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.

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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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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.

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Still, the professor sees improvements in the standards and regards the widespread adoption of LEED as a positive trend. “What started as voluntary becomes mandatory, which is how social values change,” Moore says, citing the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, the U.K.’s equivalent of LEED, which has now been integrated into that nation’s building regulations.

Indisputably, in a few short years LEED has rapidly taken the U.S. from a nation of environmentally thoughtless architecture to a nation where even the gas stations are trying to go green. Whether the system can ultimately build an environmentally friendly country remains an open question.

Note: This story was originally printed with the title, "MisLEEDing".