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.