I have never been the type of person to enthusiastically join organizations. Whether it was a fraternity in college, business association, church, or country club, I always saw my membership as limiting my involvement in other groups. As is often the case, these groups tend to influence their members to adhere to their guiding principles and to compete with, rather than accept similar organizations that share compatible philosophies. This jaded viewpoint of mine has fueled a healthy skepticism that enables me to see through the groupthink dogma that is associated with even very highly revered institutions. One such organization that has received glowing praise over the past 12 years is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) that was established by the USGBC.
I think it is time for the construction industry to wake up and begin to think for ourselves again. Too many design and building professionals have drunk the LEED Kool-Aid and have lost their independence. What was originally drafted as an excellent format to realign our priorities towards energy efficiency and environmental stewardship has morphed into a strict guideline that is limiting creativity and compromising common sense in construction. Developers, architects, and contractors who have been challenged by the economic climate have embraced LEED as a means of differentiation. Others have jumped onto the bandwagon just so they wouldn’t be left behind. Now we have a massive fraternity of lemmings, blindly applying their points and paying their dues so they can add four letters to their business card and promote their projects in the marketplace.
It is difficult to be critical of a program like LEED and an organization like the USGBC. This program has had a profound effect on realigning priorities in the construction industry at a time when the United States needed to take serious action in changing the energy consumption and resource utilization of the built environment. By focusing the design community on five main categories of sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality, LEED has had a positive effect on influencing the industry to pay attention to a positive set of guidelines. But over the past couple of years, the LEED program has lost its effectiveness. The industry is tuned into the concept of stewardship and doesn’t need a Martha Stewart recipe for responsible design. And the USGBC leadership has morphed into a capitalistic juggernaut.
Architects, general contractors, manufacturers, forests, distributors, and owners have spent millions of dollars a year to secure and maintain certification in this club. The minimum cost for membership is now $1,500 for a small firm and the cost for manufacturers is staggering. USGBC annual revenues have ballooned to over $107 million dollars and the organization has registered a profit of just under $15 million. Not bad for a non-profit organization. They also have an astounding 36% of revenues allocated to administrative expenses and membership development costs. I tip my hat to the founders for being able to generate such a money making machine in the construction industry during the worst economic times since the great depression. Unfortunately, the immense wealth being amassed by the USGBC is tainting its mission in the same way money has undermined the character of professional sports. For example, the USGBC shelved a much needed revision to the LEED code last year either because of inertia or because of paybacks from contributing groups like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
And the membership costs levied by the venerable USGBC are just part of the equation. In the pursuit of gaining a Platinum status, the entire construction team is burdened by a massive documentation process that audits the intent of the project. The red tape involved in a LEED project makes our government look streamlined. Thousands of hours are spent on a typical project just to track and collect paperwork to justify behavior and intent. Many material costs are also increased because of the perceived value of the LEED certification. For example, we have seen FSC certified wood run 20% higher than the same wood from the same forest without the official certification paperwork. Do we really need to be adding nonsensical administrative costs to the construction process at this moment?
A single program is not capable of satisfying all our challenges in commercial construction. As the USGBC behemoth has grown over the past ten years, its followers have accepted the guidelines without consideration of whether there was a better way. Only recently have we seen opposition to some of the LEED claims and requirements. Henry Gifford has made a compelling argument that the energy saving claims made by USGBC are more a result of manipulating numbers than creating structures that are more energy efficient than the existing stock of buildings. The States of Maine and Georgia have made progress in striking down USGBC requirements of using strictly FSC certified lumber since this eliminates a high percentage of sustainable lumber found in the United States. And in the past year, the Department of Defense abandoned the LEED program for a code based upon ASHRE 189.1. Preservationists are also making compelling arguments to pay attention to the embodied energy of a building rather than replace all elements in the pursuit of superior R Value.
So I ask the design community to regain your independence. Don’t be beholden to a program that is tantamount to a 12-step program for responsible construction. The basis of your design should be predicated upon your inspiration and guided by the owner’s desires, intended use, budget, and presence in the community. Use your common sense rather than a checklist that gives you extra points for bike racks and preferred parking spots for battery powered cars. As was once said by Frank Lloyd Wright, “There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.”