This article is from the In-Depth Report Earth 3.0: Solutions for Sustainable Progress

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

Faced with criticism, LEED is making improvements and is planning more. Although it still uses the checklist, the USGBC revised its point system to disqualify any building that does not score at least two points for energy efficiency. Horst says the next revision of the standards, due in 2009, will be weighted to give even more importance to features that reduce global warming. For example, the ability to rack up energy-efficiency points will be nearly doubled, and the payoff for access to public transportation will more than triple. In the past, Horst acknowledges, the “one point for using renewable energy was the same as one point for the bike racks.”

The USGBC is also adding credits specific to regions of the country, so that Phoenix builders are more focused on water conservation and architects in the Rockies aren’t bound by the same heat-island standards as those in Atlanta. To combat LEED brain, the USGBC has already added a kind of wild-card category for innovation in design that allows points for environmental features the standards might have overlooked, such as chemical-free termite control.

Neighborhoods Are Next
The greatest adaptation of LEED will be a new set of standards that grades entire neighborhoods. LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) grew out of a collaboration among the USGBC, the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), all backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The initiative is in a pilot phase and will launch next year. Developers will submit plans for entire neighborhoods for certification. The new program tacitly concedes that saving the world one building at a time does little to change how an area’s buildings are laid out and how people move among them. The standards will reward density, transit accessibility and how well the neighborhood fits into the larger region.

As Kaid Benfield, director of smart growth at the NRDC and a founder of LEED-ND, observes, “You can design the best neighborhood in the world, but if you put it in the middle of nowhere, it’s not going to do anything for the environment” if everyone is driving several miles to take the kids to school, get to work or just pick up the proverbial quart of milk.

Kelbaugh hails LEED’s acknowledgment that density matters, pointing out that the average urban home consumes half as much energy as the average suburban home and significantly less energy than a suburban green home. An urban green home is the most efficient of all, of course, but his larger point is that even green sprawl isn’t that green. Kelbaugh states that Americans are almost twice as likely to commute by car as Britons are, less than a third as likely to walk or bike, and one seventh as likely to take mass transit. The average Houstonian uses four times as much energy a day as does the average Londoner.

The LEED-ND pilot program offers credits for enabling every form of alternative transportation—for bike lanes, walkable streets and mass-transit access. It also emphasizes laying out mixed-use sites where residents can walk to the corner store for simple errands. “Land-use patterns are very difficult to undo once done,” says LEED-ND director Jennifer Henry, explaining the new emphasis on town planning.

Like its predecessor, LEED-ND could potentially be dogged by loopholes. So notes Steven Moore, a professor of architecture and planning at the University of Texas at Austin, who asked his students to design an affordable housing project. The resulting plan was plenty green, but they ran into the classic problems of its not fitting into a one-size-fits-all checklist and of having innovations ignored. For example, the students proposed new housing on a series of vacant inner-city lots rather than clearing land on the suburban fringe. But LEED-ND never anticipated that a project could be built on a network of nearby sites rather than a single plot of land. “Our project barely made the minimum number of points,” Moore says.

This article was originally published with the title "Mis LEEDing?."

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