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USA Today attacks LEED schools next, again with selective use of data

USA Today is at it again with another attack on LEED, this time focused on schools. Do they save energy? Do they improve student performance? There is still not enough data, but this article does its best to disprove that.
Nadav Malin
December 11, 2012

USA Today is at it again with bizarre accusations in previous articles that LEED buildings wrongly reward teams for reaping low-hanging fruit.

Do they save energy? Do they improve student performance? Any dispassionate reading of the tidbits of evidence scattered throughout this rambling, unfocused story would suggest that there is still not enough data to answer either of those questions confidently, although Frank’s sensationalistic tone does its best to imply that the answer is no.

The story is rife with selective use of data and internal inconsistencies: it acknowledges that acoustics are an important factor for the learning environment, and notes that only 31% of LEED schools have earned the Enhanced Acoustics credit, without even mentioning the Fundamental Acoustics prerequisite that is improving the acoustical environment in every LEED school beyond conventional practice, helping students focus on learning, and teachers on teaching.

It attacks LEED for not concentrating enough on the indoor environment, but oddly, it does this just after noting that: “Green schools look barely different from other new schools, except for the soaring windows that can brighten cinder-block classrooms.” I think that the students and teachers enjoying the light quality and connection to the outdoors offered by those large windows would call this a big difference,

The article also cites an inconclusive 2007 National Research Council report in stating that there is no evidence that green schools improve student performance, but it follows that with a summary of the report’s findings that encourage almost all the same things that LEED for Schools promotes: acoustics, light quality, thermal comfort, and moisture control.

Frank gets it right, however, in identifying the likely culprit for underperformance in some Houston green schools, when he quotes the district’s energy manager saying: “Poor equipment maintenance plagued the schools built in 2007.” If you don’t manage the building and equipment, it won’t perform. USGBC and others are working on collecting the data and connecting initial certification with ongoing performance. We need more of that, and sooner, to either prove that LEED is making a difference or change it so it does.

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LEED v4 is also incorporating new requirements tailored to operations and maintenance of existing schools—helping encourage managers to make the transition from green design and construction to green operations.

There is plenty not to like about the article itself, but it's hard not to also take note of the company it keeps. Other featured headlines that USA Today thinks one might want to read after perusing this article? "Ohio State coach a mess after head-butting player," "Marisa Miller bares pregnant baby bump,"  and "Controversial video spreads virally after being banned." Perhaps we simply can't expect a reasonable article to emerge from this journalistic context. 

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December 19, 2012 - 6:40 pm

Nice reply Nadav. I agree that we have to move to performance measuring, something that is available in LEED as a credit, but not a prerequisite-
We should also not forget that the objective of LEED is market transformation, which implies that even projects with limited reduced environmental impact and some improvements in indoor environment can already earn a LEED rating such as LEED Certified, which, lets be honest, not is that challenging.
I am sure that between a LEED V3.0 certified and a LEED V4.0 Platinum level, there is a whole spectrum. To some people it is all LEED, but it is actually quite different.
On the other hand, if LEED were too challenging, it would need to the change in the market that USGBC is looking for.

December 19, 2012 - 2:32 pm

Great job pointing out the questionable issues in the article Nadav!

Perhaps I tend to hone in on these issues but one of the big takeaways for me was related to the performance issues raised. I agree that the author went looking for evidence to back up the answer he wanted on these issues but the problem is that it is far to easy to find such evidence. Green buildings should outperform non-green building in energy performance. I certainly know that there are many variables and we can rationalize with facts all we want about why they don't perform well but the bottom line for a green building rating system should be the ultimate performance.

When articles like this come out many who have put their heart and soul into LEED react defensively and to a certain extent they should. But we should also read between the lines and see if there is anything we can learn. There have been far too many articles written about the significant gap in energy performance among LEED projects. This truth should be acknowledged and we need to change the system to recognize projects that actually perform and not ones that just predict that they will perform and don't.

In the past I have defended the LEED system as it now stands thinking we could explain our way past its limitations. Once everyone understood the intent they would make the connections. I have come to the conclusion that it is just not happening and we need to remedy the situation. It is time to change LEED BD+C so that we do not award certifications strictly on predicted performance.

January 4, 2013 - 11:08 am

Yes. To be more precise: Submit 12 contiguous months of data, as soon as you're ready. This gives teams the incentive to get the kings worked out sooner rather than later. It also rewards measures that lead to *actual* energy savings (occupant engagement) not recognized by ASHRAE 90.1. Only kink is buildings that ramp up in occupancy slowly (spec office buildings, etc...).

December 27, 2012 - 6:30 pm

A better measure would be to submit a year's worth of measured energy data, but give the building 6 - 12 mos. to work out the kinks in it's equipment first.

December 20, 2012 - 3:50 pm

Agreed. I have proposed this for v4 many times and think it should be an obvious interim step. Not sure why anyone would object to this as an alternative compliance path.

December 19, 2012 - 6:38 pm

Indeed. Since many projects don't complete their LEED BD+C documentation until many months after substantial completion, transitional step would be for v4 to allow teams to submit the first year's *actual* energy performance instead of the model prediction. This would borrow the EA credit from LEED EB O&M as an alternative compliance path.

December 14, 2012 - 10:52 am

Hopefully we are all saving our money and not buying USA Today. What would it take start a boycott against this shoddy journalism?

December 21, 2012 - 1:51 pm

I think we need to look at it a different way. Instead of running for the hills and pretending they aren't there, why not start writing articles for submission to that paper? Clearly there are enough engaged, committed, educated professionals on this forum. What would happen if we wrote our own stories out?

December 13, 2012 - 7:55 pm

Never has efficiency, effectiveness and intelligence been questioned as much as it has in the worldwide pursuit of higher performing buildings. Buildings were killing us in the 80’s and for someone to stand there and question an organization’s goal of breathing healthier air, bringing cleaner energy resources to American soil and using longer term thinking to make our buildings iconic once again is shameful and unpatriotic. Thank you Nadav and to all who continue to fight for better buildings using the best tools we have.

December 11, 2012 - 11:33 am

You clearly and effectively summarized all the problems with the article. Maybe instead of writing my own piece, I'll just copy yours ;-))


December 29, 2012 - 11:27 pm

My hope would be that the USGBC has case studies to back up and support the case for LEED for Schools. Surely they have enough historic data at this point to site examples that show the benefits -- to the students, energy costs and the environment.

USA Today is not the only publication writing articles questioning the value of LEED certification. The best way to defend the LEED movement is to show solid data. That's the only way to prove a point.


December 28, 2012 - 9:04 am

Immediate data would be nice. But there are so many variables (e.g., different building types, project sites, occupant behavior, maintenance/upkeep, geographic location, etc.) that there's no quick & easy way to measure "LEED v. Traditional" building performance. Schools are an ideal measurement device b/c of standardized testing and common usage, and Ohio is a unique proving ground b/c of the sheer volume of LEED schools ... the scientists call this a "robust dataset" ... and we might not need Battelle, but if LEED survives the vigorous & objective scrutiny to which it will be put by one of the world's foremost research institutions, then it will be that much more difficult for the haters to keep hating.

December 20, 2012 - 9:40 am

This is all well and good (and valuable), but much too complex and long-term for immediate needs, which are simply: how well are LEED buildings performing vs. their projected performance and vs. other non-LEED buildings. We don't need to spend $$$ with Battelle to get this information out for public analysis and comment. Statistical data is fine, but where is it???

December 20, 2012 - 9:05 am

Responding to comments from Jerry Yudelson and others regarding USGBC tracking the data on green schools (i.e., green buildings), Ohio has an extraordinary dataset in its nearly 300 LEED registered or certified schools. As discussed more fully at this link: (http://ohiogreenbuildinglaw.com/2012/12/12/red-flag-against-the-blue-dot...), USGBC is providing grant funding to the USGBC-Central Ohio Chapter (in partnership with research giant Battelle) to compile and scientifically evaluate the data on green school performance. Called the "Green Schools Compendium," this dataset will evaluate things such as first cost, lifecycle costs, student performance, and absenteeism in LEED v. traditional schools.

December 19, 2012 - 6:33 pm

Perhaps the better question is WHY we don't have our own data? After all, there are hundreds of LEED certified schools (before LEED for Schools came along) and more than 10,000 buildings certified, so where are the data on energy and water performance? Seems to me "the best defense is a good offense" but unfortunately LEED advocates don't have the data at their disposal which they should have. Shouldn't this be a priority for USGBC?

December 19, 2012 - 4:04 pm

Many people assume LEED should "outperform" and generate significant energy savings. The question being asked, perhaps indirectly, is about the financial return on LEED investments. While LEED is meant to do the right things and highlight those efforts, it would be good to financially quantify all LEED credits.

Now, since this is a free country and I see no libel, let that "newspaper" print all it wants. The only bigger joke than its "articles" and "journalists" are its circulation numbers.

December 13, 2012 - 5:15 pm

go get 'em, Nadav!

December 12, 2012 - 10:23 am

Excellent commentary, Nadav. Quotes from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission's retort to the article, and some additional commentary, are available at: http://ohiogreenbuildinglaw.com/2012/12/12/red-flag-against-the-blue-dot...