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Is LEED Really Leading?

September 19, 2009 1 comment

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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.

The Four Ps of Green Advantage: Planning

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) released a fantastic report, Capturing the Green Advantage For Consumer Companies, on January 20, 2009. They conducted a global survey in 2008, with smaller, follow up assessments in October 2008 and January 2009, that clearly show green consumerism remains strong even as the world deals with a continued economic downturn. The authors suggest that increasing sustainability should be an enterprise wide initiative rather than just focused on one product line or single item. They outline four steps that companies should take when preparing to roll out sustainably across their business.

BCG’s Four Ps of Green Advantage are: Planning, Processes, Products, and Promotion. This blog post will focus on Planning.

When I was growing up, my father made me keep a weekly schedule of things I needed to do and important dates I should not forget. I used it for sports,  school work, and chores.  At the time I thought it was torture to plan out my week and then review it each Sunday night with my dad. Now I thank him for showing me the value of planning ones course and how it greatly increases ones chances for success. The BCG report outlines two planning steps that I would like to discuss further.

Embedding Green Targets and Resources Into Corporate Strategy

The idea of including targets is incredibly important. Without something to strive for, direction is lost and momentum fades. The goals should be SMART, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. They should be transparent, documented and available to the general public, as well as followed up upon. Nothing is worse than the fanfare of an exciting “green” announcement followed by its slow decline into obscurity. A sustainability report is the ideal mechanism for announcing your targets and publishing your progress toward meeting them.

I recommend creating an environmental mission statement as a way to define your goals and help plan your next steps. When my company wondered what to do next after the low hanging fruit that initially moved us in a sustainable direction was gone, we went back to our guide, our main resource, our friend, and our ally, our environmental mission statement. For more on this wonderful tool, please check out my blog, A Green Road Map for Executives: Begin with an Environmental Mission.
Planning For and Capitalizing On Changes On The Horizon

We all know the saying that change is inevitable. The sustainability movement has been gaining steam for at least the past twenty years. Between 1990 and 2009, the organic food industry saw its sales rise from $1 billion to $30 billion. Green consumer studies like BCG’s show that in almost every sector of the economy, from socially responsible investing and LEED building to green travel and energy generation, consumers are looking for sustainable options.

The trend toward a sustainable future is clear and we are still in the infancy of the move toward a new, clean and green world wide economy. Almost everything we currently consume needs to be produced in a more sustainable manner. The possibilities for change seem limitless. During the Industrial Revolution change seemed to be taking place at a much more rapid pace that just before or after this time period. We now find ourselves at the beginning of what some have said will be the greatest wealth producing era in human history. I have faith that the change will touch all societies, regardless of ethnicity or class, and help the world rise to meet a new era.