LEED Lies: Bank Of America's "Green" Skyscraper Is Actually An Energy Guzzler

LEED says the Bank of America Tower is New York’s greenest office building, but new data debunks those claims.

It’s a not-so-secret secret that LEED, the country’s primary green building accreditation program, is broken. Operated by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, LEED (that’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) awards building projects various certifications based on their green design features. Since 1998, the USGBC has conferred its titles on tens of thousands of buildings, with few but increasingly more achieving the highly coveted Platinum status. Those that manage to do so are likely to make headlines, just as the Bank of America Tower, in New York, did when it opened in 2010.

The project was heralded as "the world’s most environmentally responsible high-rise office building." Three years later, new reports prove that assessment to be at best a naive overstatement, and at worst, a gross misjudgment. A recent New Republic article by Sam Roudman uncovers the facts behind the deceptively "green" skyscraper, and how LEED excels at building hype and utterly fails at predicting a structure’s energy usage.

Roudman points to data released by the city last fall, which suggests that the 55-story Bank of America Tower is actually a fantastic energy-consuming machine. The billion-dollar building generates more greenhouse gases and uses more energy than any other office tower its size in Manhattan, Roudman reports. In fact, it’s less energy efficient than buildings with lower LEED ratings, like the Goldman Sachs headquarters and those that predate the certification system altogether, such as the Empire State Building.

The Bank of America Tower’s failure to live up to its LEED Platinum status or to the lofty green merits championed by its developer’s massive PR campaign is not just embarrassing, Roudman writes. More gravely, "It symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change." That flaw is the over reliance on programs like LEED that take a superficial, "add-on" approach to the energy problems that face us today.

LEED neglects how buildings are used and instead focuses on issues of architectural and engineering design, much of which can be qualified as "cosmetic." In some cases, developers are able amass points for trivial concessions, such as parking spots for hybrid cars and bike racks; in others, simply being located in a densely populated area, like Manhattan, will earn you cheap LEED love. The USGBC is chaired by architects, builders, and suppliers, all of whom stand to profit from the huge and rapidly growing sustainable building market the certification helped create.

Therein lies one of the program’s chiefest weaknesses. As Alec Appelbaum pointed out in a 2011 Fast Company piece on LEED’s shortcomings, "The United States Green Building Council is a private institution that has no public oversight." This lack of regulation prevents LEED from regulating stricter, more effective means of predicting a building’s future energy use. Nor can it pursue building operators and strip them of their property’s ratings if they do not perform as they were intended. In the case of the Bank of America Tower, the consequences for the building’s terrible energy performance remain to be seen, but there probably won’t be any.

"We are not the government," Roudman quotes Scot Horst, LEED’s senior vice president, as saying. "We can’t regulate anything." If that’s true, perhaps it’s time builders and the public take energy saving seriously and search for LEED alternatives. There are more valuable ratings than "Platinum," it seems.

[Image: Bank of America Tower, Chris Goldberg via Flickr, Nicholas Mirguet via Flickr]

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  • Nathan G

    Very poor article, especially the notion (re-printed from elsewhere) that a lack of government oversight prevents LEED from regulating stricter, more effective means of predicting a building’s future energy use. The LEED CS system that this building was certified under uses building energy modeling to evaluate its performance compared to a traditional code-compliant building. This method of evaluation was developed by the Department of Energy and is used around the world (including in New York) to show that buildings meet or exceed code. LEED requires that buildings at a minimum exceed code (which is the minimum performance required by the state and sometimes local government) and then rewards them for going even further, using the industry standard method for evaluating building design. How is a system that rewards designers for going further than what the government requires using the exact same system of evaluation anything but a good thing? The whole premise of LEED is that it is a continually evolving, voluntary system to identify and recognize performance above standard practice and what is required by the government in building codes. The BOA certification under LEED for Core and Shell says the base building (not the tenant space) was designed and built greener than a typical building. There are different rating systems to say that the tenants fit-out their space sustainably (LEED for Commercial Interiors) and  to say that the building is being operated efficiently (LEED for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance). This building's actual performance should be evaluated, but to do so would require the right set of tools, not some hack's misguided attempt to interpret gross data in as unflattering a light as possible. In the case of actual energy use in the LEED world, the building would use the EBOM rating system, which again aligns with industry best practices and uses the U.S. EPA's Energy Star program to normalize data based on building-specific metrics such as space type, occupancy, hours of operation, etc. and then make a comparison to the overall U.S. building stock. Knowing that optimizing building performance is an ongoing process, the LEED EBOM rating system requires regular re-certification to stay valid. BOA's actual performance will ultimately be effected by a number of factors (and hopefully will be continuously improved over time), but the LEED CS platinum certification says that based on the current best methods (and typically the accepted industry and government methods) of evaluating a design and construction project, the building exceeds business-as-usual in ways that have been proven to reduce environmental impact and improve the health and well-being of occupants. Great work BOA and great work LEED.

  • Jamie Wilson

    'LEED neglects how buildings are used and instead focuses on issues of architectural and engineering design, much of which can be qualified as “cosmetic.” '

  • OmniComm is it that Fast Company lets you get away with basically re-publishing dubious, pre-existing articles written by others?  

    Not only is the article you chose seriously flawed and lacking in fundamental analysis, but the tact employed in your re-publication of this shoddy work reflects extremely poorly on the Fast Company magazine.  There is no thoughtful research, critique, or new insights put forth.  Repeating an article rooted in sensationalism written by a first-time author with no expertise in the subject matter is a big-time no-no and a huge amateur mistake.  I expect far more from Fast Company, and irresponsible re-publication of poorly conceived articles serves to open up a wide gulf into the magazine's credibility.Perhaps the ice cream business is beckoning you back Sammy......

  • stfutbbor

    Perhaps, instead of just blindly repeating someone's really really flawed article, you could think for yourself and do your own article about LEED?

    Just a thought.

  • stella0107

    I'm shocked that Co.Design would publish such a misguided and sensationalistic excuse for journalism.  To decry LEED as "flawed" because some buildings might be used for energy-intensive purposes is nonsense.  And does this author not regognize his hypocrisy?  He slams this project for "overstatements," yet he titles his article "LEED Lies" without identifying a single misrepresentation by the rating system, or its creators, or the project team.  There are plenty of flaws in LEED that are ripe for reasoned debate, so I hope that this author gets back to the drawing board and puts just a hint of thought and research into his next effort.

  • DavidBergman

    LEED may be an imperfect and evolving system, but it is not “broken.”
    Nor is it responsible for “plug in loads,” the computers and other office equipment
    that goes inside a building. A building with trading floors, with desks sporting
    multiple monitors, and with a data center is, of course, going to consume more
    energy than the same building with less energy intensive businesses. The energy
    consumption of this building would undoubtedly have been much, much greater had
    the exterior of the building and the mechanical systems not achieved that LEED Platinum


  • Patrick Cunningham

    This is an incredibly naive article. Energy use is not the only metric in sustainable evaluation. The writer says nothing about water use, embodied energy, waste stream reduction, reduced reliance on hazardous manufacturing processes. Look beyond the single metric you had time to research and give your readers depth. Comparing new buildings with older structures is like saying airplanes are far less efficient than hot air balloons.

  • Shaun

    Sensationalism!!! Its crazy that a building with a data center in it would use more electricity than other buildings!!