source cited for any of USGBC's claims in the ad.

1. LEED is driving one-third of "the entire US construction sector". This claim is so preposterous that it's hard to take it seriously. People build all kinds of buildings for their own purposes, with LEED being a secondary consideration far along in the design and construction process. LEED is driving nothing and it certainly is not used in "one-third" of all US construction projects.

2. LEED is driving 3.3 million U.S. Jobs - How can a system that is used in so few projects drive millions of jobs? This claim is absurd on the face of it, unless one starts to count every job at every manufacturer that makes a product that can receive credit in one of the LEED rating systems, if it is used?

3. LEED is the World's "most widely used" green building system. It's probably news to BREEAM which has certified far more projects that LEED over the past 15 years. You could count it as "half true" in the sense that there are LEED projects in more countries than BREEAM projects, but outside of Canada, Brazil, China and India, most of the European projects, for example, are sponsored by US companies or the US government.

4. "LEED is on track to directly contribute more than $303.5 billion to the US GDP by 2018" (note the false precision). Again, you have to believe LEED is driving these construction projects to claim that it is contributing anything more to US GDP than the $400 million annual cost for certification that I document in Reinventing Green Building.

5. "LEED certified buildings are proven to use 25% less energy" and have 20% less annual maintenance costs. To my knowledge, there has been no careful study of the energy savings from LEED projects beyond one study by the New Buildings Institute in 2008 that reviewed about 125 early LEED version 2-certified buildings and showed 25% savings against then-current codes. There is simply no serious third-party study to support this claim on any representative sample of buildings built, let's say, to LEED 2009 standards.

5. The LEED movement is now "13 million strong" (4% of the entire US population) as a community. Let's say there are even 250,000 LEED Green Associates and LEED Accredited Professionals (nearly twice the number of members of the American Institute of Architects and ASHRAE combined). Where do the other 12.8 million come from? Only by counting every employee of every company that contributes dues to the USGBC could you get to that number - and most of the people at those companies would have, I'm sure, no idea that they are part of the "green building movement."

Don't you think that the U.S. Green Building Council would get more respect if it didn't play so fast and loose with the numbers and instead proudly stated its "actual" achievements? I do. What do you think? For additional perspectives on the future of LEED, take a look at my 2016 book, Reinventing Green Building: Why Certification Systems Aren't Working and What We Can Do About It.