How to build a green building without really trying (or caring about the planet).

What we build.
Dec. 26 2007 11:24 AM

It's Way Too Easy Being Green

The decidedly dupable system for rating a building's greenness.

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USGBC officials retain their faith that their program can turn cynics into true believers. "People who in the past have had no environmental concern, because they want the LEED plaque and the marketing that goes along with that, they're thinking about these things," Scott Horst, chair of the LEED steering committee told me when I called him recently. "Even though they may still have a full parking lot, they had to think about how they sized that parking lot, which is something they didn't have to think about in the past."

The USGBC has tweaked its checklist in response to criticism. LEED's revised standards have added so-called innovation points, a catchall category for design concepts that go above and beyond the checklist. The new standards also disqualify any building that doesn't score at least a two out of 10 for energy efficiency. Horst says the next revision of the standards, due out in 2008, will be weighted to give even more importance to energy use.

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But closing the loopholes in the checklist will take the USGBC only so far. In Europe, which has had baseline standards for energy efficiency since the mid-1990s, all new buildings are green buildings, at least to some extent. So while American buildings are green by the grace of Goldman Sachs, London offices are green regardless of whether the client cares about the environment, or needs a shot of good PR.

Lately, even the USGBC seems to realize the solution lies not in giving out medals for greenness one building at a time, but in encouraging greener communities. Density is why the average resident of Tokyo uses as much energy in a week as the average resident of Houston uses in a day. The USGBC has launched a pilot program with the Congress for New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council to grade entire neighborhoods. Rather than looking at green building as a personal (or corporate) virtue, the neighborhood program encourages planners and builders to make more integrated, systematic changes in the way we live. In the meantime, Mukesh Ambani will keep building his very own green skyscraper—and his company will keep building the world's largest oil refinery.

Daniel Brook is a journalist and author whose latest book, A History of Future Cities, was published in February.

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