As I was riding my bike to work this morning in 82 degree temperatures, I thought about how silly it was that you could get an extra point towards a LEED certification for having a bike rack. I didn’t need a bike rack when I arrived at my plant, I needed a shower. Or shall I say, my employees needed for me to take a shower. This made me reflect upon how little I have seen LEED related projects on the drawing boards for new projects. What was once the great movement that was touted by all in the construction industry as a revolutionary way to consider construction, is now becoming a waning fad just like granite counter tops and brightly colored Croc shoes. How has the LEED program met with such a precipitous decline?
I wrote a post over two years ago about how the construction industry needed to wake up and see that the LEED program was adding very little value to the construction process. At the time, LEED was very popular and I felt like I was being heretical to oppose such a venerable institution. I certainly wouldn’t want to be perceived to be an irresponsible capitalist who scoffs at construction stewardship. Back in 2012, the LEED program was having a profound effect on realigning priorities in the construction industry and changing the way we looked at energy consumption and resource utilization. Architects were standing in line to gain certification and building owners were jumping through hoops to achieve a platinum level certification. I felt that the program had grown to the point where the costs were beginning to exceed the benefits. Here we are in 2015 and all that hype has dissipated because of a number of factors.
After you suffer through a LEED certified project, you have a better understanding of what costs are associated with achieving such a designation. The costs of registering the project are just the beginning. Most people who are experienced with the certification complain about the massive administrative costs associated with documenting compliance. Other costs such as increased design expenses, energy modeling, installation of monitoring devices, and testing that has become part of LEED’s latest version add a substantial amount to the project. Finally, we have the cost of construction which is amplified by demanding features such as FSC-certified wood and local sources for building materials that restrict one’s ability to source equal products at a lower cost. Some estimate that pursuing a LEED certification can increase the total cost of construction by over $1 per square foot.
The administrative burden is another reason that LEED has lost popularity. Everyone in the construction process from the owner, designer, contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers spend thousands of hours to research alternatives and provide documentation in an effort to meet the requirements. The last thing our industry needs right now is another reason to delay construction. For instance, our company has to spend one complete day per year to undergo a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification to be able to provide the required FSC wood for a LEED project. It became such an exercise in nonsense, I recently told FSC we would pass on the renewal this year. If we run into a LEED project that demands FSC wood in the future, I will apply any associated fees to the costs of the project.
Let’s face it, from 2000 to 2012 it was exciting to get on the LEED bandwagon. The construction industry was in the dumps and everyone was looking for something to distinguish their company in a desperate attempt to generate revenues. Building owners were willing to pay more to brand their structure as LEED certified. Developers could charge more per square foot, corporations could benefit from positive public relations, and suppliers could charge more for certified materials. LEED gave the industry new hope during a lethal recession. We find ourselves in a different position today. Since there are over 50,000 buildings that have been certified over the years, the panache associated with a gold or platinum level certification has significantly diminished. The survivors of the poor economy have climbed out of the recessionary doldrums and are back to work. The last thing we are looking for now is a program that offers additional cost with little benefit.
In an attempt to keep growing in popularity and become more than just a passing fad, LEED attempted to justify its program by producing a biased study of the benefits of certification. The New Building Institute (NBI) produced a study documenting the difference in energy consumption between LEED-certified buildings and existing construction stock. NBI concluded that LEED buildings were 25-30% more energy efficient relative to conventional buildings. Very few people are aware that NBI is a non-profit largely funded by the USGBC which is responsible for LEED, or that the board of directors of NBI has members from the USGBC, When the study was evaluated by independent agencies, they concluded that there are no significant reductions in LEED buildings compared to similar structures. So why go through the pain of certification if there is no real benefit?
In conclusion, I think the LEED program will be looked at as that moment of excitement when the industry was reeling from one of the worst recessions in history. The stockholders of the USGBC will retire with their millions generated from the program, and architects will have to print new business cards without the LEED professional certification. Hopefully the industry will remember some of the valuable principles outlined in the program so we can continue to construct outstanding buildings.
I think it’s time for a shower. The flies are starting to take over my office and people are avoiding me.
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