Smart. Simple. Sustainable. New directions for green building.

Reinventing Green Building:
Why Certification Systems Aren't Working and What We Can Do About It


Trailer for Jerry Yudelson's new book "Reinventing Green Building", available in June 2016 (video by Dagmar Hotze,

Buildings and their associated systems are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the world. The “2030 Challenge” aims to produce zero net energy from new North American construction by 2030 while achieving a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from existing buildings. With less than 4% of commercial and residential building area in the U.S. and Canada certified at the end of 2014 and with annual usage of LEED in the US not growing, we seem destined to fall catastrophically short of this target.

Reinventing Green Building combines a unique, insider’s critique of the current state of affairs with a potent vision for the future. This highly visual, data-driven analysis brings together the wisdom of today’s leading practitioners including: 

  • Up-to-date information on green building issues, energy economics and new technology

  • Dramatic new approaches to certification system design and user experience

  • Creative, outside-the-box solutions using the Internet of Things, big data analytics and cloud-based technologies for building management.

The green building revolution has failed to fulfill its promise to transform the marketplace in a meaningful way.

Smart, simple, and sustainable: Reinventing Green Building presents a new approach to certification, designed to radically cut costs while dramatically increasing marketplace acceptance integrating true climate mitigation and better building performance.

The Book's Introduction – A Call to Action

The major US green building rating system, LEED, isn’t growing, the green building revolution has stalled, and no easy solutions are in sight. By 2015, LEED had certified less than one percent of commercial buildings and homes in the US during its first 15 years and has fewer annual certifications in 2014 than in 2010. It’s time for a green building program that works for “the other 99 percent” and that can show significant annual growth. 

Figure 1. Total US Building Stock vs. LEED Certifications, End of 2014

Figure 1. Total US Building Stock vs. LEED Certifications, End of 2014

Figure 1 compares LEED certifications with the total number of US commercial buildings; it shows that total project certifications at year-end 2014 amount to less than one percent of the US nonresidential building stock. (In the residential sphere, the fraction was far less.)

We need a new way to rate buildings for their climate and environmental impacts. As the leading green building organization and largest rating system in the US as well as the largest in the world, the US Green Building Council and LEED have a special responsibility to engage in self-criticism and continuous improvement.

These concerns are not new, but they have taken on more urgency with the upcoming mandatory switch to LEED version 4 in October 2016. With most project teams content in knowing how to navigate through LEED 2009, despite its costs and complexities, LEED v4 appears to be “a bug looking for a windshield.”

That LEED is broken is not a 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 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 – that LEED is too costly; that teams are too focused on gaining points and not on results that mattered; that LEED’s energy modeling is fiendishly difficult; that LEED’s bureaucracy is crippling; and that LEED’s advocates continually produce overblown benefit claims– remain drawbacks today.

Most experienced green building professionals would say issues cited in 2005 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 idealists more than those of market participants.

Green building advocates must 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 performance. Instead, they need to embrace the technological revolution that has cut costs for communications by factors of not ten, not one hundred, but a thousand or more in the past 15 years.

Moore’s Law, first enunciated in 1965, says that computing power doubles every 18 months; over time, unit costs for computing have fallen in a similar fashion. Consider this: Every six years, it’s 16 times cheaper (and faster) to do the same task, every nine years 64 times cheaper! (Every 15 years, it’s 16 x 64, or 1,024 times cheaper!) With the advent of mobile communications, social networks, the Internet of Things, big data analytics, cloud computing and global information systems, why should green building still be governed by concepts, systems, and procedures developed in the 1990s “Dark Ages” of Internet 1.0?

This book’s central thesis is that it’s time for a serious debate about LEED’s (and other systems’) inadequacies in addressing a few key issues: combatting global climate change, addressing looming water scarcities, and reducing resource waste.

The corollary is that it’s time for green building leaders to develop a new model for certifying project design, construction, and operations, one that is:

  • Smart: technology-savvy and mobile-accessible

  • Simple: so anyone can understand green building standards without specialized training and certification

  • Sustainable: both in focusing on absolute performance as the best means for addressing climate change and in accelerating building design and management’s movement onto cloud-based platforms.

We don’t need to abandon concerns about urban design, healthy buildings, or healthy building materials – but they belong in a separate system or systems. Future green building rating systems should focus ONLY on five Key Performance Indicators:

  • Energy use

  • Total carbon emissions

  • Water use

  • Waste minimization

  • Ecological purchasing

Until we build most new buildings and retrofit most existing buildings according to dramatically higher standards for energy, carbon, water, waste generation, and recycling, then all other considerations are window dressing.

After all, Nature doesn’t care how much we reduce annual carbon emissions from unsustainably high levels. Nature only cares about absolute levels of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere, about excessive water use that damages natural ecosystems, and about waste that doesn’t get recycled into something else.

It turns out that the solution is already staring us in the face: the technological revolution that has given us the mobile Internet, social media, and Big Data analytics. With this revolution, we can start with the user’s concerns and work toward creating a rating system (or systems) that enhances the user’s experience.

How to proceed? Here’s an example in one word: Uber.

In 2015, just five years after it started, Uber’s latest financing round valued it at $50 billion. What did Uber do? It took on a hundred-year-old urban transportation system – taxicabs – and created an easy-to-use smartphone app that revolutionized it, in the process challenging and upending a highly regulated, low-user-satisfaction industry. No one likes taxis, but if you land at any airport or stand on any street corner in any large city, they’re usually the only curb-to-door service available.

What don’t we like about taxis? They’re not always available when and where you want them, they’re hard to get during rush hour or rainstorms or at dinnertime, they are often dirty and uncomfortable, they are prone to occasional customer rip-offs, and they may not accept credit cards for payment. The taxi business’ main beneficiaries are taxicab owners, not customers or even drivers.

Uber started with the idea that a ride-for-hire service could address these issues, utilize surplus labor and vehicles, enhance customer experiences, and be profitable for all concerned, by using the phone we already carry in our pockets. Brilliant! I’ve used Uber’s smartphone app many times; I can track where the driver is at all times, I know I’m going to get a clean and comfortable car, a driver who knows the town, and I’ve already paid the fare and tip when I step into the vehicle.

Uber is so disruptive that it has encountered stiff opposition from everyone profiting from the current system, including “progressive” politicians who are in hock to taxicab owners for campaign contributions, but it will succeed because it’s focused on creating a superb user experience. By one account, nearly two million New York City residents have already downloaded the Uber app!

Green building certification is ripe for the same disruptive treatment, but it’s supremely unlikely that established organizations can or will upend their current revenue models to provide a far more user-friendly approach. It’s time for new organizations and fresh thinking in green building. It’s time to leave behind the current monastic, hair-shirt experience of LEED certification and create a fabulous user experience. It’s time for Reinventing Green Building!