The U.S. Green Building Movement Plateaued (and Why That's Important)

At the beginning, LEED certification met a market need and grew dramatically. Within a half-decade after its introduction, by 2006 LEED was a well recognized brand and globally known “eco-label,” a remarkable achievement. But LEED could never guarantee that buildings it certified were among the top 25 percent of all performers, its stated goal, as measured against key criteria for reducing environmental impact.

Here is a critical dilemma for the environmental movement. If we want to preserve this beautiful planet from the ravages of global climate change, we must insist that every “solution” offered by well meaning organizations agrees to real-world independent testing. Otherwise, we’re just fooling ourselves, but not Mother Nature. The global green building movement has yet to agree to this test. After more than 20 years, shouldn’t environmentalists start insisting on it, or else withdraw their support? It’s human nature not to want to “upset the apple cart,” but in this case it’s essential.

What are the facts? By 2015, fifteen years after its introduction, less than five percent of the building area in the U.S. had been certified, representing less than one percent of the buildings. Almost all of the certifications are in new buildings or major renovations and most of those are commercial office buildings, corporate buildings and buildings in high-end private universities, state government offices in a few states, and, to its credit, most new federal office buildings.

Great River Energy Turbine Solar.jpg

Also, by 2015 company membership in USGBC had dropped by one-third from the peak in 2010 and attendance and exhibitors at its flagship conference Greenbuild were down by at least that amount. The green building movement had created a successful “eco-label” for buildings, but had failed to move beyond its roots and engage the most important stakeholder group, building owners. Without their enthusiastic support, green building cannot achieve energy reductions essential to reduce carbon emissions, at least until the electric grid is mostly powered by renewable energy, something unlikely to happen for at least 30 years.

Each year, LEED certifies less than one existing building in ten thousand (0.01%) in the U.S., its major market. Most environmentalists and anyone concerned about climate change recognize the need to upgrade existing buildings as the primary task ahead, yet the U.S. green building movement has refused to make it easy for existing buildings. This is a huge failing! Europeans don’t build many new buildings each year, but they have recognized the issue of existing buildings much more clearly than their U.S. and Canadian counterparts, by organizing in 2017 a major movement – Build Upon – to renovate the existing building stock to reduce carbon emissions from energy use.

As a result of its failure to grow in the U.S., still its largest market, the USGBC redirected its efforts in 2017 to certifying new buildings in India. Since the U.S. market stopped growing in about 2014, that decision made sense. India is a rapidly growing country with a heavy “carbon footprint” from the coal-fired power used to make electricity for buildings. LEED has met with great initial success in India, but it will certainly encounter the same problems with growing its market there as it did in the U.S.

The U.S. is still the second-largest generator of carbon emissions in the world. Rather than undertaking the difficult task of dramatically reducing the energy use and carbon impact of the existing building stock, using Big Data analytics, cloud computing, cheap sensors and other readily available technologies, USGBC has opted primarily for a public relations strategy to pretend that LEED still offers an important climate change solution.

This strategy fails a “sniff test” for credibility. For nearly the past decade, USGBC has offered no evidence based on convincing third-party research that green buildings are achieving their energy reduction goals, even though such research would be cheap and readily affordable given its huge cash hoard. More than 30,000 certified projects offer ample data for harvesting, yet no one is doing it.

After spending so many years promoting green building, I am saddened by the lack of direction from so many intelligent people in this “movement.” I also find it strange that so many building industry professionals – architects, engineers, builders, building owners – would continue to offer their services in support of these organizations that are not delivering the results that we all need. I understand, from a business viewpoint, it’s better to be seen as “part of the solution” rather than “part of the problem.” But at some point, leaders have to lead and say the obvious, “enough is enough, there must be a better way.”

The result? A splintering of the U.S. green building movement: some moved toward supporting evidence-based certification systems other than LEED, others shifted their attention from carbon reduction to healthy buildings; others moved to support cheaper alternatives that can be used in the rapidly growing economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America; while still others took what they can from the “green building playbook” and applied it to their projects, not bothering with certification. Behind these outcomes, what is still missing is any sense that we are on the right track with green building.

Is there time to turn around this situation? Of course, but it will require a new leadership generation for the green building movement, new institutional supporters, and a renewed sense of dedication to documenting the energy and carbon performance of all six million non-residential buildings, plus the more than 150 million homes, in the U.S. and Canada.

Year by year, we see more evidence of tipping points in climate change and global warming, in 2018 it's the imminent melting of the Arctic ice cap. Stewart Brand, the originator of the Whole Earth Catalog, very popular at the time of the first Earth Day, has said, “We are as gods, and we must get good at it.”

The evidence to date is that we’re not very good at dealing with environmental change on a global scale and a long time horizon. Even if nearly all countries signed the 2015 Paris Accord on combatting climate change, global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will likely continue to rise until mid-century.

(Source: From my forthcoming memoir: "Godfather of Green: From Earth Day to Enlightenment, An Eco/Spiritual Journey"), to be published Spring 2019.