The Complex Issue of Green Building Certifications: Is LEED No Longer Relevant?

Green BuildingCertification schemes have grown in popularity as businesses race to build a profile as good corporate citizens. But, as recent developments in the construction industry suggest, this approach to corporate social responsibility may be more complicated, more costly and less effective than it needs to be.

Growing doubts have surfaced about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, hitherto the gold standard of sustainable building for everything from warehouses and factories to office buildings and apartments. So successful has LEED certification been that it is has become the backbone for most municipal building standards across the country.

But signs of a backlash are growing. The City of Ottawa’s environment committee recommended last month that City council remove LEED certification as a requirement for all buildings over 5,400 square feet, attempting to repeal a regulation that has been in place since 2005.

The recommendation came out of frustration over the cost and time LEED certification was taking. As it stands, there are 14 newly completed buildings in Ottawa still waiting for approval from Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), the administrator of LEED certification in Canada, according to a November 2012 report by the city’s infrastructure services department. CaGBC disputes this, saying it has only received three building applications for review.

Whether it’s three buildings or 14, there’s a bigger question being asked that goes well beyond Ottawa: is LEED more of a hassle than it’s worth? And are there other options?

You can get points for things that aren’t necessarily making a better building.

LEED seeks to reduce environmental damage by setting standards for building practices that use energy and water more efficiently, reduce emissions and create healthier environments for a buildings’ occupants —with non-toxic materials, better air quality and more natural light.

boma bestAn array of competing certification systems has popped up in recent years. BOMA BESt (Building Environmental Standards) is the Canadian adaptation of Green Globes, an online environmental assessment and rating system that competes with LEED. The Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada (BOMA Canada) offers four levels of certification for existing buildings in Canada.

BOMA is said to be a faster and less expensive process than LEED. First, the application can be completed by building owners or managers online and “doesn’t require as much outside assistance” as LEED, says John Smiciklas, director of Energy and Environment at BOMA Canada. Second, BOMA requires less consultation time because it’s more of a checklist for applicants to complete themselves. Where LEED certification requires third party consultants to be part of the design, build and audit process, BOMA doesn’t apply to new buildings and only has a third party check the operating data provided by the applicant.

For an average downtown Toronto office building, BOMA certification would cost about $3,000 to $4,000, says Smiciklas, whereas LEED applicants can expect to spend upwards of $100,000 in fees for a gold or platinum office building in Toronto, says Donald Schmitt, a principal at Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects.

To LEED’s credit, it created a benchmark for sustainable construction where none existed before. The LEED plaque and silver, gold and platinum designations have been a powerful incentive for developers and builders. And LEED is credited with pushing product manufacturers to provide greener building supplies to meet demand at less of a premium.

“It’s valuable because it provides a simple answer to a complicated question: Is your building green? Yes, no, a little bit or a lot?” says Doug Webber, green building practice leader with Halsall Engineers and Consultants’ Toronto office.

But builders and developers have made LEED standards increasingly irrelevant because the silver standards are baked into most major cities’ building codes. Most new buildings these days apply for gold or platinum.

“Initially people struggled with LEED silver – now it’s easily achieved with existing systems and technologies. LEED gold used to be at a cost premium, but it’s become much easier. LEED platinum remains a challenge, but is achievable,” says Mr Schmitt.  “You can get points for things that aren’t necessarily making a better building,” he says, citing the example of putting in a shower for people who bike to work. “LEED needs to push the industry harder,” he says.

People are just gaming the system.

Danny Harvey, professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, believes a lot of “people are just gaming the system” by simply asking, “How can I get the most points for doing the least?”

As the industry has caught up, critics say LEED has become all about the plaque, with not enough focus on energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction — the two most critical factors for reducing buildings’ environmental impact. Buildings alone are responsible for 35% of Canada’s overall carbon emissions, according to Industry Canada.

Two other certification options are increasingly seen as the future of sustainable building: One is the Passive House Standard, developed in Sweden and targeted at houses, apartment and condominium buildings. The other, Seattle-based Living Building Challenge is targeted at commercial developments.

Both of these newer and tougher processes focus on achieving “net zero” carbon emissions. They are popular in Europe where rising energy prices have led cities such as Brussels to require the Passive House Standard for all private and public buildings.

“Almost no heating is needed to keep [Passive House Standard] buildings warm. They are so efficient they use the heat from people, lighting and daylight. If there were a power-failure, [this type of construction] will mostly stay warm,” says Mr. Harvey

[LEED] is a useful metric that started to turn the ship, but “there’s no doubt we should be moving on.

The VanDusen Botanical Gardens’ new 19,000 square-foot, $22-million visitors centre in Vancouver was the first Canadian building to be awarded Living Building Challenge certification in 2011. The centre is entirely carbon- and energy-neutral and able to “generate its own energy, harvest and treat its own water and uses locally sourced, non-toxic materials,” in line with Living Building Challenge standards, according to BTY Group, the project management company that oversaw cost management for the project.

But VanDusen is the only building so far in Canada that has met the standards. Mr. Harvey admits neither of the two new certifications is easy to achieve. “[Passive House Standard] certification process is easy,” he says, “but the design and build process takes real skill. One sloppy step will completely blow your numbers.” It mandates heating-energy consumption under 15 kWh per square meter per year. Anything over that will preclude certification. So, “if a window’s installed incorrectly, you could get to 20 kWh and no certification,” he says.

“[LEED] is a useful metric that started to turn the ship,” says Schmitt, but “there’s no doubt we should be moving on.”

But LEED is unlikely to become obsolete any time soon, largely because it has the strongest brand in the market, and the corporate tenants and building owners fuelling much of the growth in the sustainable building industry want the credit for going green, says Mr. Webber.

These tenants, particularly, want a uniform benchmark across their whole business. LEED now offers certification in 120 countries and, “because the brands driving this are often international, LEED is familiar to them,” he says.

For a building industry still driven by clients seeking a plaque for recognition, adherence to a tougher building code or less onerous certification from lesser known entities are clearly risks bigger than many are willing to take.

This article was originally published in the National Post
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Ali Morrow
is currently a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs in the University of Toronto, and has written about Corporate Social Responsibility issues for the Globe and Mail and the National Post.

  • Mbrooks

    LEED is just a proxy for green. So is BOMA BEST (the higher levels). So are most global certifications (BREEAM, Green Star, Nabers). Sometimes the market doesn’t want details, just someone’s “Good Housekeeping” seal. Not perfect but a start. For those who want details, the metrics arethe  hard numbers: eKWH per square foot of building area per year (and the ’20 eKWH by 2015 target), litres or square metres of water consumer psf/year, waste diversion rates, benchmarked against best in class. UNEP SBCI was on this 3 years ago, and REALpac (www.realpac.ca) has just released its second “normalized” energy consumption benchmark. If you dont trust the proxy, get the hard numbers. Michael Brooks.

  • Tyler Elm

    LEED’s time and place has come and gone. It serves no purpose other than as a marketing platform. I recommend to my clients that they try to achieve the objectives of LEED, but not bother with the certification process. Also, LEED needs to be more inclusive and open up wood products beyond those certified by FSC. SFI and PEFC are complementary systems, and often superior. An inclusive approach to forest certification would promote competition among systems, thereby increasing environmental performance and reducing costs.

  • Mitchell_swann

    Sometime ago I wrote a little piece for our company newsletter (and I’ve been known to say this publicly as well) that posits that within the next 5 – 10 years we won’t be talking about ‘green’ buildings. There will be ‘buildings’ and ‘things we don’t do anymore’. As all corners of the industry start to drill down into performance measurement and verification – under whichever ‘certification’ program – the pudding will be the proof and as labeling systems gain traction, that proof will be traceable.