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This article is from the In-Depth Report Earth 3.0: Solutions for Sustainable Progress
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LEED Compliance Not Required for Designing Green Buildings

Constructing buildings to the LEED standard can conserve energy and materials-or be exploited for promotional gain

Still, the program’s staffers want credit for putting green architecture on the national agenda. “My parents know what a green building is now,” says Scot Horst, chairman of the program’s national steering committee.

Missing the Point
leed’s toughest critics tend to be architects who went green before green was cool. They feel the program’s narrow-minded focus on a checklist leads to uninspired architecture that is not as environmentally friendly as it could be. They also see the program as reducing architects to mere technicians, devaluing the artistic, intellectual and civic aspects of the work that drew many of them to the profession.

Longtime green architect Bob Nalls in Philadelphia is one such conscientious objector who refuses to take the test to become a LEED-accredited professional. Nalls says the checklist system lulls architects into thinking that “if they paint by numbers, they can do a Picasso.” Designing a truly green building, he explains, means weighing the environmental pros and cons of various design decisions. For example, LEED gives up to two points for letting natural light into interior spaces, to reduce demand for electric lighting. But more sunlight might drive up air-conditioning demand. “To say I’m going to be able to answer that question by getting a point or not getting a point is naive,” Nalls says.

Others deride the cynical gaming done by owners looking only for the public relations payoff. Auden Schendler, executive director of community and environmental responsibility at the Aspen Skiing Company, calls it point mongering. “When you’re basically focusing on how to get the most points versus what’s best for the building,” Schendler explains, “you go for the easy points,” such as installing a $395 bike rack that is never used instead of a million-dollar environmentally sensitive heating system—each worth one point.

Schendler says this kind of “LEED brain” thinking occurs when builders are more concerned with certification than helping the environment. For example, he worked on a project where the design team weighed the merits of installing a reflective roof, which earns one point. In cities, traditional black roofs absorb daytime sunlight and radiate it back as heat at night, contributing to the “heat island effect” that raises air-conditioning demand. But for this project—located 8,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains—even the blackest roof had little risk of creating a heat island. Should a green builder cynically go for the point anyway?

Some of green architecture’s biggest believers simply don’t play the game. Douglas Kelbaugh, a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who is overseeing a large addition to one of the school’s main buildings, does not plan to submit it for certification. He does not need the PR—or the advice—so why add the expense of applying?

“We can say we have a good building, and we know what we’re talking about,” Kelbaugh says. Instead of spending an estimated $100,000 on LEED, he maintains, “it makes more sense to spend that $100,000 on photovoltaics or better windows or insulation.” Kelbaugh is building the addition atop an existing school building, the greenest possible site because it consumes no new land. As a result, however, “we’re not eligible for any landscaping credits” from LEED, he notes.

Kelbaugh is actually designing to what he says is a smarter standard, the American Institute of Architects’s 2030 Challenge. The program’s goal is to foster new buildings that by 2010 have half the carbon footprint of other structures in their area and that by 2030 are carbon-free or carbon-neutral. (The USGBC does endorse the Challenge’s goals.) He asserts that the program “is simpler, it’s free, and it focuses on the sweet spot of reducing carbon footprint.” By adding photovoltaic cells to the roof during the next two decades, the school will take the addition off the power grid by 2030, Kelbaugh says. That move is particularly important in southeastern Michigan, where most electricity is generated by heavily polluting coal-fired power plants—the kind of factor that is beyond the vision of an architect who is designing only to LEED.

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