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USA Today Story on LEED Misses the Mark

Casting LEED as a tool used by developers to gain tax breaks, a USA Today story misses LEED’s benefits, as well as advances in performance tracking.
Nadav Malin
October 24, 2012

The LEED-certified Palazzo in Las Vegas

I took a call from Tom Frank, a reporter at USA Today last week, and spent over an hour on the phone with him explaining the proposed LEED v4 rating system and what it’s trying to achieve. I wish I had saved my breath, because the story that came out today used almost nothing from our conversation, and instead devotes itself to attacking LEED based not on the future, but on ancient (2002–2008) history.

The story casts LEED as a tool developers use to garner tax breaks and other advantages for very little environmental or social benefit. It’s true that some projects have exploited loopholes in LEED requirements and achieved credits for measures that they either had to do anyway, or did for no good reason except to earn the point. Each new version of LEED has gotten a little more sophisticated in removing those loopholes, so that’s happening less than it used to, but the long lag-time between registering a project and earning certification means that it takes a while for those improvements to filter through.

The USA Today story features the Palazzo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which was certified in 2008 based on a version of the LEED rating system that was released in 2002. Yes, it earned points for some silly things, and won huge tax credits (as we wrote in “Navigating Incentives and Regulations for Green Building” the Nevada law providing those credits was poorly conceived and quickly rescinded). But further, USA Today acknowledges that the team behind the Palazzo also did some pretty important things, such as solar-heating the swimming pools and using occupancy sensors to control ventilation to hotel rooms.

What the article never does is look at the whole picture: either for individual projects or the industry as a whole. Is it a problem that projects earn some low-benefit points if LEED also causes them to take more meaningful measures?

Government Mandates and Incentives

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Much of the story’s attack on LEED is based on how it is used by governments at various levels to mandate or provide incentives for green building. It’s no secret that LEED is not a great tool for that purpose, which is why USGBC, ASHRAE, and AIA have worked so hard on Standard 189 and the International Green Construction Code (IgCC). Now that those resources are available LEED can focus on what it was created to do, which is to provide a framework for green building and spur voluntary, market-based incentives to go beyond code.

Does the Cost of Points Matter?

The author also gets sucked into the red herring of cost, accusing LEED of giving developers credit for doing things that have low or no cost.

The goal of LEED, as far as I’m concerned, is not to get owners to spend a ton of money investing in green technology, but to encourage them to do stuff that provides real environmental and social benefit, regardless of what that stuff costs. If a green measure doesn’t cost much, but most building projects aren’t using it, then LEED has a useful role to play in educating projects about that measure. We highlight lower-cost credit like IEQc4.2 on LEEDuser, and the story quotes LEEDuser’s suggestions as if low-hanging fruit were a sin.

(This is also a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: LEED v4 has been protested by some industry groups based in part on credits that could push products to implement measures that would cost building projects more and potentially—hopefully, in fact—push product manufacturers out of their comfortable business-as-usual zones.)

Existing Buildings Don’t Exist?

The article’s biggest flaw, however, is the way it ignores LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (EBOM) entirely. I agree that there are problems with awarding certification based on the promise of green performance—it would have been nice if USGBC had taken the suggestion that I (and others) made back in 2008 to change the certification for Building Design + Construction projects to something like “Built for LEED.” But the way the article attacks LEED on that performance gap without even mentioning the EBOM rating system that is based entirely on performance is selective use of data more typical of a political campaign than good journalism.  (Tom Frank, the author of the USA Today article, defended this choice in an email to me, pointing out that his focus was on government programs that rely mostly on LEED for New Construction.)

Fortunately, USGBC also recognized the performance gap with its Design + Construction rating systems (such as LEED-NC), and is taking increasingly ambitious steps to close that gap, with everything from improved guidelines for energy modeling to mandatory reporting requirements, and increasing incentives for teams to recertify regularly based on their actual performance.

Disconnected Messages

Buried deep in the article are some quotes strongly supportive of LEED, which seem out of place as the article makes no effort to explain why the smart people behind those quotes believe what they say if LEED is the sham the article says it is.

Given the amount of work that apparently went into this story, and the valid concerns it raises, it’s too bad that it ended up so flawed, missing a chance to raise the quality of discourse on more important and relevant questions about LEED and green building generally.

Did you see the USA Today article? What did you think? Post your comments below.


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December 5, 2012 - 11:50 am

Nadav does a great job here in laying out the issues and problems with the USA Today article. And Brendon Owens from USGBC provides an excellent “inside” perspective in his thoughtful "Fact Check" response piece as well on the USGBC website.

But there are a few more points to add to this discussion:

1. It’s ok that you get points for seemingly no extra work. LEED isn’t trying to, nor can it, evaluate what a project would have done in the absence of extra money, effort, or desire for recognition. In other words, LEED doesn't care if something is required by code in a given location, makes good business sense, doesn’t cost anything, or would have been done because the market demands it. So if a downtown project (such as the hotel the USA Today article references that’s located on the Las Vegas strip) gets points because it has transit access and is in a walkable location, and it would have had transit access and walkability with or without the influence of LEED, that is by design. It is objectively and measurably better than having a project located without transit access, so it is a reasonable measure of the project’s sustainability attributes and that is what LEED is intending to measure.

Yes, some points may seem cheap and easy for certain projects (e.g. transit orientation and density), but the fact is that projects that have the attributes that earn them these points are measurably better than those built without them. There are Vegas casinos, one should note, that are out in the sprawl and entirely auto-dependent, and these projects don’t get those “free” points for a good reason. The difference between projects with and without these attributes is significant.

2. LEED doesn’t care what kind of building it is. LEED doesn't pass judgment on the programming of the building. So if you have a monstrous hotel with five heated swimming pools (as did the hotel in the USA Today article) or even a manufacturing facility that produces concentrated liquid evil (so long as it complies with local environmental laws), LEED is silent. It doesn’t get into the business of deciding which buildings are good and which are bad. Doing so would be a nearly impossible moral line to draw and would turn into a political food fight that would derail and distract from the focus of LEED. All the LEED rating systems speak to are the design and construction aspects of whatever you were going to build anyway (or for EBOM, what you are operating and managing anyway). So if the Vegas hotel was planning to have five swimming pools, LEED simply measures the degree to which that hotel, which was going to happen anyway, has efficiently heated the swimming pools and has generally built to LEED standards in other areas. After all, no one is going to build more swimming pools than they were planning just so they can be solar heated to earn more LEED points.

This is a complicated issue, and one that merits debate, but USGBC has made a conscious and defensible argument, which is that it isn’t the basic intent and program of the building that needs to be green; rather it is how that building is designed and constructed.

3. LEED has to balance not being too easy and not being too hard. The LEED rating systems have to walk a fine line between stringency and market transformation. It wants as many projects to be able to get in the door (you don’t want the five hotel casino being inefficient and toxic in addition to having so many pools, right?), but it also can't be too easy to get certified, otherwise the label becomes watered down and meaningless. Therefore, the question of which measures are chosen to become prerequisites, and how difficult it is to earn 40 points for basic certification is a really challenging one. This is especially true when you consider that there are LEED projects in Portland and Alabama and Dubai, where codes, transit, density, climate, market expectations and available resources and incentives vary widely. And it reinforces the importance of the different levels of certification: there are meaningful differences between Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum projects.

As nearly anyone who works with LEED knows – and as Nadav points out, and as Brendan Owens articulately states in his post – there are plenty of improvements to make and plenty of contentious issues to grapple over with the LEED rating systems. Among the top of the frustrations are the cost and time associated with pursuing certification, issues in ensuring long term performance, and the customer service that could provide clarification to project teams. But as to the value that LEED brings to individual projects and to the market as a whole, there can’t really be any doubt as to the transformative value it has had and continues to have around the world. I’ve never seen a building become worse because of LEED. They are usually better versions of themselves after going through the process. But one wonders if this point is simply less story-worthy than a few skeletons in the LEED closet.

March 10, 2014 - 1:58 pm

The point about a 27 million dollar tax credit is good to know. Supposed estimates that the hotel uses more energy than advertised is interesting.

Color blindness as to how LEED points are achieved has to lead to more controversial results. If triple bottom line were achieved in the Palazzo Hotel, we may of cynically joked about its 4 acres or solar heated pools in a Nevada desert serviced by an endangered river? Nonetheless, LEED has miraculously became a trademark for elite projects, while, perhaps 90% of buildings didn't get certified other than IECC mandates by local code officials.

Most Architects I talk to say sustainability has arrived and will be here to stay. Many now have fewer calls for LEED and still some see increases in that market looking forward to V4. LEED fame is bound to be shaken by each new significant abuse or shortcoming that is exposed. The USGBC should take note. The Palazzo shows the downside and that's an issue for the LEED merit system. The USGBC can do many things better, but whoever tied tax credits to awards should have known that wouldn't help LEED's neutrality.

For all the complexities in LEED, a better commitment of time could be an objective BIM based software model, intended to qualify energy use performance. A silver, gold or platinum track based rating as such would report actual energy measurements during initial building use. A simple certified building could rely empirical analysis guided by the IECC and other codes. I am not sure LEED needs so many more building specialty divisions than it started with either.

The future is more about evolving sustainable coding that gives direction to the tools and software we will use. LEED may survive the product line, but count on a different game with some level of BIM Integration. I marveled at how LEED achieved so much but the point system will continue to show its weakness as rational systems, digital BIM systems and smarter sustainable codes develop.

December 6, 2012 - 6:02 am

Excellent points.

November 6, 2012 - 9:28 am

The Ohio Green Building Law blog has a story describing the anticipated ROI of the $131 million investment in green schools that the USA Today story criticizes.http://ohiogreenbuildinglaw.com/2012/11/04/usa-today-misses-the-point-on-leed/

I was especially intrigued that they have funding to do follow-up tracking on energy use, test scores, and absenteeism. It will be great to get that data!

December 6, 2012 - 8:23 am

Eric, it was an assumed value for ease of calulation. I was just hoping to be within a 10% range. The point was that 5 years payback from energy savings was unrealistic. That value you linked to was 1995 data.

December 6, 2012 - 6:02 am

You're being generous with your cost/ft2.
"On average, $0.92 per square foot is spent on energy in education buildings, less than the national average for energy usage in commercial buildings ($1.19 per square foot)." http://www.eia.gov/emeu/consumptionbriefs/cbecs/pbawebsite/education/edu...

November 6, 2012 - 12:01 pm

The worst case I was involved with was a school project. The GC did not have a construction project engineer on the job site. There was no one available to get the LEED paperwork from the subcontractors.

The GC had a staff of three people whose only job was to create change order and shove them at the owner. LEED often listed as a reason for the change, along with other reasons.

It is unusual for a GC not to have a PE on a project, but on lowest-bid-wins projects that can happen.

November 6, 2012 - 11:52 am

I have seen CM's and contractors use LEED as a scapegoat to get change orders pushed thru.

November 6, 2012 - 11:45 am

The $131 million attributed to LEED cannot be correct. LEED cost claims are often loaded with costs that have nothing to do with LEED at all.

If LEED was never considered by the schools, and the $131 million was magically "saved," you would end up with an unfinished building. Not a good end result.

November 6, 2012 - 11:09 am

I really doubt that all costs associated with LEED can be recovered by energy savings in just 5 years. Just costs associated with the EA credits having a 5 year payback would be impressive.

The blog said $131 million since 2007. Just looking at LEED-Schools projects there are 33 million square feet certified in Ohio. Assuming a typical new minimal Code compliant school building uses energy at a cost of $1/sf annually. These Ohio schools would need to be performing with 80% energy savings below Code minimum to get a payback of 5 years. Or spending just $0.20/sf annually.

October 27, 2012 - 6:06 am

I think everyone gets that LEED is driven by incentives – but it’s important to realize that the USGBC and LEED are at the core of a market transformation that has helped establish high performance building standards and green code framework. LEED is not perfect, and because of that its continuously evolving into new versions, such as LEED v4

October 31, 2012 - 3:29 pm

Very interesting discussion. Thanks for starting it, Nadav. I am in a jurisdiction (Nova Scotia - CaGBC LEED Canada) that has zero government incentives for LEED - though there are some minor incentives for energy efficiency. I still see significant uptake of LEED for many institutions and government projects - presumably for demonstrating good governance.

I also see increasing (though perhaps slower than elsewhere) uptake commercially, where there has been no government incentives to-date. Clearly some developers see other reasons for LEED development - marketing, other financial return, or (heaven forbid) doing the right thing.

October 28, 2012 - 11:34 am

Thomas, excellent concise comment.

October 25, 2012 - 10:08 am

USA Today's attack on LEED continues. This time the target is conflicts of interest.

Is there a risk of conflicts of interest within LEED? Absolutely.

Does it ever actually happen? Perhaps, occassionally. But it's a rare exception in my experience, and hardly reason to trash the whole program. However, if this story causes USGBC to double down on its process for preventing such conflicts, that's not a bad thing.

If the story causes a lot of people to turn away from LEED, however, that would be a shame, because LEED has been huge driver in bringing the resources of the business community to the green building cause. Tom Frank seems to think that's a bad thing. I don't.

Frank also goes after business interests that influence government decisions (in this case, to offer tax credits for LEED). Is it news that businesses influence government policy in this country? Let's hope that many more of them do it in ways that promote green building and help protect the environment!

October 28, 2012 - 2:28 pm

Some people who developed LEED made a lot of money. Also, the people who developed the onerous LEED review process made a lot of money.

As a LEED consultant, I made money from that process, but not a lot. I still drive an 8-year old car. I have almost no retirement, except what I can put aside myself.

What the review process needs to be is one that helps projects get certified and maximize green going into buildings, and not into the pockets of certain consultants.

I put together a "help them get certified" team of national experts in 2003 --including two LEED Technical Advisory Chairpersons-- with that as goal. But, the then USGBC VP, refused to allow the team to do review work even though we were rank the Number 1 team selected to do LEED reviews.

Because the "help them get certified" method was "scary" to the existing process, there were a lot of external politics to keep the "prove it to me" review process in place.

If LEED wants to reduce the negative news stories, like USA Today, as well as many others, it has to scrap the existing review process and go with a process that help projects.

Helping projects get certified hasn't been what LEED is about for many, many years.

October 25, 2012 - 4:34 pm

The main points in the first two articles – people who developed LEED made money on it and that there are portions of it that reward the status quo – are both fundamentally true.

I agree that we should not be apologizing for making money given the motivations behind LEED. Getting v4 approved is the response to the second one.

October 25, 2012 - 10:53 am

I know we've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into LEED, and people are quick to defend the home team when attacked. But a lot of the criticism is justified.

The documentation is too expensive. We've had many debates about this topic on this forum. There seems to be a mentality that the more we suffer thru paperwork the better the building will perform. That's not true.

The buildings should perform. Apple is beloved by millions because it performs and it's intuitive to use. LEED's defense is that we're better than we were. That is irrelavent. I won't buy an iPad if it's buggy and incomplete, regardless if the salesperson says how much better it is over the last version. How well does LEED (the product) perform today?

USGBC had the opportunity to tie LEED-NC with energy performance in v2009 and v4. Many of us pleaded that this change be made because modeling is inaccurate. Just requiring a building to provide 5 years of data to USGBC doesn't improve their performance over baseline. (By the way, when will USGBC publish this data as averages so we can see how well new LEED buildings perform against other new construction?)

I've never liked the ease of gaining some points. Most buildings I've done could earn LEED-Silver without much change in building design. The midwest always got all of the regional credits. Now the regional credit allows trans ocean shipments. Claiming recycled credit for steel structure was odd because the steel isn't any different than every other building. Using low flow fixtures which are Code in many areas. Or a single bulkhead made out of wood that is the only wood on the project just to gain the FSC point.

The Palazzo gamed the system. They got smoking allowed into a LEED building. While most of us are being forced to add signs outside of each entrance restricting smoking, the Palazzo guests & staff walk thru smokey gaming floors to access LEED portions of the building.

I just hope this article is a vehicle for improvement in LEED. Otherwise someone has a great opportunity to start a competative product that is willing to put its proof in the pudding.

October 25, 2012 - 4:36 pm

Back in 2006 they still required no smoking within 25' of a building's entrance. The Palazzo does allow smoking within 25' of entrances to the LEED portions of building. (All of the shops.) The open area in the center is the gaming floor.

"..locating any exterior designated smoking areas away from entries..."

October 25, 2012 - 4:11 pm

Take a look at Brendan Owen's response to the Palazzo smoking issue. Back in 2006, there was no rule against defining project boundaries the way they did for that project. This is an example of a lesson learned that has helped improve LEED.

October 24, 2012 - 8:41 pm

Look like I was a little too quick to complain, in my long critique, about how Frank didn't make use of my interview. There is a second part to the story, at least part of which is now posted online, that talks at length about LEED v4 and includes some comments from me. This second part of the story seems much more reasonable: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/24/leed-update-green-b...

May 31, 2013 - 3:17 pm

excellent point, Shawn!!!

November 1, 2012 - 4:56 am

As an LEED international user, I’m really happy my client’s do not read USA today. There are too many positive aspects of LEED that Frank doesn’t mention… or sadly, doesn’t understand. LEED is a roadmap to sustainability. The concepts of integrated design, triple bottom line is eye opening for many of my clients. LEED gives building owners the tools they need to truly understand their building’s performance.

Since it’s so easy, I would challenge Frank to certify his USA Today building. EBOM should be a walk in the park for him. lol

October 31, 2012 - 11:06 pm

Gentlemen, you are of course aware that your exchange is valuable, but not really how valuable. We, from developing countries, see you blazing the path. Sure, first efforts left room for much improvement and some peolpe made a lot of money. I have no problem with people making money for benefitting us all, even if profit was the real motor.

Frank´s article pushes us in the right direction, even if I do not like it and it was not his motive.

By the way, in my country there are no tax incentives tied to LEED compliance, but developers still go for certification in an effort to capture international companies.

For the record, I believe more emphasis should be given to actual perfomance.

October 31, 2012 - 6:28 pm

Yes, perhaps not sarcastic enough to be obvious! Can you imagine an article talking about the seatbelt or child seat "industry" and only talking about the costs, incentives, profits, or lobbyists without giving serious discussion to lives saved and injuries avoided? Oy.

October 31, 2012 - 4:12 pm

I thought there was a hint of sarcasm in there somewhere?

October 31, 2012 - 4:08 pm

Very apt, David... but maybe a little too tongue-in-cheek.

October 31, 2012 - 4:02 pm

And the point you are trying to make is what Dave?...

October 31, 2012 - 4:39 pm


October 31, 2012 - 3:45 pm

This article inspired me to look into a related industry that claims to benefit the public. I found a number of parallel conflicts (millions of federal money spent on low cost, common actions, product manufacturers sitting on committees promoting policies that would eventually benefit them, researchers profiting from a new technology that became law) that left me absolutely shocked.

In the first-ever public analysis of 7,100 records on the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) website I found similar clues of conflicts of interest, lobbyists, and pay-outs to manufacturers, advocates and non-profits. Ralph Nader, who taunted the auto industry with “Unsafe at Any Speed” one of the first PR campaigns to talk about car safety, has called the NHTSA “nothing more than a “consulting agency to Detroit.”(1)

If you follow the money, you’ll find that millions of federal highway money and tax dollars was threatened to be withheld from state budgets and law enforcement agencies if the states didn’t fall in line with the PR campaign built up around “safety” and such shock tactics as gruesome drivers-ed class films. These campaigns have created regulation that mandates low-cost or common practice actions, generates millions of dollars for the groups that promoted this cause or have the authority to enforce the laws (police departments), and were often championed by individuals and companies that developed the technologies or conducted the research that supported the public safety claims. The public benefits were often unproved, or based on questionable data, and were opposed by industry experts for many years until they were overcome by the PR efforts and lobbyists. (2)

For example, Dynamic Science, a company with annual sales of $14 million, is an off shoot of the work of Hugh Dehaven who was issued a patent for a “combination shoulder and lap safety belt” in 1955. Manufacturers of plastics and compressible foam have benefited from the multi-million dollar car restraint industry. Beam’s Seatbelts is privately-held company founded in 1953; founder Tom Beam was an early advocate for seatbelts and had $11 million left over to fund a foundation (3).

It's just shocking to see how much some companies have profited, how many federal subsidies have been tied to, and how much regulation has been pushed forward by people with ties to the seatbelt and child restraint industry, with so much statistical uncertainty about the benefits and the known risks of using the technology improperly.

(1) http://www.allgov.com/departments/department-of-transportation-dot/natio...
(2) http://www.fiberpipe.net/~tiktin/Documents/seatbeltskill.htm
(3) http://www.icochotnews.com/?q=node/148

October 31, 2012 - 3:34 pm

It's an attack dog piece sprinkled with a few good points about LEED so the writer can claim he was trying to be fair. I think the USGBC response was unnecessarily restrained.

In regards to part two of the article:
What the EPA says "Most vinyl chloride is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and vinyl products. Acute (short-term) exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride in air has resulted in central nervous system effects (CNS), such as dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches in humans. Chronic (long-term) exposure to vinyl chloride through inhalation and oral exposure in humans has resulted in liver damage. Cancer is a major concern from exposure to vinyl chloride via inhalation, as vinyl chloride exposure has been shown to increase the risk of a rare form of liver cancer in humans. EPA has classified vinyl chloride as a Group A, human carcinogen."

What the American Chemistry Council says "(LEEDv4) will reward builders for avoiding common chemicals and materials such as vinyl, which is used in windows, roofing and insulation to help energy efficiency."

October 30, 2012 - 4:59 pm

Agreed. If we talk about the "what" and "how" we become mired in the political mud. As my buddy Kevin from Arkansas says: "Never roll in the mud with a pig 'cause you both get dirty and the pig likes it!" :
So even though green movement is mainstreamed I think we still need to speak to media about WHY we do what we do, not how. To wit:
Berkebile calls LEED "the most transformative force in the design and construction industry in my lifetime by a factor of four. For the first time, (designers) are starting to consider how a building affects the life and well-being of the occupants and the vitality of the system in which it operates."
To place the USA article in context, here are the recommended "Other Stories" at the bottom of the article (I just read it).
"Pippa Middleton Surprised by fame of her "bottom""
"No Amount of Clorox Will Kill These Viruses:..."
"Amazing Picture of Kim Kardashian"
"22-year-old Who Won $30.5 Million Dumped By Girlfriend"
LEED in that context is not very sexy. The editors probably asked the author to pump up the article with casinos, cash, cynicism, and controversy so loyal USA Today readers would pay attention.

October 25, 2012 - 5:39 pm

I agree that being part of the mainstream dialogue is a good thing but NOT when the message is so clearly one-sided. There's nuggets of truth in the articles' content of course but you get the feeling that the author was sensationalizing for effect, even though he had many more balanced facts at his disposal. The fact that this is what the public will read and not recognize how much is mis-construed is troubling.

October 24, 2012 - 11:41 pm

"The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about"...said Oscar Wilde. Right now we have reached the 'main stream' where we are being talked about, critiqued, protested and generally being given a 'good shake', and really, that's OK. We've all know for some time that the data showing that buildings actually do reduce impacts has been missing from the equation...well, let's change that, just as we have been making changes to LEED over the last 10 years and more. We have to have a solution (LEED) that delivers and it's right there..it's called LEED EB!