Reinventing Green Building—It’s (Past) Time!

The major US green building rating system, LEED, hasn't grown for five years; the green building revolution has stalled; no easy solutions are in sight. By 2015, LEED had certified less than 1 percent of commercial buildings and homes in the US during its first 15 years. Annual new project registrations for LEED in commercial buildings in the US were fewer in number in 2015 than in 2010. After the global climate agreement in Paris this month, we need a new way to rate buildings for their climate and environmental impacts, because the current approach will not yield any meaningful number of energy-efficient buildings.

Concerns about LEED are not new, but they have taken on more urgency with the upcoming mandatory switch to a new version of LEED (LEEDv4) in October 2016. That LEED is broken is not news; Randy Udall and Auden Schendler first raised the issue in 2005 with a provocative article, “LEED is Broken – Let’s Fix It.” At the time, many LEED advocates, including me, dismissed issues raised by this article as simply reflecting growing pains for the LEED system. At the time, LEED was barely five years old and just getting started on the road to dominating the US market for commercial green buildings.

But their five main objections—LEED is too costly, project teams are too focused on gaining points and not on results that matter, LEED’s energy modeling is fiendishly difficult, LEED’s bureaucracy is crippling, and LEED’s advocates continually produce overblown benefit claims—remain drawbacks today.

Most experienced green building professionals agree that these issues remain relevant in 2015. But there is a larger problem: Green building rating systems have diverged greatly from building owners’ and operators’ core concerns, as these systems are designed to meet the needs of green idealists more than those of most market participants. As a result, there is diminished interest in and use of LEED outside of the "top 1%" of building owners.

Green building advocates need to abandon the approach they have taken for the past 25 years: comprehensive and overly technical criteria, multiple elaborate rating systems, large and cumbersome bureaucracies, high costs, and inadequate focus on real long-term building performance.

The central thesis of my forthcoming book, Reinventing Green Building, is that it’s time for a serious debate about LEED’s (and other systems’) inadequacies in addressing a few issue of primary importance: combatting global climate change by reducing carbon emissions from buildings, addressing looming water scarcities and reducing resource waste in building operations.

In my view, until we build most new buildings and retrofit most existing buildings according to dramatically higher standards for lower energy use, lower carbon emissions, lower water use, and lower waste generation, then all other “green” considerations are unnecessary window dressing.With my new book, I hope to kindle a serious debate about how green building can best respond to the climate crisis.