Green buildings standard seen as flawed
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Revelations that many buildings certified as green under a broadly accepted national standard for energy savings are not performing as well as predicted recently prompted changes to the program and are forcing San Francisco officials to consider amending city rules that are tied to the older guidelines.
The certification program, called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is widely seen as the industry standard for green buildings. It uses a checklist and point system that rewards energy-efficient building designs and features such as low-flow water fixtures, bike storage, nontoxic paints and solar power.
Developers have used the stamp of approval as a way to expedite projects through city bureaucracies and charge high rents. Governments increasingly demand that new buildings adhere to the rules.
San Francisco boosted its reputation as one of the nation's most environmentally progressive cities in August 2008 when the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom approved an ordinance requiring that all new large commercial buildings be LEED certified.
The legislation was based on LEED standards established several years ago and it cemented the rules in place through 2012.
Meanwhile, studies released this summer by the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED system, suggested that 25 percent of the new buildings that have been approved nationwide do not save as much energy as expected, and most do not monitor their energy use. In June, the council announced a new requirement: Owners of all newly constructed buildings must agree to provide utility bills for the first five years of operation as a condition of certification.
Some construction and energy experts are urging the council to get even stricter and make certification contingent on meeting specific energy savings.
Council representatives note a gap between energy predictions made during buildings' design phases and how much energy they consume when actually operating. Tracking energy use and making it part of the certification process is an important development in the LEED system, they say.
"LEED is about how a building is designed, but we've always understood the building's performance is really critical," said Dan Geiger, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council's Northern California chapter. "This is evolving in the direction that it should evolve."
San Francisco officials said Tuesday the city has long followed stringent state energy codes for new construction, which has kept building energy use down even before the rules adopted last year. But LEED's recent changes mean that the city should review its own rules before they expire in 2012.
"We need to reconvene the task force that recommended the legislation and makes some revisions way before 2012," said Rich Chien, the private sector green building coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment. "With the changes coming along we could be out of date and we need to address that."
Architects and other private sector experts focused on the environment say the LEED certification system has placed green building practices on the map and that it is now moving into an important phase.
"LEED has done an exceptional job of raising awareness," said architect Jennifer Devlin of the San Francisco firm EHDD. "And the U.S Green Building Council recognizes that tracking energy use is vital to the sustainable building movement."