I recently tweeted a piece by my old friend Chris G. Hill in which he mused on the state of green building certification. I don’t want to further synthesize his post, since he was largely recapping the work of Matthew Bouchard. Both posts are worth their own read but they both circle around the same central question. What is the role of LEED in today’s green building industry? LEED has plenty of detractors and plenty of promoters. It’s been controversial since it’s inception. Whether you think LEED has been good for green building or terrible, I want to ask a broader and more existential question – Is LEED relevant? I don’t ask this to be controversial or contrarian, and I don’t ask it out of disrespect for the USGBC and the good work people have done in that organization. I ask it because of what I do every day.
For those of you who haven’t been following, I work as a representative for SDA Lighting. I help businesses and institutions lower their energy consumption (and costs) by presenting alternative lighting strategies. I’ve been there since September and I’ve worked on a wide variety of projects including new office space, ice rinks, parking lots and auto dealers. In all of my conversations with a wide variety of clients the concepts of LEED ratings or the concepts trumpeted by the USGBC have come up exactly zero times.
What’s driving the pushing for sustainable lighting in the NY Metro area? It’s a few things:
- Incredible improvement of LED technology has led to LED being able to meet many commercial lighting needs at 50% of the energy of traditional sources.
- LED sources are rated to last as many as 10 years with zero maintenance.
- LED costs are down 70% since 2009 according to the Climate Group.
- Local utilities and governing bodies like PSEG-LI, Con Edison, and NYSERDA are offering generous rebates for upgrading lighting equipment to LED.
I’d like to focus on that last point for a second. For all of the talk about certifications from governing bodies like the USGBC and the prestige of the LEED plaque, in reality, what’s incentivizing the move to LED is the economics. Not just the economics of energy savings over the long term, but the economics of rebates in the near term. These incentives are driven by the simple fact that the utilities see more value in reducing energy demand than in building more transmission capacity.
This is an example of the positive economics of sustainability. Whatever your political leanings or feelings about government intervention, it’s easy to see the math of upgrading to new energy saving LED. That’s not driven by ideology it’s driven by the cold hard numbers. Which brings me back to the idea of LEED and the USGBC. For better or worse, the rarefied air of LEED and green building doesn’t feel welcoming. Certification is complicated, it’s expensive and the value of it is questionable. It’s hard for me to pitch LEED certification. For existing buildings working with slender budgets, the idea of a massive renovation to achieve LEED status is beyond daunting. Energy and revenue savings are clear and universal, I don’t have to explain their value. I can’t say the same for LEED certification.
I realize I’m only speaking about my narrow little corner of the design/build industry, so I can’t make a definitive statement of the value or relevance of LEED. What I can say is that there are far more existing buildings than there is new construction. These projects are often smaller in scope but dollar for dollar are incredibly impactful in terms of energy savings, and LEED has nothing to say about them.
What are your thoughts? Are you working on LEED projects? The comment section awaits.