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The LEED Platinum-certified Queens Botanical Garden main building...and How To Avoid the Same Results (in jurisdictions where LEED is not required by law)

Henry Gifford has been a construction contractor and energy efficiency expert for over 25 years.  He makes very interesting points on the reality (or lack of it) of energy savings in LEED construction, in his carefully thought-out article and in his rebuttal to the US Green Building Council (the LEED originators) response. You can also see his video for another view on the information.

LEED, standing for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design", is an American system for rating buildings as LEED certified to different levels with the highest being LEED Platinum, and also for accrediting contractors and architects.  LEED was developed and is promoted and managed by the US Green Building Council, a trade organization, and is administered by the related Green Building Certification Institute.  At the center of its building ratings is a point system.  Points can be granted for such things as closeness to mass transit, cleaning up of the building site from prior contamination, water reclamation, bicycle storage, and much more.

It seems that Henry Gifford's analysis, while valuable, is also likely to be omitting the hidden benefits of the many LEED factors that related indirectly to energy use and that encourage use of mass transit and alternate transport, better construction practices that are more energy-efficient, and the use of materials that are themselves more likely to have a better energy profile than those use in standard commercial projects.   On the other hand, as Henry points out, these other benefits often function as a substitute for careful and efficient building construction practices, weakening a major component of what all new, environmentally-sound buildings should embody.

I spoke with Henry Gifford to clarify a few of his points.   In reality, the facts do not point to LEED as being far WORSE than standard construction in terms of energy, since additional detailed analysis indicates that a prevalence of lab buildings, which use a high amount of energy, weighs slightly against LEED in the study and explains most – but not all – of the negative gap.

But, even trying to make the comparison as much apples-to-apples as possible, LEED buildings do end up somewhat worse than their uncertified "colleagues" in the building arena.  The biggest fundamental flaw is the fact that LEED does not require actual measurements of energy use in completed buildings.  As a contractor, Mr. Gifford is aware that flawed implementations of good-looking energy plans can often sabotage the plans.  Such flaws including leaky duct work, mis-sized heating or cooling equipment, and use of energy-inefficient materials in pivotal parts of a building.  There is some thought in the construction community that designers and architects may be scrimping on energy-related components that do not feed the LEED rating system in order to save on overall project costs, which are higher than non-LEED building due to the other efforts made to meet LEED material, location, and land/water guidelines.

The following is a small section of Henry Gifford's Web site's home page:

The latest data shows that LEED rated buildings use 29% extra energy. Click Here for the article
Read the e-mail the US Green Building Council sent to each chapter leader in response to the revelation that LEED buildings use more energy than comparable buildings: Click Here for e-mail, with rebuttal
Watch a video of my presentation about building rating systems at the Westford Symposium on Building Science, and see how 300+ serious building scientists respond: Click Here for Video

These issues should be carefully considered by all architects, construction companies, by those who develop and promote the LEED standard, and by activists and regulators.  Helping reduce global climate change and preparing for a drop in availability of fossil fuels need to be key considerations for the entire building industry, in the USA and world-wide. Since buildings account for 40% of global energy use, a careful evaluation of what is truly being created in the name of "green buiding" should be a priority for all those who have influence in the building community.

Related reading:
  Taichung Convention Center, Built to Foster Reso... (Oct-5-2009)
  A Short History Of Earthbag Building (Oct-30-2008)
  California Efficiency Laws Saved State Big Bucks (Oct-25-2008)
  Digging In For Comfort (Oct-22-2008)
  California's Green Building Code (Oct-14-2008)
  Building with Shipping Containers (Jun-7-2008)
  Building A Home - Sustainably (Feb-24-2008)

Click one tag to see readings related specifically to that tag; click "Tags" to see all related readings
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Comment by: henrygifford (Henry Gifford) (Jun-1-2010)   
Yes, LEED has been changed - they now require reporting of energy bills to them for 5 years.

But, they still don't require measured energy efficiency, and still promise confidentiality with respect to energy use. The data will apparently be used to back up the results of studies announced in 2008, and will only be released after what they call "an appropriate analysis methodology."

This has often been mischaracterized as "releasing data for all buildings," (but not each building), ratings now "depending on measured energy use", but certification depens on reporting, not on what is reported. Leed buildings can use as much energy as they want without effecting ratings - the only requirement is a promise to use less energy than another building which does not get built, based on a computer model generated by a certifier's choice of modeling software.

In short, the USGBC learned that information is power, and are requiring all the information now be sent to them. Probably there will never be anyone else but them "studying" leed building energy use, and therefore nobody will ever know how those buildings perform, until or unless my prediction comes true that someday building energy efficiency will be rated by building energy use.

Comment by: Rob Morgan (Rob Morgan) (May-31-2010)   

Hi David, you have noted that the USGBC has recently added more points to the energy efficiency part of the LEED standards. Do you know if Mr. Gifford's article is based on the current LEED version 3, or one of the previous versions?
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Apr-9-2009)   Web site

Hi, Andrew. I am not sure who you were answering.

In any case, it is quite possible that your work, and the buildings you have looked at, were energy efficient (for example, only responsible builders and owners would ask for an expert opinion, so those are likely to be better built). I have spoken with Henry, the author, quite a bit, and even USGBC has recently started to add more energy points to their ranking. They are still not there yet -- energy conservation as a criterion needs some more steps before LEED functions effectively that way, including more weight on measured results. However, I think with continued pressure, it will get there.
Comment by: Andrew (Apr-9-2009)   Web site

Um, given that we've built, consulted on and energy modeled quite a few LEED-certified buildings, I can confidently write that this claim is absurd.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Jan-12-2009)   

This is one more reason to have a blanket consumption/sales tax instead of various schemes and systems of 'energy' efficiency. Everyone finds a way to skip around these complex regulations and 'standards' so that they can save a penny here or there, and in the end, the lack of attention to details makes the whole complex idea into a useless, consumptive fiasco.

Net Creativity: The amount of future usefulness we contribute to the universe over and above what we consume in resources. It is much easier to be a net creator if we reduce ALL consumption than to come up with elaborate ways of creating massive structures and systems and hope like crazy that we come out ahead. No, it isn't pleasant or likely, but it is the way it SHOULD be done. If we allow ourselves to be handcuffed by current ideas of economics and jobs and comfort rather than taking the proper actions as a species, then there is really no hope. If you can't do it the right way, don't bother wasting resources trying to 'bailout' the System of systems with these kinds of Rube Goldberg menageries.
Comment by: LisaKiss (Lisa Kiss) (Jan-11-2009)   

I just read the Henry Gifford critique of LEED and I found it right on the mark. One of the reasons I never got a LEED certification for the ASAP•house was the fact that it pays very little attention to energy use and lots to other stuff and I felt that energy use is the number one priority (ASAP•house is on the way to being +65% energy neutral).

- Laszlo Kiss
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-10-2009)   Web site

I will try and see if Mr. Gifford will add further here.

The articles are not THAT complicated, although they do require focused attention. My conclusion from a careful reading is that the original report of benefits from LEED building was quite distorted by several erroneous assumptions (favorable to LEED), and that if as much error as possible is eliminated, LEED seems slightly less efficient than non-LEED. The articles by Mr. Gifford do not explain why that should be, but fortunately he called me and we had a good conversation. As I mentioned in my summary here, Mr. Gifford points to a number of sloppy implementations that may result from LEED's focus on points that are non-energy related and/or non-measured (only "claimed"). These include non-optimal duct work and furnace/AC capacity, and other design and implementation factors.
Comment by: gwicks56 (gwicks56) (Jan-10-2009)   

Hi David:

I took a brief look at Mr. Gifford's article. It's fairly lengthy and there are a number of citations listed. Technically, of course, it is way over my head.

It might be interesting to see if Mr. Gifford could do a follow-up here? It might also be illuminating to see an advocate from LEED with some follow-up points - particularly, if one of the claims made by Henry Gifford is that LEED building use 29% more energy. That's fairly significant.

Just a suggestion.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-10-2009)   Web site

Sorry, I should have defined LEED, which is "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design". I have added a brief definition into the original article. LEED is indeed an American thing, or perhaps North American. Here are a few links:

Construction Industry
Computerworld / data centers
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Jan-9-2009)   Web site

Hi David. Please could you explain what LEED is? Is it an American thing? Or a construction thing? Either way I feel out of the loop!

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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