In the middle of Los Angeles’s endless sprawl sits an unusual-looking gas station made of recycled materials and sustainably harvested wood. Its roof is an abstract assembly of polygons topped with solar panels. The owner, petroleum giant BP, calls it Helios House and touts it as America’s first “green” gas station, because it is certified according to the standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the most commonly used rating system for sustainable architecture.
Of course, the building is still a gas station: it sells petroleum-based fuel that is burned in automobiles and thereby endangers the environment. The incongruity of a gas station being hailed as green is not strictly the fault of its architecture. Nevertheless, Helios House is emblematic of how hollow LEED certification can be as an indicator of a building’s environmental benignity. Too often LEED can reward building planners for taking some environmentally progressive steps while ignoring deeper problems.
LEED certifications are handed out by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that encourages architects to design environmentally friendly buildings. The program is a response to the long-ignored fact that buildings hurt the environment: raw materials and energy are required to manufacture the structural components, land is taken, energy and waste are involved in erecting the structures, and fuel is consumed to heat, cool and otherwise operate them. Architecture may be responsible for nearly half of America’s energy consumption.
The LEED Rating System Checklist, launched in 2000, grades buildings—primarily commercial ones—on the sustainability of their materials, their heating and cooling efficiency, control of storm water runoff, and other criteria. New or retrofitted buildings amass points on the checklist and are then designated as platinum, gold, silver or simply certified [see box on page 58]. Owners must file an application with the USGBC that includes building blueprints and energy estimations, although there is no enforcement mechanism such as spot-checking to verify the estimates or checkups after a building opens to make sure the qualifying equipment or operations have not changed.
Critics complain that the system can be gamed to garner the wonderful-sounding public relations that LEED certification often generates. By erecting a single green building, huge companies can gain considerable media attention (BP’s gas station was featured on National Public Radio and other major media outlets). Yet certain points can be earned for tiny steps, such as installing a bike rack outside, which ostensibly would encourage people to cycle to work instead of drive. Critics also note that application fees can run as high as $22,500, and paying consultants who advise how best to leverage the ratings can push costs beyond $100,000. The USGBC notes that consultants are not required, although having a LEED-accredited professional on the design team earns a point. The larger denunciation is that the program is myopic, trained so intently on specific design features of individual buildings that it misses the big picture—such as the odd notion that a gasoline station can be good for the environment.
Nevertheless, LEED’s growth has been astounding. In 2001 just 93 projects registered with LEED; in 2007 almost 5,500 did. Several cities now require LEED certification for big commercial projects, and many states want it for public buildings. The promise is that by building to these standards, owners should be able to save money on operations in addition to saving the environment. California, for example, estimates that its new gold-rated education headquarters saves taxpayers $500,000 a year in energy costs alone.
Some observers contend that LEED’s growth renders its loopholes even more serious, however. Of late, LEED officials have been listening, instituting a series of reforms that should better limit global warming and reward smart growth over sprawl.