Losing the LEED

Buildings account for a large portion of energy consumption in the US. LEED intends to reduce the energy consumption of buildings, but has been largely ineffective.

Global warming is one of the central issues facing our world today with temperatures rising rapidly. These rising temperatures have caused an immense impact on our environment, including droughts, flooding, and health risks. Global warming is largely believed to be caused by an increase in carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, and buildings play a large part in this increase. Energy consumption from buildings accounts for 50% of all U.S. carbon emissions, and 40% of all raw materials used globally each year [1].


Due to this growing concern of global warming and the large contribution buildings have, the U.S. Green Building Council developed a non-profit verification agency called The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, better known as LEED, to reduce energy consumption of buildings. LEED has evolved over the years, but the concept remains the same. LEED provides a set of guidelines with point allocations for certain design decisions. For example, one point is awarded for specifying rapidly renewable building materials for 5% of total building materials [2]. Based on the number of points accumulated, a project may achieve the LEED levels of “Certified”, “Silver”, “Gold”, or “Platinum”. The intent of LEED is to create a 35% carbon savings, as well as a 30% energy savings, 30-50% water use savings, and a 50-90% waste cost savings [1]. By achieving these certification, developers can achieve tax credits.


By many accounts, LEED has been a success. At the end of 2015, 6% of office space in the 30 largest U.S. markets (or 211 million sq. ft.) were LEED certified [3]. Surveys of completed projects show that LEED buildings save on average between 18-39% on energy costs [4]. Yet, while LEED has experienced great penetration into the industry, the initiative has not been as successful as it seems.


First, the program does not always result in reduced energy. Participants can acquire LEED status by merely offering computer models, such as DesignBuilder, that project building energy use [5]. These programs are fairly new and do not always accurately predicting energy use. They are based on many unproven assumptions, or assumptions that can change drastically during use. As a result, 28-35% of LEED buildings use more energy than their conventional counterpart [4]. Second, LEED does not take into account the efficacy of many different building materials or design considerations. For example, bamboo flooring achieves one point for LEED because it is a renewable flooring material. However, over the past several years, there have been numerous litigations concerning bamboo floor failures, requiring replacement of the flooring. Many LEED points also do not consider drawbacks of certain design decisions. For example, a building owner can add insulation to the interior of an existing brick wall to earn LEED certification, but that insulation often increases the freeze thaw damage of the brick façade and accelerates failure. These design decisions do not promote “sustainable” construction. All of these trade-offs come at an immense cost to the building owner. “Soft costs” alone, such as fees for LEED consultants, often add about $150,000 to projects, and this does not include the additional material, construction costs, or product failures [5].


While LEED has proven to have limited success, other non-profit organizations are arguably more effective at reducing energy costs. Passive House is another voluntary non-profit organization focused on reduced energy consumption that was re-introduced to the U.S. from Germany in 2002. Passive House focuses on design principles instead of the “point seeking” model LEED uses. In doing so, Passive house projects have been shown to reduce energy consumption by 60-70%, much more than LEED, and provides proven design recommendations to reduce the incidence of failures [6].  Energy Star is another government agency that focuses specifically on energy efficiency, as well as the certification of individual products. Properties with an Energy Star label consume about 35% less energy than non-Energy Star properties.


LEED has become synonymous with energy efficient buildings in the US. However, the point system utilized has proven to have little effect on sustainability. Furthermore, LEED overlooks many issues, as discussed above, that can lead to additional concerns. As a result, several other organizations have become more effective in providing guidelines to reduce energy efficiency. At this point, LEED must change its rating system to be more aligned with sustainability if it wants to remain synonymous with building energy efficiency in the U.S. [723 words]


[1] Clevenger, Caroline. “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)”. U.S. Green Building Council. 14 February 2008. Web.

[2] Green Building Rating System, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, March 2000

[3] National Green Building Adoption Index 2016, real Green

[4] Newsham, Guy. “Do LEED-certified Buildings save Energy? Yes, But….” Do LEED-certified Buildings save Energy? Yes, But… Energy and Buildings, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016

[5] Swearingen, Anastasia. “LEED-Certified Buildings Are Often Less Energy-Efficient Than Uncertified Ones.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

[6] Hawthorne, Monique. “LEED vs. Passive House: What’s the Difference?” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 24 Feb. 2010.


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Student comments on Losing the LEED

  1. This is a really fascinating perspective into LEED – and one that debunks a *very common presumption* that LEED buildings are a marker of sustainability !! Particularly unfortunate because a) the verification was developed for the very purpose of encouraging sustainable building design, b) as you mention, the soft costs as well as A&E costs associated with LEED buildings seem to be already be a significant deterrent to some investors and c) tying tax-credits to LEED certifications means public sector dollars are not being used most efficiently to promote renewable energy. It made me think of comparisons in the food and agriculture industry – Fair Trade, Non-GMO, Organic signs, where a large proportion of consumers do not fully understand what these labels actually mean. This may be a bit far fetched, but I’m curious to know if there is a way to promote and incentivize developers and investors to pursue energy-efficiency by removing the LEED verification from the equation altogether ? Changing how tax-credits are awarded is one, but perhaps another could be financing structures that are tied to the energy efficiency generated in a building relative to building cost ?

  2. Andrew, great post! It’s definitely surprising to learn that 28-35% of LEED buildings use more energy than their conventional counterparts. From my time at Starbucks, I know the company is one of the biggest supporters of LEED, having implemented LEED globally in over 1,000 stores. Although I think our company had a good store development division that probably analyzed the benefits of LEED, I think a big reason that Starbucks and other developers may choose LEED over alternatives such as Passive House is that LEED has gained more much name recognition and credibility.

    Thus, I think it may be more effective to help improve LEED rather than promote awareness of another verification agency such as Passive House. Aside from the poor points system, it seems that the US Green Building Council lacks practical knowledge about the industry, such as the implications of building materials or certain design decisions. I wonder if there are ways for the US Green Building Council to work more closely with developers to solicit their input and expertise. In addition, post mortems could be done after the building is in operations to verify whether projected energy savings are actually realized. What would be some challenges in changing the developer incentives to tie more closely to actual energy efficiencies?

  3. Really interesting– Thanks for your post! It’s amazing that building efficiency isn’t a hotter topic, considering the costs and carbon footprint of building usage. The LEED trademark has become so widespread– Do you think it will be possible to shift away from it? Or has it become too entrenched in government and policy?

    I’m also wondering whether the point-based LEED system had some of its roots in the way that Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) calculate ‘energy savings’ to which they are entitled (that is, the difference between actual energy spending and the counterfactual energy spending). I am sensing a theme here of excess focus on what *can* be measured at the expense of important (and more difficult-to-measure) factors like design.

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