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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In a high-end Mumbai neighborhood, Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani's personal high-rise, named Antilia, is under construction. When completed, the 24-story Ambani family home will include its own health club, terraced sky-gardens, and 50-seat screening room (the reclusive Ambani is reputed to be a huge Bollywood fan). Antilia also boasts three helipads and a 168-car garage. This may sound like transportation overkill, if not outright eco-terrorism, for a family of six. But despite its 38-to-1 car-to-person ratio, Antilia has been billed by its American architects as a "green building." And under the leading standards for green architecture, the building will likely qualify.

Antilia's architects, Perkins +Will of Chicago, plan to evaluate its greenness based on the criteria of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit founded in 1993 "to advance structures that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work." The group's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, launched in 2000, has become the widely accepted standard. Using its "Rating System Checklist," the USGBC evaluates a building's water and energy efficiency, land use, choice of materials, and indoor environmental quality. Based on the results, it certifies buildings on a scale from simply "LEED Certified" up through Silver, Gold, and Platinum. But because of the checklist-based system, even a building like Antilia loses only a single point for parking capacity.

Critics of LEED—many of them architects who were green before green was cool—see a system that's easy to game and has more to do with generating good PR than saving the planet. Just a few years ago, such criticisms were limited to architectural and environmental circles, but the loopholes in LEED are no longer a trivial problem. Green building has gone mainstream. Early adopters of LEED certification included usual suspects like the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose Southern California office was among the first LEED-certified buildings in the country. Today, seeking LEED certification is becoming standard practice for Fortune 500 companies, including many that don't have particularly good records on environmental issues. Goldman Sachs, a financier of the environmentally challenged Three Gorges Dam project in China, is seeking a Gold rating from LEED for its new Manhattan headquarters. Several cities, including Seattle, Chicago, and New York, now require all of their public buildings to be LEED certified. So does the General Services Administration, the agency that manages the federal government's real-estate needs. Even more striking, cities like Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif., now require that all major projects—public and private—meet LEED certification standards.

But the growth of green design renders the loopholes in LEED more serious than ever. The point system creates perverse incentives to design around the checklist rather than to build the greenest building possible. Consider the example of the University of Michigan architecture school, whose dean, Doug Kelbaugh, is a lifelong believer in green architecture. His school is embarking on a major addition to its facilities, but Kelbaugh told me he's on the fence about going for LEED certification. The addition is planned for the roof of an existing building—the greenest site possible, given that heat will rise up through the floor and no new land will be used. But LEED gives points for water-efficient landscaping, so a rooftop project that by definition has no landscaping is already down two points out of a possible 69.

A true believer like Kelbaugh will end up doing the right thing by the environment. But what about builders who set out to exploit the checklist system? Installing a $395 bike rack is worth the same under the LEED checklist system as installing a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system. Which is the cynical builder going to choose? A builder more interested in good PR than being good to the environment can even get points purely by chance. A new casino project in Philadelphia, which the city is requiring to pursue LEED certification, is located, like most downtown buildings, within a quarter-mile of a subway stop, earning a LEED point for transit accessibility. But the developer on the project, which includes a 3,200-car garage, won't commit to running a shuttle bus between the subway stop and the casino to encourage customers to take transit. No points in that.

The LEED certification process may seem woefully oversimplified, yet it doesn't even have the benefit of being cheap. Certification can cost more than $100,000 with all the paperwork and consultants. While this may be no big deal for Goldman Sachs, for smaller firms and nonprofits, it's real money. (And for public institutions, it's taxpayer money.) Wouldn't these dollars be better spent on features that actually make a building green rather than certify it as such? Why not spend that $100,000 on photovoltaic technology or better windows and insulation?

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.

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.