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Reason Foundation

Green Buildings Not So Green

Samuel Staley
September 1, 2009, 7:50am

The New York Times reports on a survey of buildings that have been "certified" as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) by the U.S. Green Building Council. Gaining this certification allows building owners to get favored tax status, craft an image of enviornmental responsibility, and market their building to environmentally conscious tenants. Unfortunately, a lot of buildings don't actually do that much for the environment.

"The [Green Building] council’s own research suggests that a quarter of the new buildings that have been certified do not save as much energy as their designs predicted and that most do not track energy consumption once in use. And the program has been under attack from architects, engineers and energy experts who argue that because building performance is not tracked, the certification may be falling short in reducing emissions tied to global warming."

But, this isn't all. In turns out  in the real world energy "efficient" buildings are small and don't have many windows.

But in its own study last year of 121 new buildings certified through 2006, the Green Building Council found that more than half — 53 percent — did not qualify for the Energy Star label [granted by the U.S. EPA] and 15 percent scored below 30 in that program, meaning they used more energy per square foot than at least 70 percent of comparable buildings in the existing national stock.

Anecdotal information from follow-up research to that study indicated that the best-performing buildings had limited window areas and tended to be smaller.

Nearly 2,000 buildings have already been LEED certified and more than 15,000 buildings are currently in the pipeline.

The problem is that the real world of construction doesn't match very well with the theoretical world of design.

"Council officials say that these other categories also help reduce energy use and emissions. And many architects and engineers praise the comprehensiveness of the label. But the wide scope of the program, many in the industry point out, also means that buildings have been able to get certified by accumulating most of their points through features like bamboo flooring, while paying little attention to optimizing energy use.

Another problem is that the certification relies on energy models to predict how much energy a planned building will use, but council officials and many experts agree that such models are inexact. Once a building opens, it may use more energy than was predicted by the design. And how a building is used — how many occupants it has, for example — affects its energy consumption.

“If the occupants don’t turn off the lights, the building doesn’t do as well as expected,” said Mark Frankel, technical director for the New Buildings Institute, which promotes improved energy performance in new commercial construction and conducted the research commissioned by the Green Building Council on LEED buildings.

“In the real world, the mechanical systems may have problems, so that increases energy use,” Mr. Frankel said, adding that keeping track of energy use is rarely a priority for owners.

Hmmm. Go figure.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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