Open letter in response to USA Today critique of LEED and USGBC

Monday, October 29, 2012

In the last few days, USAToday has run a series of articles ('Green' code under construction; In the U.S. building industry, is it too easy being green?; and 'Green' growth fuels an entire industry) criticising the U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the LEED® rating system. No system or NGO can be perfect, and yes, some criticism is needed to keep strengthening what has already proven itself to be the world’s most impactful green building program. However, there is a big difference between constructive criticism in an effort to expand the green building movement’s pursuit of true sustainability and a targeted disparaging, and at times grossly incorrect critique.

Those of us who care about the environment, our communities, and public health should deeply appreciate USGBC’s role in reducing the building industry’s negative impacts and giving this critical industry the tools it needs to be a force of positive change. For more than a decade, USGBC and the LEED Rating Systems have provided a structure within which the green building movement has affected mainstream building practices: thanks to LEED, the core principles of green building (advanced energy efficiency, water conservation, nontoxic building materials, reduction in waste streams, and more) began to take hold at a time when “green building” was widely considered to a be a relic from the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. LEED pushed sustainable design from the margins to the mainstream.

Before LEED, there was no agreement on what “green” meant, no standards that were meaningful and holistic and no common language or definition for sustainable building. LEED created a structure, rigor and a forum for dialog about the issues. In span of a single decade, green building went from a small, very fragmented movement to a widely available set of practices and protocols that affected the global building industry in mostly positive ways. Without LEED, affordable low-voc paints and sealants, recycled materials and many other green building materials would not exist.  Today they are commonly available to all consumers. In addition, LEED was the catalyst and created a venue for significant improvements in building codes and standards, including the energy code and International Green Construction Code that are tools to transform all buildings to greater sustainability and reduced impact on the environment.

Many of the sustainably minded organizations and programs that have been created in the last ten years stand on the shoulders of LEED because it opened the door to deep exploration of true sustainability in the built environment (buildings, neighbourhoods, communities and the infrastructure that ties them together). Our program, the Living Building Challenge™, would never have gotten off the ground without LEED preparing the market for the radical idea that buildings could be created with no negative environmental impact–that they might even help restore a healthy relationship with the natural world.

The LEED system is not perfect and we concur that greater rigor and focus on performance is needed.  Yet, it is too easy to criticize the pursuit of cheap points, the gaming of the system and the poor performance of some LEED buildings, when these shortcomings are best understood as a symptom of the entrenched culture of some aspects of the building industry, not a result of the intentions of the tool and non-profit. The fact that there are some poorly performing LEED buildings should not condemn a system that also has incentivized many transformative projects and policies. There are also many, many LEED buildings with exemplary performance.  They have made a real impact on their communities and have significantly lower environmental impact than conventional buildings.

How many jobs, products, and innovations have been created because of LEED? How many examples of a truly grassroots transformation of an industry can you find? LEED and USGBC were built by a community of experts from across the building industry: architects, engineers, developers, builders, manufacturers, realtors, government, environmentalists and other like minded individuals. An entire industry came together.  This is a model for how change should happen, not a cautionary tale to be avoided.

Yes, LEED now needs improvement, and the entire industry needs to come together again to make constructive improvements. However, LEED is still an effective tool. Every day, it helps projects around the United States and beyond reduce their environmental impact. If we care about the environment, our communities, and our health, then the building industry needs LEED and other programs to be successful and rigorous.  

One final note: while we agree that constructive criticism is essential to improving any system and organization, we were deeply offended by the vague inferences of inappropriate conduct by several leading green building champions and private firms.  Yes people and organizations have profited by being early champions and experts in the movement.  This circumstance is the nature of a healthy, market-based approach. This result does not mean that any inappropriate action has occurred, especially when the most qualified individuals are being asked to support a new movement and new industry.

Signed,

Jason McLennan, CEO, International Living Future Institute

Ralph DiNola, Chair, International Living Future Institute

ML Vidas, Chair, Cascadia Green Building Council

Richard Graves, Executive Director, International Living Future Institute

Mona Lemoine, Executive Director, Cascadia Green Building Council