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Is LEED Really Leading?

September 19, 2009 1 comment

*** This blog has moved. Please come and read new posts on our updated site, The Natural Strategy Blog. ***

Until recently, when I talked with people about LEED certification, I typically needed to follow the acronym up with the term “green building”. Although the standard has been around since 1998, it remained mostly unknown to a large segment of the population. This has been changing recently as following LEED guidelines has become increasingly popular with new construction projects across the country. My company’s building is pursing accreditation and our town library was awarded LEED certification two years ago. LEED is in the news more often but unfortunately, the press it is receiving is not always positive.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and contains several different standards, including one for new construction and major renovations of corporate and public buildings as well as one for the operation and maintenance of existing buildings. New construction is focused on five areas: sustainable site development, materials selection, energy efficiency, water savings, and indoor environmental quality. Buildings are ranked on a 100 point scale in which 40 – 49 points earns a Certified ranking, 50 – 59 brings Silver, 60 – 79 equals Gold, and projects over 80 points are rewarded with Platinum LEED certification. The 14,000 buildings across the US that have received LEED accreditation or are in the process of pursing certification must certainly be state of the art, environmentally efficient, and cutting edge, right? Not always. I believe that LEED has been a fantastic stepping stone toward sustainable building design and construction but is not always leading the way to a “green” future. Others agree.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), which developed LEED, was the focus of a recent New York Times article on its previous standards. Evidently, the Federal Building in Youngstown, OH is Certified LEED but failed to be energy efficient enough to earn the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star label. After reviewing last year’s energy bills, the cooling system seems to have contributed to the building’s inability to become an Energy Star Partner. It has become obvious to the USGBC that annual performance needs to be tracked and they announced last week that existing LEED buildings will be asked to voluntarily send in their energy bills. They also have plans to require new projects to submit five years of energy use data as part of their certification process. This is certainly great news and shows that the developers of LEED are willing to analyze their program and adapt their credentials for the betterment of all. But they seem to have a fair amount of work to do. Their recent standard came out in April of this year and as my story below illustrates, the criteria can still guide participants into questionable practices while constructing their buildings.

This week I worked at a new convention center on the East Coast. I was happy to learn that it was applying to be a Certified LEED building. Good for them, I thought. It appears that most new large construction projects today are pursuing some level of LEED certification. When I walked into the south hall, I was surprised to see most of the carpet was stained and deeply discolored. I assumed that something had happened during its installation but was later told that in order to gain LEED points, the carpet was being reused from an old exposition center on the property that was being converted into offices. This fits into the “refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle” mantra but I felt odd about what I saw. This must be a good idea, I told myself, despite the stains and the general “something is not quite right here” feeling I got when I saw the old, worn carpet next to the new, bright carpet.

Yesterday I entered the center at 7:30am and saw a crew of four people cleaning the carpet. When I left for lunch, I saw the same people continuing to clean the carpet. And when I called it a day at 6:30pm, guess what? They were still cleaning the carpet. All that work and the stains seemed just as noticeable as ever. And I thought, all of this for some LEED points?

The carpet cleaning was not working and I assume pressure from management will make them use less benign cleaning agents to remove the stains before the sales office begins giving tours to potential clients. If this happens, then everyone involved in the project may feel that LEED points do not make sense. Put in old carpet and clean it with toxic agents? That just doesn’t add up.

What if I am wrong and the stains are left as I saw them today? Management will certainly feel they need to explain the stains to visitors and will educate everyone who steps into the building as to why the carpets of a brand new convention center look twenty years old. I can hear the comments now. “This is LEED? I don’t like it. I’ll think twice about looking into it when my company is ready for a new building.” “Can’t those tree huggers allow our town to have a new, clean center we can be proud of? These stains are horrible.” And so, with either path the center chooses, cleaning with un-natural products or leaving the rugs stained, LEED’s reputation will suffer.

I am left thinking that the USGBC needs to revamp their LEED criteria so it guides those seeking certification toward pragmatic solutions rather than suggesting confusing strategies. Maybe it is time for them to pull into a rest area, review a road map, and make sure they are truly leading us in the right direction.

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Local Food: Another Piece in the Sustainability Puzzle

September 3, 2009 Leave a comment

*** This blog has moved. Please come and read new posts on our updated site, The Natural Strategy Blog. ***

August is New Hampshire Eat Local Month and a great example of the growing push to reorganize our society and economy around environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices. Eating local foods not only helps combat global warming by reducing the transportation required to get food to our tables, it provides a major boost to the Granite State economy. Increasing the production and consumption of locally grown food and moving away from super-sized supermarkets is an important step in creating a truly sustainable society.

The development of the modern day grocery store did not happen over night; however, more has changed in the way we grow and purchase food during the past 50 years than during any other time in human history. The current model favors rapidly produced items made from ingredients that are increasingly devoid of nutritional value. Food is a multi-billion dollar business in the US and much of what we find in our Hannaford, Shaw’s, and Market Basket stores comes from monstrous manufacturing facilities completely detached from the reality that their products are intended to nourish people.

Instead of providing healthy food choices at honest prices, most of the over 45,000 items found in a typical supermarket reflect the attitude of their makers. Primarily, that food is just another product to sell. Our consumer driven society has let them be successful in marketing this food because we like the promises of fat free ice cream and the sound of exotic spring water. When the marketing efforts are more important than product itself, we have a problem. The recently released movie Food, Inc. likens today’s food industry to the giant cigarette companies that once stood proud and tall as model corporate citizens. Both, it claims, mis-led the public about the effects of their products and both fought vigorously to continue their charade while the health of our country suffered. Phillip- Morris had to change its name, it now goes by Altria,  and its strategy, such as focusing on reducing under age smoking, because of the dubious nature of its business. I wonder if Kraft, and its horrible products like lunchables which have 17 grams of fat and 1100 mg of sodium in a single serving, will one day be forced to do the same.

The wonderful truth about local food in New England is that it can supply most of what we want as consumers. Our farmers’ markets abound with fresh vegetables, ripe fruit, and many locally produced jams, breads, meats, and dairy products. The food tastes better because it was picked recently when it was ripe, not weeks beforehand and then shipped to us from 3000 miles away.  Producing and consuming foods within a local geographical region is a model that thrived for several thousand years. It is time to focus on local food grown within a few hundred miles of our homes and businesses and restoring our communities to fully functioning organisms.

The transition to a new food economy is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. What could be more natural than buying food from your local farmer, to say nothing of growing some yourself. California and Mexico provide examples of where the process becomes more difficult. The San Joaquin Valley produces more than ten percent of our county’s food. Turning off their pipeline of lettuce, raisins, beef, and asparagus may help the farmers in NH but many of those in CA would have to shift into new industries as their national markets are reduced by a growing demand for regional food.

Which brings me back to August being NH Eat Local Month. Initiatives like this start the discussion. Many of us have been speaking about the benefits of local food for years. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to which my family and I belong is an example of what happens when local food becomes important to many residents of the same locale. Together with about 30 other members, we pay the farmers at Brookford Farm in Rollingsford, NH for a share of their harvest. In return we recieve twenty pounds of fresh produce every week as well as milk, yogurt, eggs, a chicken, and some beef. What could be better? Fresh food from local people.

As we close in on 2010, I often find myself excited thinking about the changes taking place here in NH. The University Office of Sustainability (USO) at UNH is doing fantastic work with their Food & Society Initative, which promotes local agriculture and the concept of a Sustainable Food Community. The number of farmers’ markets across the state has risen from less than 20 to over 100 in the past decade. This equates to more local food available to more citizens and less manufactured food required by our population. As individuals, families, and businesses become increasingly involved, momentum is building and another piece in the sustainability puzzle is being put into place.