LEED Rated Buildings May Still Be Energy Hogs

Demand for green building design is rising

A recent report by the US Green Building Council shows that more and more large buildings are earning LEED certification. LEED—which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is a suite of architectural metrics for things like energy and water conservation. These days, it’s the most common standard for designating a building as being environmentally friendly.

Some building experts suggest that spending 2 percent more upfront on green design features pays back up to 20 percent of the total construction cost over the building’s lifetime. That may explain why the green construction industry expanded fifteen times in the last decade and is now growing faster than non-green construction.

In 2014, roughly $129 billion was spent on green building projects, including both LEED certified buildings and buildings that meet an equivalent environmental standard. However, total construction costs totaled $962 billion, so there is still a long way to go for green construction techniques.

But the upward trend is still good news, since buildings are some of the biggest energy hogs. In the US, nearly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions can be traced back to energy used for heating, cooling and lighting buildings. Green architecture aims to reduce that footprint by going after energy and water efficiency at every stage of design, from the building’s shape and orientation to what kind of light bulbs it uses.

LEED certification may be misleading, Craig Schwitter, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, tells Mother Jones. He cautions that putting the LEED stamp on a building doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that climate friendly. As an example, he says the new Bank of America office tower in Manhattan was heralded as the first LEED Platinum skyscraper when it opened in 2010. That should have made it a model for sustainable urban design, but a couple years later, when the city released an inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions, the Bank of America building was one of the worst offenders.

Bank Of America tower is not all that greenThe problem, Schwitter said, is that not wasting energy isn’t the same thing as using less of it. A building can meet all the green or LEED credentials in the world, but still draw huge amounts of power—and thus have a massive carbon footprint. That is precisely the case with the Bank of America building. “It’s not that we’re saving the energy, it’s just that we’re being less wasteful,” Schwitter says.

Still, more and more building owners are insisting that architects practice high standards for environmentally friendly design, Schwitter says. “It’s very rare that we do a building that doesn’t have a LEED rating. It’s rare to find a building owner who says, ‘This is all crap, we don’t need this’.” But those same clients need to understand the difference between energy efficiency and total energy usage.

Photo credits: USGBC, Wikimedia Commons


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