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KAID BENFIELD JAN 18, 2013
Trent Bell/Courtesy of NAHB
As most readers are likely to know, “LEED” (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a voluntary set of standards for judging and certifying green buildings. It was developed by the US Green Building Council, a consortium of industry (there are still formal requirements that certain segments of the building industry sit on the board) and environmental interests. The system is based on builder-applicants both meeting certain requirements (“prerequisites”) and earning a minimum number of points from a menu of optional building components or performance achievements (“credits”). Depending on the number of credits achieved, a qualified applicant may earn a rating and certification at one of four levels (certified, silver, gold, or platinum). More than 7000 buildings have been certified through LEED, a slim majority of them reportedly located outside the US. A number of my NRDC colleagues and partners have participated in the US Green Building Council and in volunteer committees related to LEED since its inception in 1998. My former colleague Rob Watson, LEED’s founding chairman, devoted so much time to the development of the system that he became known as “the father of LEED.” I devoted a huge chunk of my own time to developing a sort of sequel called LEED for Neighborhood Development, a partnership attempt to create standards that could define and encourage smart growth projects in the same way that the original LEED had defined and encouraged green buildings.
to the extent this criticism is well-placed. operates as a business and needs revenues to keep the system going. and energy has been saved. LEED has put green buildings on the map and institutionalized building performance measures shown to reduce resource consumption and pollution. although a non-profit. there are a lot of warts in this system.The New American Home 2013. more than any other single force. they won’t bother and there will be no environmental benefit. water. it stems from a belief held by many involved with the Green Building Council. The theory is that applicants will be more likely to adopt green measures if they perceive them to be well within their reach if they aim just a little bit higher. man. a lot of pollution has been avoided. and a lot of conditions protective of public health have been adopted because of LEED and because of the hard work of USGBC and their volunteers. . Warts in the system But. if difficulties in the standards or the process of application are too demanding. the feeling goes. LEED has been criticized for being insufficiently demanding of its applicants. I believe that. A lot of wood. It’s not much of a stretch to say that. that the standards should be set only a little bit above what industry is likely to do anyway. fewer potential applicants will be willing to pay the costs of documentation and formal review. For starters. some of them representatives of the building industry. otherwise. Another problem may be that USGBC.
LEED seems to think so. even if the underlying measure doesn’t result in a significant environmental improvement. 1. an applicant who employs a LEED “accredited professional” will score higher than one that does not. but not for actually giving employees bikes or heavy-duty locks. In particular. The two are not unrelated. when applying for a LEED-gold certification. This is ultragreen? Sadly. which might be more effective in encouraging cycling. in theory only for the very greenest of green buildings – is nearly three times the size of the average new American home? Would you be surprised to learn that it sits on a lot occupying two-thirds of an acre. supposedly super-green house being touted as “the new face of efficiency” even though it’s really a gigantic luxury house placed in a location where residents have no choice but to drive long distances to do anything. The result was that the building probably did use less water.A third charge leveled at the system is that LEED has become pro forma. but there is a belief that applicants and their consultants “game the system” by going after low-hanging fruit to rack up a good score. even if the applicant’s building is identical to one whose sponsor lacks accreditation. did you know that this latest LEED-Platinum home – the highest rating bestowed by the Green Building Council. LEED also gives a point for installing an outdoor bike rack. consuming nearly twice as much land as the average new-home lot in a US metro area? How about that it is located in a “gated community” on the far outskirts of Las Vegas (Mike Tyson is a fellow resident). presumably in a strategy to grab another water efficiency credit point. but at the cost of reducing workers’ access to drinking water.2 miles to the nearest transit stop? Or that its Walk Score is a miserable 38 out of a possible 100 points? . “The new face of efficiency” I recount this long-winded intro because my friend Lloyd Alter of the environmental website Treehugger has just written a terrific story about a new. which few seasoned cyclists in urban situations would risk using. I worked in a building that. of course. simply turned off its water fountains. LEED even gives a credit point for itself. more about earning points than achieving actual environmental performance.
721-square-foot home in a desert climate where the average high temperature in July is 104 degrees. the building uses that much less energy for heating and cooling than your run-of-the-mill 6.261 square feet of "outdoor living space. single-family home in 2011 was 2480 square feet. and extensive “water features.” says the article. receives a mere four and a half inches of water per year). . Nevada. The photos look wonderful. received an “emerald” certification from NAHB’s National Green Building Standard and. “Overall.The New American Home 2013. the exurb of Las Vegas where Marquis Seven Hills is located. itself a component of the master-planned Seven Hills development being built by Blue Heron Homes in Henderson.721 square feet of floor space. To my eyes. An article titled “The New Face of Efficiency” and posted on NAHB’s BuilderOnline website earlier this week lists over fifty of them. energy-efficient lighting. as noted. This one has 6. It’s called “The New American Home” and the idea is to celebrate and publicize the state of the art in American homebuilding. (Put a bit more candidly. The marketing tag for the Marquis enclave is "luxury without limits." I’ll grant that The New American Home 2013 is loaded with green bells and whistles. the home uses approximately 67 percent less energy for heating and 83 percent less energy for coolingcompared to a similar home in the same climate zone. nine bathrooms (but only three bedrooms. The building in question is the latest in a series of showcase homes featured by The National Association of Home Builders every year during its annual trade show. solar panels. a platinum certification under the branch of LEED called LEED for Homes. plus a home office and library). I love the architecture and think all the water features would be soothing (and certainly a contrast from the building’s dry.) The house has.) It is one of 33 "estate homes" planned for the exclusive Marquis Seven Hills community. Henderson.” The house also includes 17. desert surroundings. according to the article. including the use of certified wood. the new American home is spectacular and beautiful. and a carbon monoxide alarm monitor." (The average size of a newly completed American.
for example. . that Americans generally consume more energy – and emit more carbon dioxide – getting to and from a typical building than does the building itself.But is it worthy of being certified LEED-platinum. Environmental building performance is determined by location And certainly not. Contrary to myth. the environmental performance of a building is not determined just by what happens inside the building. the greenest of the green? Maybe not. if you consider the location. Research shows. if you consider its outlandish size and challenging climate setting. Location of The New American Home 2013 (via Google Earth). Research also shows that location and neighborhood factors can create a dramatic difference in how much energy is consumed and emissions are generated in the getting to and fro.
if in the right place. That’s poor even by the standards of notoriously sprawling Henderson. is actually greener than a house with every bell and whistle imaginable. In the case of the New American Home 2013.Location of The New American Home 2013 (via Google Earth). across several housing types. the Walk Score is 38. a home with no green technology. as noted. In other words. even if the latter gets a platinum rating. Guardhouse and gate to Marquis Seven Hills (via Google Earth). Nevada. Additional research also shows that even ordinary households in transit-oriented locations save more energy and emissions than “green” households in sprawl. Walk Score reports that 77 percent of .
parks. is as likely to be brown as green in its environmental performance if the measure of that performance is determined by a full accounting of the home’s characteristics.) A typical household in the Seven Hills development where this year’s New American Home is located drives 20.Henderson residents have a higher rating. Just to be clear.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year from household auto use for transportation.053 miles per year and emits more than 8. All this means that a household living in the New American Home. not to show where someone attempting a restrained green lifestyle would be likely to live. even if it remains a time of persistent unemployment and struggling household debt. schools. While I personally wouldn’t prefer living in a relatively isolated gated community. (Walk Score is a rough measure of how easily one might be able to get around from a given location to typical daily functions such as food stores. more driving and emissions than even an average household in the Las Vegas-Henderson metro region. I think the home isimpressive. The purpose of the New American Home is to be impressive and attention-grabbing while showing off building techniques and state-of-the-art products. I do like the way the house looks and would probably enjoy visiting if I knew someone who lived there. I don’t really fault the Homebuilders for showcasing conspicuous consumption far beyond most Americans’ wildest dreams. Las Vegas as a whole has an average Walk Score of 49. no matter how many efficiency gizmos are built into it. This is mediocre environmental performance at best. as well as more than the average American household nationally. all things considered. and restaurants without a car or with minimal driving. .
since we can’t stop peopIe from building trophy houses in the desert even if we wanted to. in a gated luxury subdivision where you have to drive long distances to do anything. platinum? The Seven Hills development wouldn’t come close to qualifying for a certification under LEED for Neighborhood Development. and especially its transportation characteristics. conserving resources and reducing pollution. we should at least encourage them to build those trophy houses a little better: if you’re determined to build a house almost three times bigger than the average American house. The US Green Building Council is a fantastic organization of talented and dedicated people. But. land consumption. Those inclined to defend a platinum rating for an ostentatious house in sprawl would likely respond with a theory of “market transformation”: a system of forgiving incentives placed in a certification program for implementing green technology gradually transforms the market precisely because the standards are not too difficult to achieve. In other words. more builders will employ green measures than they otherwise would.Why a Platinum rating But I do hold the LEED standards accountable for bestowing the system’s highest rating on a building that not only isn’t likely the best of the best in total green performance but may not even be average. unfortunately. as a result. considering its size. which takes location and neighborhood design into account as well as building technology. LEED does a lot of good. but. regardless of what might be considered truly green. it’s better to do so with green technology than not. come on. at its worst the system doesn’t really measure how green something really is but how many credit points it can check off for having compliant technology. LEED-ND includes a prerequisite that a . climate conditions.
see his blog's home page. at the very least. smart growth isn’t really smart unless it includes green buildings. For more posts. Green Building. He writes (almost) daily about community. I supported that prerequisite. even at the lowest level. development. and co-founder of Smart Growth America. But why shouldn’t that work in both directions? Why should a building be considered green if its location is brown? Or. Keywords: LEED. As a leader of the environmental groups involved in constructing that system. include certified green buildings. co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system. But we should be better than that now. All posts » . the green building movement was so new that it would have been counterproductive to have high standards. All images by Trent Bell/Courtesy of NAHB unless otherwise noted. Architecture Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This post originally appeared on the NRDC Switchboard blog. I wanted us to create a system that defined and encouraged smart growth. an Atlantic partner site. platinum rating – signifying the greenest of all green buildings – if it is completely dependent on long automobile trips that will collectively emit more carbon than the building’s efficient heating and cooling systems will save? Maybe ten years ago. in this day and age. it’s my belie f that.development applying for a rating. why should a building qualify for the highest. Bottom image: Subdivision where The New American Home 2013 is located (via Google Earth). and the environment.
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