Does LEED certification really mean a building is energy efficient?

August 28, 2011 | By | 5 Replies More

The U.S. Green Building Council has gotten a lot of attention through promotion of its LEED standard.  I am personally aware of several organizations that have focused intense PR campaigns on claims that their buildings have been modified, usually at considerable expense, so that they are LEED-certified and thus more energy efficient.  Here’s the claim as to the meaning of LEED certification on USGBC’s website:

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an internationally-recognized green building certification system. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in March 2000, LEED provides building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions.

Consequently, buildings that are LEED certified are understood by the general public as indicating that a building is especially energy-efficient.

Today I read a disturbing article in Mother Jones (not yet available online): “Leeding us On.”  The article focuses on allegations made by Henry Gifford, a New York City energy efficiency consultant, who calls LEED “a joke.” Here’s an excerpt:

According to 2008 study commissioned by USGBC, LEED buildings are 25 to 30% more energy-efficient than conventional ones. But when Gifford looked at the study, he found that it had compared the meaning of one group of buildings to the median of another-what seemed to him a classic apples-to-oranges mistake. He got some of the data and calculated that LEED buildings actually used 29% more energy. “Going to so much trouble and expense to end up with buildings that use more energy than comparable buildings is not only a tragedy, it is also a fraud,” he wrote in a trade magazine. The USGBC stood by its numbers.

I’d like to know how to get to the bottom of this, but I don’t know how at this point.  Those of us on the outside are faced with what you’d expect in almost any high-stakes financially-significant dispute these days:  an esoteric battle between “experts” for the two disputants, both of whom appear, at least to laypersons, to have some credibility.  Intrigued, I searched for “Gifford” at the USGBC website, and noticed an a posting that on August 11, 2011, the U.S. District Court dismissed a suit that Gifford had brought against the USGBC  on the basis of “lack of standing” (which generally means that the plaintiff does not have the legal ability to serve as plaintiff to the suit; thus, this dismissal did not reach the merits of Gifford’s claims against USGBC).   Here’s a copy of Gifford’s lawsuit. As you can see, Gifford has brought harsh and detailed allegations against USGBC; they amount to a multi-faceted accusation that LEED-certification amounts to green-washing, or even worse, that that LEED certified buildings are expensive energy wasters. He has accused the USGBC of fraud for promoting the LEED standard.  There is no way for this dispute between Gifford and USGBC to be a

Image by Tonnywu76 at Dreamstime.com with permission

misunderstanding.   If one of these parties is correct, the other is dramatically incorrect, and there is a lot at stake, including the integrity of America’s highest profile standard for building energy-efficiency.

According to the article in Mother Jones, a man named John Scofield, a physicist at Oberlin College generally agrees with Gifford’s analysis.  Scofield’s website’s home page offers this:  “He has recently completed a study of energy consumption by LEED commercial buildings in which he concludes LEED certification is yielding no significant reduction in GHG emissions associated with commercial buildings.”  I clicked on the hyperlink offered in order to view Scofield’s report, but received the error message: “This File Cannot be Found,” but I tracked down his article here.

The conclusion of Scofield’s article: “Our re-examination of the NBI data shows that LEED certification has done nothing to lower building primary energy consumption and associated GHG emission.”

Again, I’d like to know more–perhaps, someday, we all will.

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Category: Fraud, greenwashing, Sustainable Living

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    For the benefit of the readers less familiar with statistics terminology, I think an explanation of the differences between “median” and “mean”.

    “Mean”, or arithmetic mean is what most of us remember from elementary school as the average. You take a list of numbers, add them all up and divide the total by the count of numbers in the list.

    “Median” on the other hand is the closest to the middle between the largest and smallest number on the list. To get the median, find the largest number and the smallest number in the list, subtract the smallest from the largest to get the range. divide the range by 2 and add the result to the lowest nmber.

    for example if you have a list of nuumbers:

    22 23 44 101 150 98 99 100 123 111 140

    the mean is 91.90 (rounded)
    the median is 81

    Someone once said there are 3 kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies and statistics.”

  2. Jim Razinha says:

    I’m a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) – which means I memorized enough to pass a considerably challenging test under the most paranoid conditions (no notes, pens, wallets, watches, phones, etc. could be brought into the test center). I had never seen LEED or USGBC while in the Navy, and had my first exposure in the private sector in 2007. The accreditation is one of those playing field levelers – I can talk on the subject and my expertise is implied, rather than having to prove myself each time. It is what it is.

    I took the test under the LEED 2.2 version, which is considerably different from the current LEED 2009 Rating System. I’ve not needed to dig into the 2009 version, but it supposedly fixes some of the flaws of disproportionate weighting Mr. Gifford claimed in his suit (a bike rack being equal to having a LEED AP on staff to a 5% increase in energy efficiency.) The lawsuit, which was just thrown out three weeks ago, used the NBI study that was done in 2007 (I was surprised to read in the suit an error in dating – Gifford alleged the study was commissioned in March 2008…it was publicly released then) and Scofield’s analysis, which was done in 2009 (not recently) to back its claims. Scofield was right, but the information is dated. I like that he not only corrected for Source Energy Intensity, but went out and found data on 11 more buildings that NBI used incorrectly.

    One of the problems that comes with energy efficiency claims is the comparisons – apples to apples even has difficulty with different species of apples. And most modeling for whatever certification is done during design – a predictive check block. Measurement and verification (M&V) is expensive and is usually passed on for poor return on investment. I like it, but too often can’t justify the cost.

    Most state and local governments have adopted building code standards (International Building Code, International Plumbing Code, International Energy Conservation Code, etc.) either in part or with modifications. The International Code Council has been working on an International Green Construction Code (IgCC, with the subtitle “Safe and Sustainable: By the Book”) since 2009. Watching from the wings, I have been curious as to USGBC’s counter-offensive, because if Gifford was to be believed in his allegations, USGBC had revenues of $64M in 2008 (I haven’t checked, and don’t plan to). The IgCC should render LEED a non-factor, but USGBC is a big machine – a non-profit machine, but still big.

    Despite my accreditation, I’m not a fan. I was successful recently in pushing through a revision to a facility construction policy that required LEED certification. No longer – although the concession is that we’ll continue to use the LEED system as a guide/benchmark during design. The costs associated with LEED certification are, as you might imagine, underrepresented by USGBC. And yet, it is always in my best interest to make sure that a building is designed to be as energy efficient (the codes already dictate increasingly stringent minimums) as possible – because the long term costs associated with operating a facility are traditionally ignored during design.

    I just don’t need a pretty glass plaque on the wall. Nor do I need to hang another pelt on the wall for the next tier of USGBC’s revenue stream – LEED AP specialties.

  3. Mark Westcott says:

    I have hada few run arounds with the green deal and the only thing green about it is the green going from consumer to pocket of big corp. There was a very intense push to do away with a standard gas water heater last year, they will be trying again this year. If this gets through the best thing one can do is figure out your life expectancy,divide by 10 and go buy that many water heaters. It will be some of the best money you ever spend. Or don’t and prepare to spent 3-10 times what you do now on heating water on a per gallon basis. Thats before the service calls or other wise green jobs we’re going to create. (They forgot to tell you the jobs will be fixing the over technical, highly mechanical and designed to fail piece of crap that will be in your home trying to provide you with hot water.)The serviceman will burn more gas in his truck driving to and from your home than it will save in a year and the cash flow is going to flow not your way to say the least. Not to mention what are you going to do waitin for them there parts to come in, get out the hose? It is a farce because if the thing does work , are you or especially your teenagers going to take a shorter shower with endless hot water? Not a chance. The best way to save energy and be sensibly economical is to install a 30 gallon gas water heater with a vent damper because when you use 25 gallons of hot water you’re done, end of story. What happens is less water= lower water bill=lower sewer bill=lower gas bill + extra time to do something productive and the best thing is that green job truck is going to your neighbors house 1-2 times a year saving you hundreds of dollars for each trip made. It seems we are going backwards here, Einstien said nuclear power is one hell of a way to boil water so now we have to see how many gizmos that all rely on each other for operation and put them in a box to heat water, if one fails, no hot water, if the electric goes out no hot water, if a little dust accumulates on the air intake no hot water, if you turn off your water momentarily to save some be prepared to eat that cold water sandwich which is really tasty in February! They have figured a way around that for more money and of course more gizmos but you have to pump that mineral rich water through those small tubes in the heat exchanger constantly which means you have to delime it more frequently ha! How much have we saved so far? Hmmm, just think,this is one appliance and we’ve increased our costs about 100% before the service truck arrives, multiply that by a LEED certified building and we have to increase the cost of goods sold to pay for our energy conserving building but hey, we’re creating lots of green job right? We can worry about the inflationary aspects of this later when all of the mandated laws make us spend money on something that takes 10 times as much energy to produce the expensive, complicated multi energy dependent device that will save us a few btu’s heating water but cost us an exponential amount to keep the thing working. Oh, and when the water goes off due to an unexpected earthquake or extended power outage we can always drink whats in the toilet tank or wait for assistance from that highly efficient disaster relief agency that will be on every corner with an overabundance of drinkable water. Passive items such as insulation, windows, roofs ect make sense but when you get too mechanical, failure is a certainty and the btu you save will equalize itself with dollars spent. If you think about what it cost in btu’s to make that dollar it’s a loser unless of course you make them selling or fixing the btu saver in the first place.

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