Editor's Letter

06/24/2016 | By Chris Olson

What Has Green Certification Achieved?

Readers of BUILDINGS publications have long reported high interest in articles on green certification, and the editorial staff has delivered them. This issue, for example, has an article on the GreenCircle program (page 15) as well as an article on Sustainable SITES

But how many building owners and facility managers have actually achieved green certification for a building? And has green certification significantly reduced the environmental impacts of buildings?

Those are some of the questions that Jerry Yudelson poses in a new book, Reinventing Green Building: Why Certification Systems Aren’t Working and What We Can Do About It. Yudelson focuses primarily on LEED, which, he argues, has not made enough inroads into the buildings industry and market, particularly among building owners. LEED is a niche product that serves only a small building segment – primarily high-end office developments. Successive LEED versions only make an ever smaller segment “jump higher and higher” while having little impact on most of the population, especially the vast existing building stock. Hefty certification costs deter many, as do the volume of required documentation and arbitrary rulings on variances. The expansive point system leads to strategies that earn points, but not necessarily to those that best lessen environmental impacts (a situation that reminds me of teachers who bemoan a requirement to teach to narrow standardized tests rather than to education). Building owners need something that better meets business needs.

Yudelson’s solution is green building rating systems that focus only on five key performance indicators – energy use, total carbon emissions, water use, waste minimization and ecological purchasing. Other systems would handle issues like green urban design, healthy buildings for occupants and green building materials.

I think BUILDINGS readers would agree with many of Yudelson’s arguments (although my summary of them here is necessarily short). I’ve heard many anecdotes about high certification costs, dubious scorecard points and an onerously complex system. Nevertheless, the breadth of LEED and the UK’s BREEAM systems, both of which were pioneers, was needed when the full range of environmental impacts and priorities was not as well-known as it is now. More recent certification systems, like GreenCircle and SITES, tend to have narrower scopes.

Simple systems scale more easily. I wonder what the overall environmental impact would be if modest green practices were adopted by a vastly larger number of buildings rather than a high bar met by a few.

Let me know what you think.

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