Lately, most of what you hear about green building is pretty rosy; the industry is booming, everyone’s on board, and green building has gone mainstream. By and large, I tend to agree that things are looking nice. But there are three different trends(?) in green building that caught my attention recently. I think the push and pull from these activities could lead to a not-so-pleasant dustup among industry, green building advocates, and public policymakers down the line.

Has LEED done its job too well? In part, the goal of LEED is to transform building practices, and LEED does appear to be the 800 lb. gorilla of green building systems, but it also has a reputation for being expensive. The checklists are widely available, and there are increasingly large numbers of people who have experience with green building and LEED specifically. I’m seeing more and more articles where someone is saying, “Green building is good, LEED is good, but certification is unnecessary.”

For example, Boston — the first city to require green practices for both private and commercial development — is requiring that new buildings be “certifiable” (no pun intended), without actually requiring certification. A recent headline read “County board rejects spending $600,000 for green ‘status symbol’.” The board likes green building, but didn’t want to go for LEED certification.

ReadyMade magazine introduced LEED to readers and in the next sentence recommended using it but not certifying (sorry, only available in print version).

If this trend continues, it could have a lot of unforeseen consequences, such as:

  • Brand alienation: Owners of LEED-certified buildings, municipalities, and others who use LEED may feel burned if they feel that the brand is losing meaning.
  • Accountability: People may end up using outdated versions of LEED. If the buildings aren’t registered, the owners, the public, or others may not know what they are getting. Could a municipality with a LEED requirement face a lawsuit on the grounds that the certification is an unnecessary taxpayer expense?

Are we thinking through the implications of code changes? I’ve written before about the greening of building codes. Generally, I see this as a good thing, and we may be poised to see a lot more code changes in the coming year. But code changes don’t make everyone happy, and there are some complications to be considered. National Association of Home Builders president David Pressly recently said in a press release that green building needs to “stay voluntary to continue to allow for market innovation” (subscription required). Robert Cassidy, editor in chief of Environmental Design and Construction has spoken out against problems from “LEED creep,” wherein cities adopt LEED for public buildings, but then creep over to private requirements. Over at the blog greenbuildingsnyc.com, Stephen notes another concern with codes being tied to green building standards:

[There is] the possibility that compliance with the Optimize Energy Performance credit will become mandatory in municipalities that have incorporated LEED into their building codes … [This is] perhaps demonstrative of how municipalities are not considering all the ramifications of incorporating LEED into building codes. Babylon, New York’s LEED legislation, for example, ‘automatically adopt[s] any future versions [of LEED] promulgated by [the U.S. Green Building Council].’

Some possible outcomes of code tensions:

  • Undercutting the value of green: If conventional buildings are inferior for health and the environment, there is a strong argument for using building codes to regulate them. Industry groups who are antagonistic to mandatory codes for business reasons undermine the credibility of green building as a whole, despite the many valuable health and environmental reasons for improving our building practices.
  • Variability in outcomes: There are many more code jurisdictions than there are climatic or environmental regions; regulating green building at the local level has merits, but should be coordinated across the country to ensure the gains we want are realized.
  • Public control over codes: Most green building programs are committed to ongoing improvements as technologies and environmental conditions change. If local governments commit to one standard or another, they may have a hard time (logistically or fiscally) responding to changes in the standard, or breaking free if the standard doesn’t work for them down the line.

How green is my building? With the rise in green building practices, more and more questions are being raised about what green buildings are actually delivering. The Cascadia Green Building Council is promoting their “living building challenge” that is intended to deliver truly sustainable buildings.

It’s of critical importance that builders are educated and held accountable to meaningful, achievable standards — so that sustainable buildings doesn’t become another undefined slogan … The ‘Living Building Challenge’ is attempting to raise the bar and define a true measure of sustainability in the built environment … Projects that achieve this level of performance can claim to be the most sustainable in North America, and not merely less bad.

Part of Cassidy’s concerns with “LEED creep” are about achieving specific environmental goals. “If Albuquerque wants to conserve energy usage in buildings, for example, it shouldn’t rely on LEED to hold down energy usage in buildings, especially since you can attain LEED silver and not do a very good job of energy conservation.” At the same time, there’s jockeying for authority and credibility among green programs. While the USGBC is applauding the NAHB’s ANSI certification, NAHB is criticizing the effectiveness of LEED for homes. “LEED-H would have a drastic effect on the affordability of housing … [LEED-H] is costly, requires many unnecessary mandatory provisions, offers little flexibility.” Here, the outcomes are also important:

  • The sustainability question: Individual green buildings mean very little on their own. The real goal is to reduce the overall impact of buildings on the environment. If that is not happening, whether through poor program development or other factors, something needs to change. For example, if some form of carbon regulation is coming down the pike, it suddenly becomes much more important exactly what you are getting with your green building. Right now, green building is very much focused on delivering individual buildings, rather than looking at the overall impact. With something like a carbon tax, this could change quickly, and how programs can accommodate this will matter a great deal.
  • Infighting doesn’t help anyone: Brand positioning may be OK when it comes to soaps, but in the case of buildings, we’re still trying to help people understand the value of green building. If the public perceives that green building programs are more interested in market share than delivering environmental benefits, they may be turned off.