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Certifying green buildings is no substitute for good design

by Mel Starrs on May 24, 2010

in Green Building Rating, LEED

Image via Archinect

There’s been a bit of a storm in the green building press stateside over the past couple of months. Frank Gehry, godlike architect in some eyes, had the tenacity to criticise LEED.

Businessweek reported:

What would you think, Pritzker asked him as they sat in hard-backed chairs on an auditorium stage, if a client said he wanted a LEED-certified building? “Oh, great,” Gehry answered in a high, mock-excited voice, as the audience laughed. Then, back in his regular voice, he dismissed environmental concerns as largely political concerns. “A lot of LEEDs are given for bogus stuff. A lot of the things they do really don’t save energy.”

He also said the expense of building to LEED standards often outweighs the benefits. On smaller projects, he said, “the costs of incorporating those kind of things don’t pay back in your lifetime.”

I would possibly caution against reading the comments after the article – some highly caustic vitriol which had me splurting coffee on my keyboard! Instead, read this comment, from another blog commenting on Gehry:

A well designed building will meet LEED easily; but there are certainly a lot of buildings designed to meet LEED that are anything but well designed.

Exactly! And the same can be said for BREEAM, or any other certification system.

LEED and BREEAM both suffer from the same bias with regards to human behaviour and our decision making ability when faced with complex issues. If we can frame a basket of issues in terms of a single score, rating or mark, we will. So LEED and BREEAM become convenient shorthand for ‘proving’ your building is green. Simplifying complex issues inevitably opens up the potential for criticism. And the criticism has been flowing recently – Freakonomics has taken a pop at LEED. This op-ed in the New York Times takes a balanced view, pointing out where the system has been ‘abused’:

Such market-driven motives wouldn’t matter — if LEED in fact measured energy performance. But it can’t: some certified buildings end up using much more energy than the evaluators predicted, because the buildings are more popular than expected or busy at different times than developers forecast, or because tenants ignore or misuse green features. Bike racks merely encourage cycling to work, and operable windows merely offer the opportunity to use less air-conditioning.

This is a valid criticism of both LEED and BREEAM and something we will continue to see more of – evidence  that the building actually performs as designed. LEED-EBOM seems to be the winner stateside – the situation is not so clear here in the UK with BREEAM In Use a contender in a rather larger field which may get sidelined by DEC’s (I will expand on this in another post sometime).

Back to the Gehry storm. Susan S. Szenasy at Metropolis magazine took great offence at Gehry’s remarks, making comparisons between environmental concerns in buildings today with the issue of disabled access 20 years ago. Fred Bernstein at (a resource I cannot recommend highly enough for daily global architectural digest – though they are sorely missing a trick by not including an RSS feed) countered with a very persuasive argument regards politics, planning decisions and LEED:

Using LEED as a measure of “sustainability” has allowed society to avoid tough questions – tough political questions – about what it should and shouldn’t build.

This is a danger we must at all costs avoid in the UK – and whilst the new administration has voiced a “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”, it would be a mistake to assume that BREEAM alone ensures a sustainable development.

Gehry responded to the criticism, at Businessweek:

Yes, he did say that efforts to win a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification can be a waste of time and money. But he told me on the phone that what he really meant to attack was the posturing around the LEED seal of approval. He’s all for energy-efficient buildings, he said, and has been since before there was an Earth Day, in the late 1960s.

Though he reiterated that he had never designed a building just to gain a LEED tag, he noted, in fact, that his Stata Center at MIT has been awarded a LEED silver from the U.S. Green Building Council.

“I’m not against LEEDs at all,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful. I think we’ve got to do this.” But then Gehry, who acknowledged that he is something of a cranky old man, got back on a soapbox to decry today’s automatic embrace of LEED certification. “It’s become ‘fetishized’ in my profession. It’s like if you wear the American flag on your lapel, you’re an American. That’s what I was trying to say. You get people who are holier than thou. I think architects can do a lot, but some of what gets done is marketing and doesn’t really serve to the extent that the PR says it does.”

Bless him, he called it “LEEDs”, but I think he nailed the sentiment dead on. Green certification is, and never will be, a substitute for good design. And I say this as someone who makes the majority of my living from certifying “green” buildings!