Why Does the US Green Building Council Seem So Out of Touch?

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Yesterday I read a short interview with Rick Fedrizzi,* the CEO of the US Green Building Council (USGBC), and it got me to thinking about that organization. They're probably the largest, most well known green building organization in the world. Their flagship program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is likewise probably the largest, most well known green building program in the world. Many in the building science and green building community, however, think the organization and the program are off-track.

If you go to their website and read about them, they sound great:

We believe in better buildings; places that complement our environment and enhance our communities. Places that give people better, brighter, healthier spaces to live, work and play.

They see a huge problem—bad buildings—and have proposed solutions. The LEED program has as its objective to change the way we design, construct, and commission buildings to save energy, be more sustainable, and make the occupants happier. These are all good things.

The problems with the USGBC and LEED

If you know anything about the organization, you've probably heard that Henry Gifford filed a lawsuit against them a couple of years ago. You may also know that Joe Lstiburek, the godfather of building science, has been highly critical as well. In a recent article, Lstiburek wrote, "the LEED fascists made things difficult and unworkable."

What are the knocks against the USGBC and LEED? Mainly:

  • All-glass buildings
  • Questionable energy savings, primarily because they're all-glass
  • Too expensive
  • Excessive documentation

On the all-glass front, Lstiburek spoke here in Atlanta a few years ago and showed how buildings evolved to better and better USGBC, US Green Building Council, all-glass boxes, Torontothermal performance over the millenia...and then regressed once we started building glass boxes. Many new LEED certified buildings are glass boxes.

My April Fool's Day article this year was US Green Building Council to Require All-Glass LEED Homes. A surprising number of people believed it was true! Even some people who should have known better fell for it. A few believed it all the way through to the end, despite my made-up window USGBC spokesperson, Crystal Payne, saying things like, "...as it turns out, saving energy just isn't that important." What does this say about the USGBC?

It costs a lot of money to get LEED certification for commercial buildings and for single-family homes. When I was studying for the LEED AP exam in 2004, I read about how the extra costs upfront would be paid back in energy savings and productivity. But what about those LEED certified buildings that don't show the energy savings? To be fair, the costs for multifamily, affordable housing projects are said to be quite reasonable, and even Lstiburek has said that the LEED for Homes program doesn't have the problems that the commercial buildings program has.

Documentation of everything is required for LEED certification: Chain-of-custody for sustainably grown forest products, receipts for waste disposal, VOC levels in paints, color of the drywall hanger's socks, and much more. (OK, they haven't added sock color...yet.) It's so burdensome that one LEED Green Rater I know says that a lot of his LEED projects never get certified because the builders just can't manage to track all the documents.

Evidence that the USGBC is out of touch

If you go to the About USGBC page on their website, they brag about their own headquarters in Washington, DC. In a sidebar titled, Leading by example, they list the 'green' features of their building. The first one is, "floor-to-ceiling glass windows that offer abundant natural lighting." The second one is even better: "a two-story waterfall that brings the outdoors in and helps control indoor humidity." Really! I hadn't realized that DC was such a dry climate.

Back to that interview with Fedrizzi, though. In it, he was asked what are the latest technologies for homes. His first answer: "You have the tankless water heater that basically on demand heats water for your entire house, only when you need it."

Tankless water heaters?! This isn't new technology, first of all. I've known about them since the '80s. Second, tankless water heaters would be further down the list than many other things. In water heating, I'd put water heating drain water heat recovery power pipedrain-water heat recovery and heat pump water heaters above tankless. At the top of my latest technology list, though, would be mini-split heat pumps.

When asked about commercial buildings, Fedrizzi responded: "The glass industry is changing exponentially. There are companies in Silicon Valley that are actually putting invisible solar collectors into the glass, so every glass building will be able to generate almost its own energy."

Let's ignore the silliness of his statement about how the "glass industry is changing exponentially." Oh, OK. It's hard to ignore something so ridiculous, isn't it? People like to use the word 'exponential' without understanding what it even means, and that appears to be the case here. He's just trying to sound sophisticated but this just comes off as silly.

Maybe he's been talking to some really smart engineers who have this figured out, but I don't see how such a building could really generate "almost [all of] its own energy." A lot of this energy generating glass would not get much direct solar gain and thus could hardly be cost-effective (unless it's way cheaper than I imagine). If it's a glass box, there will still be a lot of heat loss and heat gain, and at night that's all that the glass will do for you.  Oh, wait. Glass at night would take away any privacy. Guess they forgot that naked people need building science.

If you ran a cost-effectiveness analysis on such a building and compared it to a building with a more reasonable glazing ratio that had a decent amount of insulated walls, I can't imagine that the energy generating glass box would win. What am I missing, Rick?

Can't we make this work?

I really want to believe in the USGBC and LEED. They've done an amazing job at creating demand for a label that many people don't even know the meaning of (and often mistakenly call LEEDS). I just don't think they do enough good to justify the amount of money that goes toward the certification.

One of the complaints I hear the most from builders and trade contractors is that they'd like to see the money that goes toward program verification and certification instead go to the labor and materials in the building itself. I think that view goes too far, but their point is a valid one. When certification becomes so expensive that you can't do some of the great things with a building that you'd like to do, or you do them and the building becomes too expensive, then perhaps the expensive program needs to recalibrate.

There is certainly a need for certification programs and third party verification. They need to be grounded, affordable, and realistic, however. LEED is not. Fedrizzi is out of touch. The USGBC needs to recalibrate.


* Tip of the hat to Martin Holladay, the Energy Nerd of Green Building Advisor for tweeting the link to article yesterday. In some ways, he's more of a curmudgeon than the Green Buildling Curmudgeon himself.


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Photo of Rick Fedrizzi in a glass box by Stephen Dunn.


T.C. Feick
Oct 22 2012 - 9:00am

Allison, I agree with your sentiments that USGBC could do better, especially in a leadership role on issues as important as energy efficiency and inclusion of all stakeholders in the development process of the guidelines. Programs that are inclusive, affordable, effective, and understandable will hopefully win the day; maybe this will be LEED, maybe something better.

Mike Rogers
Oct 22 2012 - 9:48am

I do agree with the main point and vast majority of the arguments here.  
One nitpicking opening for rebuttal: 
"Glass at night would take away any privacy." 
That's not completely up-to-date. New dynamic glass can not only change visible light transmission characteristics, but it can also change emissivity to encourage or inhibit heat flow. 
Of course, even this isn't a magic bullet nor an argument in favor of all glass buildings!

William Jose
Oct 22 2012 - 9:55am

I get it that you would want to make comments about the LEED program. A program of that magnitude surely has areas that can be improved. Until you really start thinking "what would I do instead?  
It's much easier to pick at the pieces and question them than it is put together and promote the whole.  
The fact is there is much more energy towards green building solutions and a whole lot more awareness now because of the USGBC programs. USGBC has been a group that helped all of us as professionals- just through consumer awareness. Your ductless split system comments are valid. we promote these when we can. Regarding the comment on tank less installs, it is equally true that more people are willing to "replace" something with something better vs abandoning a duct system and starting over...there is equal credit to be given for his comment for appealing to masses and then taking the time to demonstrate other ideas individually.  
Fair is fair- just my opinion.

Tapani Talo
Oct 22 2012 - 11:07am

In numerous conferences in US I feel like I am sitting in a time warp 70's rather than 2012. It is hard to believe what I hear form so called EXPERTS, and even worse from the audience. Any building that has a base energy utilization less than 90% better than current code, without LEED for instance. Just basics will do this. Then add solar and geothermal, and then we are in 21st century

Allison Bailes
Oct 22 2012 - 11:16am

T.C. Feick: I also hope such programs win the day. 
Mike R.: Yes, I know there's high-tech glass that can do a lot of things that standard glass cannot, including the blocking of visible light and heat. I still find it hard to believe that expensive glass could ever justify a 100% glazing ratio.  
William J.: Fair enough. I was hoping someone would step up and defend the USGBC. Yes, I agree that they've created a lot of awareness about green building. But awareness has to be followed by smart action. Sending everyone out to buy tankless water heaters is not smart, in my opinion. 
I guess the thing that bothers me most is that people who don't even know what the program is about want a LEED certified building or home just because the name's got a lot of buzz. But is the program truly cost-effective? Or is it more akin to the dot-com bubble of the '90s. Remember the Internet startups with their office jacuzzis and fur-lined tea sets? The USGBC's glass box with a 2-story waterfall kinda reminds me of that. 
To answer your first question, I have indeed started thinking about what I would do instead. I've written two articles about it here in the Energy Vanguard Blog: 
What Would a "Pretty Good House" Look Like? Part 1 
The Pretty Good House, Part 2 
It's time to do another, I think.

William Jose
Oct 22 2012 - 12:01pm

First, I do not doubt your intentions. I enjoy and share many of your articles. You do plenty for our industry- keep up the good work!  
Second, and more to the point...it's awesome that you and many of us have the technical and professional talents that enable the writing of articles like you did (and do)  
Putting those ideas into a wholesale plan with wide scale usage is a much different arena. Without some questioning of status quo I know there would be little change- understood. I think the challenge that USGBC has overcome is in main streaming a green concept, promoting voluntary change, and giving a platform for folks to use a measurable plan. Granted, there are places where improvement can be found... no doubt. One of the drawbacks about a group that has gotten as large and attractive as USGBC could be compared to the analogy of a stopping a cruise ship... Us speed boats can turn on a dime and change direction quickly...A vessel as large as a cruise ship takes lots of time and careful planning by design.  
A great place for leadership would be how do we spend some energy in how (vs what) to affect positive change. Thanks!

Art Musselman
Oct 22 2012 - 12:50pm

So there you have it. The Who launched the green building movement in 1970 when they recorded and released their "Live at LEEDS" album. ;-)

Ken Bailes
Oct 22 2012 - 1:47pm

All Glass Homes! That blows away the all time favorite of hide and seek! Now an all glass car is really where the R&D; should be heading next. "No more texting and driving!" lol. Half the battle is everyday spreading the positives for all of living a greener tomorrow. Is "greener" a word? Just does not look right.

David Butler
Oct 22 2012 - 2:49pm

Great article, Allison. The problem I have with LEED/USGBC is that, like much of the green building movement, it's driven by mostly by manufacturers, to serve their own interests, and secondarily by architects, whose interests may be more altruistic, but not necessarily in the best interests of the environment.  
At least from an energy efficiency perspective, it seems that much more emphasis is needed on monitoring to find out what works and what doesn't. So much of what drives the high performance building industry is based on perception rather than reality.

George Reynolds
Oct 22 2012 - 3:08pm

Buildings, really? I thought we were headed for the electronic cottage age. Why would you build mega-anything, when most of the brick and mortar buildings are vacant.  
On the other hand it would be a definite benefit to focus sustainable technology on industry where inefficiency is an excepted write off as "cost of business". Just get the IRS to limit these deductions to energy sources that exclude fossil fuels. Now that would be a turnaround.  

Bill Smith
Oct 22 2012 - 3:31pm

The USGBC has established their own orthodoxy and my opinion is that they are creating their own feedback loop that is increasingly closed to outside influence. The result is exactly the same as with builders who continue with what they have always done because it's working. The attitude is we've done the hard work, here we are at the top. 
I don't think this is anything other than a very human trait that we can all fall prey to. In that sense it is yet another object lesson we should pay attention to. The USGBC should be listening to, and welcoming ideas from those outside their inner circle. 
The main weakness of the LEED concept is that they are not pushing science, they are pushing "Green", which is an opinion. Even sustainability still a nebulous concept that doesn't have a true measure. 
Of course this is just MY opinion so assign the value to it that you will;-)

John Proctor
Oct 22 2012 - 4:47pm

When people come to me and ask if they should go the LEED route, I tell them no. I basicaly agree with Bill Smith's statement: 
"The main weakness of the LEED concept is that they are not pushing science, they are pushing "Green", which is an opinion." 
I on the other hand would say they are pushing FLUFF. I am annoyed that fluff continues to trump science.

Michael Anschel
Oct 22 2012 - 5:14pm

I was so excited to read this post! The headline was so spot on. Then I saw the Gifford reference and knew the post was in trouble. A little further with the Joe reference and I was worried.  
LEED is a green building program and for all of the USGBC's many flaws, the green component is not one of them. It may frustrate those in the energy industry to not see energy as the number one or even number two issue here, but that would be expecting them to understand the much large and more important role that LEED and the USGBC play. 
The USGBC is out of touch. The LEED products are painful and expensive. Unfortunately, this post gets distracted and loses touch with the point. 

Pat Murphy
Oct 22 2012 - 5:27pm

I refer you to the May 8, 2012 hearing by the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight on Green Building Rating Systems. Even Congress can see there is something lacking in Leed.  
You note: "I really want to believe in the USGBC and LEED. They've done an amazing job at creating demand for a label that many people don't even know the meaning of (and often mistakenly call LEEDS)." 
Why? One could argue that Phillip Morris created demand for a label.  
The major theme of LEED and USGBC is "You don't have to spend much more money to be green:. Unfortunately you have to spend money to reduce CO2 from buildings. 

David T Williams, PE
Oct 22 2012 - 7:02pm

In our marketplace we just don't see many of the glass boxes you speak of. I don't disagree that there is a disconnect between the DC and those doing the work, but spend some time with the local chapters and look at the interaction and sharing of what works and what doesn't at the grassroots as we all try and raise the bar.  
From an energy modeler's point of view, it kind of gets like Joe says, if it's in the "book" then it must be right. The kind of auditor's POV is crazy when the energy models are at best within 5% of reality. Scratching around for that last 1/10th of a percent of "inaccuracy" in the model doesn't make the building any better. (now that being said, for our projects, where one might spend $30-40K to get LEED certified definitely adds many times that value to the project through people just plain paying more attention to what they are doing, something that just doesn't happen without the stick of LEED)(plus when someone says they want to put more money into the project, they probably just want nicer furniture!)

Oct 22 2012 - 7:20pm

Great blog. I was beginning to think it was just me! I took a LEEDS study course to prepare for the Green Associate exam and decided not to take the test. It seemed (to me) to be re-hash of ideas from the 70s mixed with generic technology aimed at a mostly affluent urban audience. I guess that in itself doesn't make it a bad thing, but it has an elitist feel to it.

Oct 23 2012 - 12:37am

You just love to be on the edge of a lawsuit Allison! During the Gifford "thing" I saw a post somewhere between to lawyers that USGBC has lots of cash, he had the actual amount. And they must have lots of lawyers. I don't want to have to do the donation thing again :) Which brings up a question ...

Jerry Pollard
Oct 23 2012 - 5:20am

Good blog. Unfortunately none of us do well at moral excellence (building by conviction) and have to be "monitored" by others. Some seem to think they are above the human dilemma, but it always come full circle.

Glen Gallo
Oct 23 2012 - 10:12am

Great Article. I think USGBC should be applauded for their putting the concept out there branding label. I first looked into the program many years ago and decided it was not for me. At that time the focus was commercial buildings which is not my target market. It seems to me they should drop the energy out of the acronym because it does not seem to be their strong point. As you examine their points it appears to focus on the carbon footprint of the building process but not so much its life cycle energy use. It focuses on the health of the occupants and provides great insight on design from a holistic approach. Really although they promote energy savings it seems to be often overlooked. I am not an AP but have taken several classes my  
guess is somewhere in the 80 hour mark or more. I like LEED and the USGBC. I admire the great luxury liner from the shore is it glides into its future. I am interested in where it will travel. I am however not on board

Chuck Lohre
Oct 23 2012 - 8:59pm

The USGBC didn't build that building. They leased the space for ten years. I received LEED Platinum on my office project for $9,549. I you take out the $3500 pellet stove and the LEED fees it was done for $4 per square foot. The documentation is simple and straight forward. I'm working on another possible LEED Project now and it was very enjoyable to learn eQUEST and apply it to the Energy and Atmosphere Credit 1. It's a great program and I'd like more people to be encouraged to look into it and learn about high performance buildings that don't cost a lot. Thanks for your article.

Oct 24 2012 - 11:22am

I completely agree! LEED is a boutique certification that only the wealthy can afford. The benefits are hard to justify considering the costs.  
You spoke about burdensome documentation. What about the convoluted (and expensive) process to become a LEED AP (or is it LEED Pro or Green Rater, or is it something else???). I looked into it a while ago and couldn't figure out the proper path. The only thing that was certain was a large pricetag.

Leigha Dickens
Oct 25 2012 - 11:30am

Allison--your statement "the thing that bothers me about LEED is that people who don't even know what the program is about want a LEED certified building or home just because the name has buzz" resonates with me. One the one hand, I think at least trying to go green and jump in on the buzz is better than not trying to be green at all and props to LEED for being the vehicle that has pushed green building into more of the mainstream. On the other hand, I get frustrated by the ofttimes bureaucratic nature of the standard itself--especially when I see folks dropping it because the cost and paperwork are more than they were really bargaining for.  
There is an idea out there to just build to LEED standards without getting certified, because of the perception that although healthier materials and improved energy efficiency can pay itself back, certification paperwork itself is just a sunk cost. I seem to recall that at one point my city council was pushing that for new city buildings--not sure what ever came of that. Since a heck of a lot of LEED is funky calculations and paperwork, I don't know how that ends up going in practice. 
Regardless, I see LEED as a decent but frustrating tool for considering the sustainability of a building on multiple environmental fronts. If energy is all you care about, other paths like net-zero or Energy Stare are probably way less frustrating. I'd be curious if you Allison or anybody else here had suggestions for a tool that's better than LEED for considering environmental issues like water efficiency, land use, erosion, etc, that aren't just energy consumption?

Leigha Dickens
Oct 25 2012 - 11:32am

Make that "Energy Star." I'd hate to think of what the "Energy Stare For Homes" program would be like! Lots of staring at your power meter and willing it to advance less quickly...

Nov 9 2012 - 4:01pm

I worked with an architect who was taking an old block building and renovating it into offices. Lots of discussion about meeting fresh air requirements with windows, and sizing of equipment. Other companies had recommended 2 rooftop units, 12 and 8 ton. Also recommended was gas water heater with recirc to the bathrooms at either end of the building.  
The partner liked my plan better. 2 4 ton hybrids, 2 energy recovery ventilation units, and small electric on demand water heaters.  
They eventually abandoned the attempt to get LEED certification. One problem was the building's consumption was less than 50% of what the LEED model suggested. Even though 100% of their energy buy is "renewable", they couldn't meet the 50% of modeled requirement.  
They were not interested in following the AP suggestion of leaving windows open and lights on to drive consumption up to 50% of modeled.  

Nov 17 2012 - 9:05am

I tried LEED for Homes in affordable housing which turned out to be an oxymoron. Since we were targeted the EPA High Performance building program we met the performance goals so LEED was really just about feeding the consultant a ton of paperwork and essentially they were paid to upload it but as the developer I felt like I did all the work and most of it off work hours because it was so burdensome. I felt too that the consultants have no incentive to make sure you get certified despite being very nice people. So I agree this program needs to be reconsidered, become more realistic and streamlined and come back to its collaborative roots.

Nov 17 2012 - 9:10am

I say Energy Star creates a durable, energy efficient, comfortable home, add Indoor Air quality plus and you're covered. Perhaps USBGC could also do more advocacy for the greenest buildings at the high end as part of their home niche and focus on commercial buildings otherwise; the original goal I thought was to assure all buildings are built and operate green. We have a long way to go!

Skye Dunning
Nov 17 2012 - 8:45pm

Yes, all the focus on glass is a surprise, since concrete is a USGBC "certified" green material. 
It's true that they've done a great amount to at least create awareness of what can/should be done. And it's not surprising that the program has had serious flaws. The surprising thing to me is how long it has stayed that way. It's certainly much better than it was a few years ago, but still a long way to go.