The chemical composition of the atmosphere

54 S c i e n t i f i c A m e r i c a n E a r t h 3 . 0








Iin the middle of los angeless end-less sprawl sits an unusual-looking gas sta-tion made of recycled materials and sus- tainably 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 Americas fi rst green gas station, be – cause it is certifi ed according to the stan- dards of Leadership in Energy and Envi- ronmental Design (LEED), the most com- monly used rating system for sustainable architecture.

Of course, the building is still a gas sta- tion: it sells petroleum-based fuel that is burned in automobiles and thereby endan- gers the environment. The incongruity of a gas station being hailed as green is not strictly the fault of its architecture. Never- theless, Helios House is emblematic of how hollow LEED certifi cation can be as an indicator of a buildings environmental benignity. Too often LEED can reward building planners for taking some envi- ronmentally progressive steps while ignor- ing deeper problems.







LEED certifi cations are handed out by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a Washington, D.C.based non profi t that encourages architects to design environmentally friendly build- ings. The program is a response to the long-ignored fact that buildings hurt the environment: raw materials and energy are required to manufacture the structur- al components, land is taken, energy and waste are involved in erecting the struc- tures, and fuel is consumed to heat, cool and otherwise operate them. Architecture may be responsible for nearly half of Americas energy consumption.

The LEED Rating System Checklist, launched in 2000, grades buildingspri- marily commercial ones on the sustain- ability of their materials, their heating and cooling effi ciency, control of storm water runoff, and other criteria. New or retrofi t- ted buildings amass points on the checklist and are then designated as platinum, gold, silver or simply certifi ed [see box on page 58]. Owners must fi le an application with the USGBC that includes building blue-

prints 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 opera- tions have not changed.

Critics complain that the system can be gamed to garner the wonderful-sounding public relations that LEED certifi cation often generates. By erecting a single green building, huge companies can gain consid- erable media attention (BPs 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 osten- sibly 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 ad- vise how best to leverage the ratings can push costs beyond $100,000. The USGBC notes that consultants are not required, al- though having a LEED-accredited profes- sional on the design team earns a point. The larger denunciation is that the pro-

LEEDing? Constructing buildings to the LEED standard can conserve energy and materialsor be exploited for promotional gain

By Daniel Brook

w w w . S c i A m E a r t h 3 . c o m 55



56 S c i e n t i f i c A m e r i c a n E a r t h 3 . 0

gram is myopic, trained so intently on spe- cifi c design features of individual buildings that it misses the big picturesuch as the odd notion that a gasoline station can be good for the environment.

Nevertheless, LEEDs growth has been astounding. In 2001 just 93 projects regis- tered with LEED; in 2007 almost 5,500 did. Several cities now require LEED cer- tifi cation 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 LEEDs growth renders its loopholes even more se-

rious, however. Of late, LEED offi cials have been listening, instituting a series of reforms that should better limit global warming and reward smart growth over sprawl.

Still, the programs staffers want credit for putting green architecture on the na- tional agenda. My parents know what a green building is now, says Scot Horst, chairman of the programs national steer- ing committee.

Missing the Point LEEDs toughest critics tend to be archi- tects who went green before green was cool. They feel the programs narrow- minded focus on a checklist leads to unin- spired architecture that is not as environ- mentally friendly as it could be. They also see the program as reducing architects to mere technicians, devaluing the artistic, in- tellectual and civic aspects of the work that drew many of them to the profession.






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Douglas Kelbaugh of the University of Michigan thinks LEED certification can distract planners from designing more energy-efficient buildings.

A green blueprint: When Douglas Kelbaugh designed the new wing being added to the school of architecture at the University of Michigan at Ann Ar- bor, where he is a professor, he opted to skip LEED certifi cation. The building will nonetheless include a variety of active and passive features for reduc- ing its fossil-fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production. In effect, the university chose to invest the $100,000 cost of LEED compliance in other improvements to the new struc- tures energy effi ciency.



w w w . S c i A m E a r t h 3 . c o m 57

Longtime green architect Bob Nalls in Philadelphia is one such conscientious ob- jector who refuses to take the test to be- come a LEED-accredited professional. Nalls says the checklist system lulls archi- tects 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 sun- light might drive up air-conditioning de- mand. To say Im going to be able to an- swer 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 rela- tions payoff. Auden Schendler, executive director of community and environmental responsibility at the Aspen Skiing Compa- ny, calls it point mongering. When youre basically focusing on how to get the most points versus whats 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-dol- lar environmentally sensitive heating sys- tem each worth one point.

Schendler says this kind of LEED brain thinking occurs when builders are more concerned with certifi cation than helping the environment. For example, he worked on a project where the design team weighed the merits of installing a refl ec-

tive 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 ef- fect that raises air-conditioning demand. But for this projectlocated 8,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains even the blackest roof had little risk of cre- ating a heat island. Should a green builder cynically go for the point anyway?

Some of green architectures biggest be- lievers simply dont play the game. Doug- las Kelbaugh, a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who is overseeing a large addition to one of the schools main buildings, does not plan to submit it for certifi cation. 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 were talking about, Kelbaugh says. Instead of spending an es- timated $100,000 on LEED, he maintains, it makes more sense to spend that $100,000 on photovoltaics or better win- dows or insulation. Kelbaugh is building the addition atop an existing school build- ing, the greenest possible site because it consumes no new land. As a result, how- ever, were not eligible for any landscap- ing credits from LEED, he notes.

Kelbaugh is actually designing to what he says is a smarter standard, the Ameri- can Institute of Architectss 2030 Chal- lenge. The programs goal is to foster new buildings that by 2010 have half the car-

bon footprint of other structures in their area and that by 2030 are carbon-free or carbon-neutral . (The USGBC does en- dorse the Challenges goals.) He asserts that the program is simpler, its free, and it focuses on the sweet spot of reducing carbon footprint. By adding photovoltaic cells to the roof during the next two de- cades, the school will take the addition off the power grid by 2030, Kelbaugh says . That move is particularly important in southeastern Michigan, where most elec- tricity is generated by heavily polluting coal-fi red power plantsthe kind of fac- tor that is beyond the vision of an architect who is designing only to LEED.

Faced with criticism, LEED is making improvements and is planning more. Although it still uses the checklist, the USGBC revised its point system to disqual- ify any building that does not score at least two points for energy effi ciency. Horst says the next revision of the standards, due in 2009, will be weighted to give even more importance to features that reduce global






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Scot Horst of the LEED program maintains that it put sustainability on the national agenda. My parents know what a green building is now, he says.


LEED projects


Rising popularity: In 2001 just 93 projects registered with LEED; in 2007 almost 5,500 did.



58 S c i e n t i f i c A m e r i c a n E a r t h 3 . 0

Innovation in Design (5 pts) Innovation in design 14

LEED-accredited professional 1

Sustainable Site (14 possible pts) Prerequisite: construction activity pollution prevention

Site selection 1

Development density and community connectivity 1

Brownfi eld (contaminated site) redevelopment 1

Alternative transportation: Low-emitting and fuel-effi cient vehicles 1

Bicycle storage and changing rooms 1 Public transportation access 1 Parking capacity 1

Site development: Protect or restore habitat 1

Maximize open space 1

Stormwater design: Quantity control 1,

Quality control 1

Heat-island effect: No roof 1, Roof 1,

Light pollution reduction 1


Winning Points: Builders must take specific steps to gain certification. LEED awards points for various green features, from materials wisely

used to

energy and water effi ciency. Extra credits can be gained for innovat ion in

design. A total of 69 points is possible. Every building must meet the prereq-

uisites in each category, then compile enough other points to achieve certifi –

cation. A building that earns 26 to 32 points is declared certifi ed; 33 to 38

points earns a silver certifi cation; 39 to 51 a gold; and 52 to 69 a plat inum.

Sustainable Site (14 possible points) Prerequisite: Construction activity pollution prevention ! Site Selection 1 ! Development Density and

Community Connectivity 1

! Brownfi eld (Contaminated Site) Redevelopment 1 Alternative Transportation:

! Public-transportation access 1 ! Bicycle storage and changing rooms 1 ! Low-emitting and fuel-effi cient vehicles 1 ! Parking capacity 1

Site Development: ! Protect or restore habitat 1 ! Maximize open space 1

Storm Water Design: ! Quantity control 1 ! Quality control 1

Heat-Island Effect: ! Non-roof 1 ! Roof 1 ! Light-Pollution Reduction 1

Water Effi ciency (5 points) Water-Effi cient Landscaping:

! Reduce by 50% 1 ! No potable use or no irrigation 1

! Innovative Wastewater Technologies 1

Water-Use Reduction: ! 20% reduction 1 ! 30% reduction 1

Energy and Atmosphere (17 points) Prerequisites: Fundamental commissioning of the building energy systems; minimum energy performance; fundamental refrigerant management ! Optimize Energy Performance 110

(2 points mandatory)

! On-Site Renewable Energy 13

! Enhanced Commissioning 1

! Enhanced Refrigerant Management 1

! Measurement and Verifi cation 1

! Green Power 1

Materials and Resources (13 points) Prerequisite: Storage and collection of recyclables

Building Reuse: ! Maintain 75% of existing walls,

fl oors and roof 1 ! Maintain 95% of existing walls,

fl oors and roof 1 ! Maintain 50% of interior

nonstructural elements 1

Construction Waste Management: ! Divert 50% from disposal 1 ! Divert 75% from disposal 1

Materials Reuse: ! 5% 1 ! 10% 1

Recycled Content: ! 10% postconsumer + 50% preconsumer 1 ! 20% postconsumer + 50% preconsumer 1

Regional Materials: ! 10% 1 ! 20% 1 ! Rapidly Renewable Materials 1

! Certifi ed Wood 1

Indoor Environmental Quality (15 points) Prerequisites: Minimum indoor air quality (IAQ) performance; environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) control ! Outdoor Air-Delivery Monitoring 1

! Increased Ventilation 1

Construction IAQ Management Plan: ! During construction 1 ! Before occupancy 1

Low-Emitting Materials: ! Adhesives and sealants 1 ! Paints and coatings 1 ! Carpet systems 1 ! Composite wood and agrifi ber products 1

! Indoor Chemical and Pollutant Source Control 1

Controllability of Systems: ! Lighting 1 ! Thermal comfort 1

Thermal Comfort: ! Design 1 ! Verifi cation 1

Daylight and Views: ! Daylight for 75% of spaces 1 ! Views for 90% of spaces 1

Innovation in Design (5 points) ! Innovation in Design 14

! LEED-Accredited Professional 1

Total Possible Points: 69

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warming. For example, the ability to rack up energy-effi ciency points will be nearly doubled, and the payoff for access to pub- lic 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 spe- cifi c to regions of the country, so that Phoe- nix builders are more focused on water conservation and architects in the Rockies arent bound by the same heat-island stan- dards as those in Atlanta. To combat LEED brain, the USGBC has already add- ed a kind of wild-card category for innova- tion in design that allows points for envi- ronmental 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. Environ- mental Protection Agency. The initiative is in a pilot phase and will launch next year. Developers will submit plans for en- tire neighborhoods for certifi cation. The new program tacitly concedes that saving the world one building at a time does little to change how an areas buildings are laid out and how people move among them. The standards will reward density, transit accessibility and how well the neighbor- hood fi ts 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, its not go- ing 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 LEEDs acknowledg- ment that density matters, pointing out that the average urban home consumes half as much energy as the average subur- ban home and signifi cantly less energy than a suburban green home. An urban green home is the most effi cient of all, of course, but his larger point is that even green sprawl isnt 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 av- erage Londoner.

The LEED-ND pilot program offers credits for enabling every form of alterna- tive transportationfor bike lanes, walk- able 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 pat- terns are very diffi cult 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 archi-

tecture 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 fi t- ting into a one-size-fi ts-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 proj- ect 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.

Still, the professor sees improvements in the standards and regards the widespread adoption of LEED as a positive trend. What started as voluntary becomes man- datory, 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 nations 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 friend- ly country remains an open question.

Daniel Brook has written on architec- ture for Harpers, Metropolis and the online magazine Slate and is author of The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afl oat in Winner-Take-All America (2007).

For Houses, Too? The U.S. Green Business Council released a LEED system for individual homes this past January in hopes of encouraging architects to design dwellings that use less energy, water and natural resources. Homeowners would ostensibly save money by living in a more effi cient structure. Details can be found at








Bigger concept: Las Vegas is redeveloping the old Union Park section downtown so it will have min imal environmental impact and qualify for a neighborhood-wide standard known as LEED-ND.

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