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Getting to Know Green Globes

Attending my first presentation on Green Globes, I was suspicious, but interested to get the low-down on how it works.
Joshua Radoff
April 28, 2010

Last month, I heard my first presentation on the Green Globes rating system. I felt like the Bishop of Canterbury hearing Henry the VIII tell me about this new "Church of England" he was planning to roll out. That is, I was suspicious, but interested to get the low-down on how it works with a real open mind, so that I might know what the future may or may not hold. I have to say, I find some of the innovations to be really good. Namely, a flexible tool that does what LEED’s high touted, but never delivered bookshelf model was supposed to do (or so I thought). For example, the fact that there are "NA's" for certain questions / credits makes total sense (note that these don’t exist for projects in the sticks for whom public transit is not available), and that fact that your scoring doesn't penalize you for having NA's also makes sense. So, for example, if I decide for good reason, not to do a white roof, then I shouldn't be penalized for it (we have a project in CO that is not getting platinum because they didn't want a white roof, or rather, couldn't document that the ballasted stones would qualify). Also, the fact that it's an online tool is kind of cool, although I haven't seen it in action and can't actually vouch. That said, I find other portions of it to be a bit scary. The main issue, to me, is the scoring of those subjective issues like space use optimization (and many many more) where a team can say, "yeah, we're doing that" and the reviewer can say "well, ok," without any of the transparency as to what thresholds have been met. Also, there are no prerequisites, so a building could provide no outdoor air, for example, make all the occupants sick and die, and still be certified. Lastly, I have a decent background in green building. When I hold up a LEED scorecard, I'm like a doctor reading a patient's chart. I know what's going on in the building, what they achieved, what they didn't, and I can usually find the associated strategies by looking around said patient-building. But with Green Globes, there is no "checklist" to see. Or rather, it's damn hard to get a hold of one unless you have a project in the works. It is therefore really hard to know what's weighted highly, what specific measures they are looking for, etc. This again falls into the lack of transparency trap, which for me is one of the program’s biggest failings to date. Also, I'm not sure I think that using Target Finder for to score a project’s energy performance is a good idea. I could be sold on this point, but I'm on the fence. Our use of Target Finder on New Construction projects has provided a rough sense of where a project should end up, but it seems a bit arbitrary. Plus, you miss out on the use of energy modeling as a way to explore options and encourage learning of the relative value of one energy-saving measure versus another (note: in talking to Green Globes representatives, I got the impression that one could use energy modeling as an alternative compliance path, and that almost any energy model would do (yikes!), but again, there is so little transparency that one has to really hustle to try to get any info. So in conclusion (and granted, I'm still learning and keeping an open mind), I’d say that as a "tool," it's fine. But as a rating system, it doesn't have enough transparency or standardization, let alone minimum standards for me to stand behind it. That said, none of what I consider to be obvious problems are unfixable. They could make it more transparent and less capricious. They could make it more based on standards. And they could add prerequisites. And it could still be a more flexible version of LEED, which could be really good. To me, what Green Globes really does is highlight the shortcomings of LEED and the need for its improvement. LEED does need to be more responsive to project specifics. It could use a little flexibility built in (a-la the bookshelf model). It does need a better online system. And it does need better response time and consistency among its reviewers. In the end, I'd rather have a LEED that is intended to create and maintain a standard of quality that responds to these needs rather than a Green Globes whose intention is to provide an easier way to certification without upholding the substance.

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October 30, 2013 - 1:21 pm

Hi Joseph,
I know this comment is 3 years old, but wondering if you did any additional research into Green Globes and if you found any side-by-side comparisons w LEED? We have been asked to write an article comparing the two. I'm very LEED biased, but want to provide an objective comparison. Thanks in advance for anything you would be willing to share. my email is amy(at)ggoarchitects.com.

November 5, 2013 - 4:36 pm

I'll try to focus here on what I feel are the strong points of Green Globes contrasted with a few LEED advantages based on my experiences in both.

Josh's original post above has fair criticisms (except for that one jab!) and I just want to elaborate on a few topics. I appreciate that there seems to be reasonable discussion taking place.

My opinion is that the Green Globes CIEB tool can be a great resource for portfolios of properties, particularly if the owner has properties of varying performance and would like to benchmark sustainability across all of them to identify successes and areas for improvement.

I prefer the approach in both Green Globes CIEB and NC to have more individual items rather than amalgamations of credits. For example in the 100 point system, many of the items are by necessity multi-part items, sometimes varying how many points are awarded or sometimes coming as a "package" submission. This may result in aggravation during review if only one portion of an item has to be revisited, or elimination of a credit from pursuit due to non-compliance with one part. One example in LEED might be walk-off mats combined with exhaust for certain spaces. Both are good strategies that could be rewarded individually.

I have served in the role of a Green Globes Assessor. I can vouch for my own assignments that the on-site assessment is very thorough and includes a knowledgeable review of any energy modeling data, or utility usage data in the case of existing buildings. I have made corrections to the submittal in these areas, these aren't rubber stamped. Energy efficiency claims have to be supported by strategies observed during the walkthrough.

This might vary among projects of course. I have received some strange energy model review comments from GBCI too, although at least for me these have always eventually been resolved, and in both systems any corrections have usually not significantly altered the credit awarded.

Green Globes may be attractive to clients that need a lower overhead system to document what they feel are their already existing good practices or construction standards. Green Globes is great for portfolios of properties, corporate sustainability reports, corporate construction standards where good practices are already in place.

In general the overall approach is that although many things may be able to have a number placed on them, there are some parts of buildings where a judgment might be made that the intent is satisfied. LEED I think is a little more difficult to establish an intent, although that path is available in most (all?) letter templates. The worry though would be that you could be rejected from certification if a prerequisite wasn't approved...and you might not find out the ruling until well through construction in some cases. In Green Globes you would lose out on those points, but could still be certified, if at a lower level than anticipated.

LEED does have advantages as well. Recognition in the public is certainly higher. For instances where the owner is pursuing certification in order to attract tenants they might consider both systems to see which is the best fit.

USGBC has provided a wide-ranging infrastructure for the members to improve their skill set. This isn't strictly part of the rating system, but I can see some advantages for owners or design teams coming to the table from a background of "conventional" design and construction practices where there might be access to more tools to improve.

For a project team or owner that already has sustainable standards, they could build the building they want a little easier in Green Globes and end up with the same, or nearly the same result for less overhead and consultant's costs.

The debate about the timber industry groups in terms of the rating system itself is way out of proportion to the benefit in points for either LEED or Green Globes. I've seen FSC wood used on most of my GG assessments where any wood certification was pursued. I've also had the credit not pursued at all on many LEED projects...this argument is really blown out of proportion compared to the impact on the score for most buildings that I've been associated. It is obviously very important to the industry groups. I would say less so to the owners and project teams based on past project experience.

One caveat there is that I've generally been involved with larger more complex buildings in both systems, which may affect my perspective. The owner and project team decide which certification to use, if any, and in my experience are not pushed one way or the other if they already have a wood certification system that they value.

I've seen a few RFPs out there to complete LEED requirements that the ultimate selection of the consultant seems to be based on the cheapest way to earn the paperwork rather than for the purpose of sustainability. Not all the time, but certainly it does happen once in a while. This happens less in Green Globes, so it is advantage to both -- LEED for forcing the services is good and has really provided growth to the industry, although difficult to ensure the quality. Green Globes for allowing an owner not to pursue that service if they aren't really in support of it, or to customize the service (such as commissioning) to include the portions that serve them best in their opinion and award partial credit, rather than going through the motions.

For the record I advise a comprehensive commissioning process that includes some scope items beyond either LEED or Green Globes requirements, regardless of general sustainability certification for the project.

The company I work for provides Cx services on sustainable projects, we also do it for many projects that aren't pursuing any third-party ratings... the customizable approach in Green Globes could allow the scope to be better tailored to the owner's requirements.

Another difference as Josh mentioned is the use of not applicable items. This can allow the system to be used across multiple building types for a simplified approach. USGBC has taken the opposite approach by making multiple rating systems for different building types. This is good in that each of these will be a good fit for that market type, but it does also add some complexity for practitioners or owners that work in multiple markets, and there still might be some exceptions where a not applicable answer would make more sense.

White roofs are a great example of this where the prescriptive requirement is...well black and white! But the actual benefit (and roof) may be gray. Ask your energy modeling friends how much effect there is when the client has a ducted return air system within a plenum space, and the SRI of the roof changes a few points. Don't get me started on bike racks...

At the same time, the amount of not applicable points are capped at 100 for Green Globes so that a project doesn't earn too much advantage from exclusions.

Lastly, although there aren't prerequisites there is still a minimum score needed to certify. Don't forget that there are building codes throughout the USA...it is stretching things to say
"...so a building could provide no outdoor air, for example, make all the occupants sick and die, and still be certified..." -- that's needlessly inflammatory for this discussion, out of an otherwise logical post.

There are some legitimate criticisms of the Green Globes system...but certifying "deathtrap buildings" isn't one of them. Where would that happen, anyway? Internationally where people don't have licensed engineers and architects, lawyers, or building codes...?

I know you were probably joking about that Josh, but I've seen other message boards with discussion that I'm not sure if they are serious or not.

To those, I pledge not to recommend Green Globes certification for any building that injures anyone during the walkthrough due to circumventing basic engineering design principles, regardless of their total score.

Neither system is perfect, and I think there is room for both in the market. I hope that both spur the other to continue to improve. I think this has happened with recent Green Globes NC release and LEED v4 simplifying some credit approaches and adding life-cycle assessment credits. I look for continued improvement from both systems into the future.

I hate to see people dismiss Green Globes unilaterally when it does have features that provide benefit to overall sustainability in many cases. I'm glad that this discussion seems to be open to review the merits.

November 4, 2013 - 9:20 pm

David, I'd be grateful for anything you feel you can candidly share here. We would all benefit from you sharing your experience.

November 4, 2013 - 9:07 pm

I have some experience in both systems, I'll send you an email.

November 4, 2013 - 8:05 pm

Amy, this article may be particularly helpful: Green Globes May Be an ANSI Standard At Last.

November 4, 2013 - 5:49 pm

Our assignment is a short article for green people who aren't technical people, so a general comparison of the latest Green Globes (June 2013) and LEED v4. I agree - they are moving targets, so it's more to compare and contrast the overarching differences such as the fact that Green Globes does an inspection after the building is complete and LEED does not... Thanks for your response and I'll post a link to our article when we finish it.

November 4, 2013 - 11:52 am

Amy, if you search this site as well as BuildingGreen.com for Green Globes, you will find a lot more content. This article is relevant, for example. 

I don't know that we've ever done a side by side comparison, and the prospect of doing one is complicated by the fact that both LEED and Green Globes are moving targets. Which versions are you comparing?