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When LEED Gold Gets a C

New York’s energy grading system is up and running, and it’s fueling LEED bashing. Are the critics right?
Paula Melton
September 16, 2021

At 7 Bryant Park in New York City, a plaque from 2016 proudly displays a rating of LEED 2009 Gold. To its left is the building’s current “energy grade,” whose display is required by a recently enacted NYC law. For actual energy use, the building gets a C—an Energy Star score of 60, which means it’s only slightly above average. What gives?

It’s not just about energy

“LEED Gold Certification does not preclude a lousy building energy efficiency rating. Go figure,” tweeted John Hill, the architecture critic who took the photo.

Bill Millard, writing in The Architect’s Newspaper, tries to soften the blow.* “Wisecracks about greenwashing … may be premature, perhaps even reductionist,” he says. “LEED also assesses a broad range of environmentally relevant variables along with energy use.”

He has a point. According to GBIG, the project scored only 13 Energy & Atmosphere points out of 37, with a projected 12% improvement on baseline building performance. Given that information, 60 seems about right. Meanwhile, 7 Bryant Park achieved 20 out of 28 Sustainable Sites points, and 9 of 12 Indoor Environmental Quality points.

75 or bust

Still, shouldn’t a LEED Gold for Building Design and Construction (BD+C) project be performing at least as well as would be required to participate in the Operations and Maintenance (O+M) rating system? O+M under v4 (controversially, it’s true) mandates an Energy Star score of 75 just to get in the door. That means the building has to perform better than three-quarters of buildings of the same type throughout the U.S.

If you asked anyone at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) whether BD+C stands alone, they would definitively say no. It was never meant to be the end of any project’s green building story, and that’s why O+M exists. And USGBC’s for-profit spinoff, Arc Skoru, even offers its software platform for free so users can start tracking their data and, the company hopes, eventually engage with LEED. (Note that for projects that aren’t hitting 75 and would like to get better, there’s the non-USGBC program BIT Building to encourage continuous improvement.) USGBC has been pleading with building owners for years to follow up their BD+C ratings with O+M. Building owners haven’t listened.

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Beside the point

In truth, the argument about BD+C not yielding stellar energy performance is beside the point.

My takeaway from this worth-a-thousand-words photograph is that the NYC energy grade system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to—by embarrassing people into doing better. Let’s hope more cities start similar programs of their own—and that next year, 7 Bryant Park ups its game and can post a grade of B.


*If you read the whole thing, you’ll see that Millard’s article quotes the late Lance Hosey. See BuildingGreen’s obituary here.



Date updated: 
Thursday, September 16, 2021

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April 5, 2022 - 1:59 pm

While it's interesting to debate to connections between LEED certification and energy performance (a lively discussion that we've been having since at least 2010 when NBI published their "Energy Performance of LEED® for New Construction Buildings" study), what interests me more is the early indications of impact, and push-back, from building performance laws that are starting to pop up all over the country.
These laws have huge potential to move the needle in how the built environment actually uses energy (and emits carbon). We will want to closely follow challenges such as this to gage efficacy, and to make the necessary adjustments in subsequent policies for success. We have to get our existing buildings onto a lower and lower emissions path as quickly as possible. Thanks for bringing this to all of our attention!

September 22, 2021 - 10:57 am

THANK YOU for highlighting the root of the issue. When building owners ask for 'low hanging fruit' and deprioritize energy performance to get the highest LEED rating for the least cost impact, it's a predictable outcome that their building won't be top energy performers in the city. One has to invest in energy performance of that's the desirable outcome. and two really critical factors in building performance: 1. occupant behavior and plug loads, 2. operations and maintenance, fall outside LEED BD+C parameters. I couldn't agree more that this is exactly why we need Building Performance Standards - to create an environment of **lifecycle accountability** for building performance. 

September 21, 2021 - 3:17 pm

Neil, you bring up a part of this I didn't address, which is how aggressive the NYC law is when it comes to assigning grades. You have to be REALLY good to get the A.

September 21, 2021 - 1:31 pm

IN NYC an Energy Star rated building may NOT get an A.  You need a score of 85 for that.