Skip to main content

The Past, Present, and Future of Sustainable Architecture

In the era of climate change, do the current standards of environmentally sound building practices—developed in the late '90s—still hold up?
Office workers ride an escalator in the lobby of the Hearst Tower, the first building in New York to get LEED certification.

Office workers ride an escalator in the lobby of the Hearst Tower, the first building in New York to get LEED certification.

In the late 1980s, revolution was afoot in the world of architecture. It started when a soft-spoken Kansas City architect named Bob Berkebile tried to convince the American Institute of Architects to do more to save the planet. In the spring of 1989, he petitioned the AIA to establish a committee to study and promote ways that the profession could become more eco-friendly.

"The board of directors turned me down," said Berkebile, now 81. In the Reagan era, the environmental movement had a Birkenstock-and-granola image that the men in charge at the AIA were apparently not prepared to adopt.

However, Berkebile was backed by up-and-coming architects from around the country. According to him, they basically took over the AIA convention in May of 1989: "We overruled them." The resolution the AIA board had declined to endorse, "CPR: Critical Planet Rescue," passed unanimously.

The result was the AIA Committee on the Environment (or COTE). This new group, which Berkebile chaired, quickly became a force, collaborating with the United States Environmental Protection Agency on environmental research and producing new guidelines for architectural design. When President Bill Clinton, on his first Earth Day in office in April of 1993, announced that he wanted to retrofit the White House as a "model for efficiency and waste reduction," Berkebile's committee got a call to help make it happen.

"Within a few days, the line of corporations wanting to help started in D.C. and stretched all the way to Philadelphia," said Berkebile, only half-joking. The dream of green buildings, which began with experimental passive-solar houses in the 1930s and hippie "zome homes" and "earthships" in the 1960s and '70s, suddenly seemed commercially viable.

As in any new industry, the companies involved wanted an organization to represent their interests. COTE already existed, and seemed like a natural fit. Its members included not just architects, but academics, environmental groups, real estate developers, financiers, and manufacturers of building materials. COTE was funded by a $1 million grant from the EPA.

That spring, a real estate developer named David Gottfried and an attorney named Mike Italiano approached Berkebile with an alternative fundraising idea. Why not solicit money directly from the chief executive officers who seemed so eager to get in on the movement? But Berkebile was resistant. "I said, 'because we are publishing scientific reports that challenge the quality of their products, and I don't want to have a conflict of interest,'" he said.

Shortly thereafter, Berkebile hosted a meeting in Washington to brainstorm a new organization that could accommodate the interests of the emerging industry while leaving COTE to focus on the science of sustainable architecture, unfettered by potential conflicts of interest. The 60-plus attendees included Gottfried and Italiano, along with Rick Fedrizzi, a marketing executive from Carrier, the air-conditioner company. The trio volunteered to lead this new initiative, which became known as the U.S. Green Building Council.

Taking Green Mainstream

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the USGBC has come to dominate the green building industry from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The organization employs 250 people around the U.S. and another 50-plus overseas. Its annual convention, Greenbuild, has swelled to about 20,000 attendees in recent years, with speakers like Hillary Clinton and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This year alone, in addition to the main event in Chicago, there are spin-off conventions in Mexico, China, India, and Germany. The organization boasts a chapter in virtually every state of the U.S., and has inspired offshoots in more than 70 countries, from Argentina to Zambia.

In 1998, the group piloted LEED—shorthand for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a rating system for environmentally sound buildings—and the movement went mainstream. There are now some 94,000 commercial buildings alone granted or awaiting LEED certification in 167 countries. (LEED has four levels of certification that step up in rigor: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.) Every day, another 2.2 million square feet of real estate is certified, roughly the size of a 65-story office tower.

LEED standards have essentially been written into building codes across the country in an effort to ensure that the next generation of homes, offices, warehouses, schools, and hospitals are more resource-conscious than the last. LEED certification is expected for today's high-end office buildings and corporate headquarters. But it is available for virtually any type of construction, including renovations, and even entire neighborhoods and cities.

A vast ecosystem of green commerce has grown in tandem with LEED, spurring sales in products ranging from solar panels to low-VOC paints and low-flow toilets. "Green building is now a $1 trillion global industry," Mahesh Ramanujam, the USGBC's current chief executive officer, said in March.

Ramanujam, a computer engineer, is also the chief executive officer of Green Business Certification Inc., which has exclusive rights to administer the USGBC's certification programs, as well as its education program, which more than 200,000 people have enrolled in to earn the credentials of LEED Advanced Professional and LEED Green Associate.

The USGBC is organized as a 501 (c)(3) charitable non-profit, but GBCI is a 501(c)(6) non-profit entity, the Internal Revenue Service's designation for commercially oriented tax-exempt organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Football League. Building certification fees vary depending on the certification sought and the building's size, but at four or five figures, they are a relatively small price for a developer to pay for the prestige (especially given that certified properties command a market premium). GBCI brought in almost $55 million in fiscal year 2016.

Markets can be an expedient way to enact positive societal transformation. But as the the USGBC has grown, so have accusations of "greenwashing." National newspapers have reported on criticisms that LEED buildings do not save as much energy as predicted and that the LEED points system is gamed by designers targeting "the easiest and cheapest" points, such as for posting educational signage or giving priority parking to fuel-efficient cars.

Berkebile helped shape the first LEED standards, and his architecture firm, BNIM, has designed many LEED-certified buildings. In 2014, he signed on as a strategic adviser to a different green-building entity, the International Living Future Institute, which advocates for "regenerative" buildings that "give more than they take." (He remained an informal adviser to the USGBC.)

Today, he sounds lukewarm on LEED's results. "The certification has become: Your building is doing a little less damage to the environment than everyone else's," Berkebile said. "But that means you're still having a negative impact. I think that's a failure."

Does LEED Really Save Energy? 

The debate over whether LEED standards are strict enough originates, at least in part, from differing expectations of what a green building should be. The term "green" may bring to mind a carpet of vegetation on the roof or bamboo floors. Bike racks, waterless urinals, and electric-vehicle charging stations also connote environmental friendliness, and they're common in LEED-certified buildings.

Most people would also associate green buildings with energy efficiency. The building sector consumes nearly 40 percent of all energy produced in the U.S. and is responsible for a similar share of greenhouse-gas emissions. So energy-efficient and "net-zero" buildings (which offset their energy use by what they generate, via solar panels, for example) are seen as a crucial way to rein in carbon emissions and slow climate change.

The USGBC has long claimed that LEED-certified buildings use 25 to 30 percent less energy than non-LEED buildings. Those numbers originated in a 2008 study by the New Buildings Institute that was funded by the USGBC.

LEED's detractors object to how the numbers were crunched. John Scofield, a physics professor at Oberlin College, analyzed the same data set and concluded that the LEED-certified buildings actually consumed more energy per square foot than comparable non-LEED buildings in the U.S.

Scofield contends that the NBI's analysis was not an apples-to-apples comparison. Among other irregularities, he argues, it compared the "median" energy use of LEED buildings to the "mean" energy use of the non-LEED buildings—which are different metrics.

Another point of contention: the NBI study was based on 121 LEED-certified commercial buildings whose owners volunteered energy data. That represents a small portion of the buildings that had been in operation long enough to have at least one year of data to offer. In other words, it's not an unbiased random sample, and might have been skewed by the opt-in element.

"If I mail a letter out to 1,000 building owners asking for data, only the ones that think their data looks good are going to send it," Scofield said.

However, a number of other studies have found significant energy reductions in LEED-certified buildings over the years. Ramanujam stands by the 25 to 30 percent claim. "I hear this [criticism] on a daily basis," he said. "These numbers are not made up."

To be fair, many individual LEED buildings are highly energy-efficient. Some have large solar arrays on the roof, or other features that take huge bites out of carbon footprints. Even Scofield found that LEED Gold buildings perform well.

Also, there are other factors that may make LEED buildings more power-hungry. These buildings tend to be newer, and today's offices pack in workers more tightly, charging more laptops and cell phones—which may cause some to use more energy. A 2013 article critical of LEED called out the LEED Platinum Bank of America Tower in Manhattan as "toxic" for its high energy use.

But that building has financial trading floors that are chock-a-block with computers. There's a limit to how energy efficient any trading floor can be: "They can't tell their prime tenant that they can't work round the clock on fancy computers," as journalist Lloyd Alter wrote in the building's, and LEED's, defense. A third critique of LEED is that its points for energy conservation are based on a computer model showing how much energy the building should save, if certain features are implemented, and not on actual post-occupancy energy use.

Ramanujam admits this is a problem. "What we have not done very well in the past is to actually integrate performance and outcomes-based data reporting into LEED certification." Sometimes, he said, a well-designed building "does not get properly translated to construction and operation. It's like buying a car and expecting a certain level of miles per gallon. If it's not performing, maybe it's time to adjust your driving habits." Poorly performing buildings, he suggested, "need a better operational strategy." Operations and maintenance ("O&M") does play a large role in the efficiency of a given building. Tweaks to the HVAC or lighting can make as much difference as a more expensive physical upgrade.

Hilary Firestone is a senior policy advisor for the City Energy Project, an initiative run by two environmental groups to cut energy use in large buildings in major U.S. cities. She acknowledges the shortcomings of LEED, but remains a fan. "It's made green building something that the average person can wrap their mind around," she said. "You can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good when you're trying to move an entire industry."

In 2009, under mounting pressure to prove its energy-conservation claims, the USGBC began requiring the owners of LEED-certified buildings to submit annual energy-use data for the first five years of occupancy. Folks like Scofield have been looking forward to seeing those numbers—a statistically robust data set of thousands of buildings—ever since.

Ramanujam has a reason why the USGBC has never released the data: They don't have it. "Disclosure has been minimally implemented," he said. "Less than a dozen [building owners] have reported data."

Why haven't owners coughed up their numbers? "The simple reason is that the market did not have a platform—it didn't have a tool. The complexity of reporting the data made the barriers significantly higher." He promised that changes made to the LEED rules in March will make data reporting a true requirement moving forward. GBCI recently launched a new software platform, Arc, that tracks and scores buildings' performance. "Enforcement was a challenge, but now there is no excuse to not share data," Ramanujam said.

An alternative data source has emerged as well. At least 17 cities, plus the entire state of California, have adopted policies requiring commercial and multi-family building owners to publicly report their energy-consumption data.

Scofield has cross-referenced LEED-certified buildings in New York City and Chicago with early data from those cities, and found no statistically meaningful difference between LEED and non-LEED buildings. Other researchers repeated this exercise for New York—with similar findings.

The Hard Road to Decarbonization 

The USGBC has inarguably changed the course of the building industry for the better. It mobilized the masses around the idea of environmentally responsible construction. The "co-benefits" of many green buildings, like ample daylight and better indoor air quality, clearly improve people's health and comfort. A Harvard University study published in January found that LEED buildings yield substantial energy savings and "nearly equivalent" climate and health benefits. (The peer-reviewed study was funded by United Technologies Corporation, a manufacturer of building equipment.)

Without the USGBC and LEED, smart thermostats and low-VOC paints might not be available in Home Depot. Other green-building organizations like the International Living Future Institute probably wouldn't have made it off the drawing board, and cities wouldn't be requiring energy benchmarking.

Some of the fiercest attacks on LEED have come from a lobbyist-run "astroturf" (or fake grassroots) group and the chemical and timber industries, and should be taken with a bucket of salt. But the conflicting evidence on energy savings is worth a gut-check, especially since more than just private profits are at stake.

Most states and hundreds of municipalities offer green-building tax incentives, many of them tied directly to LEED certification. The federal government now requires LEED Gold for every new building it constructs.

What would "greener" standards for buildings look like? The Living Future Institute's Living Building Challenge, a much more stringent program than LEED, certified its first building in 2010. "Living Buildings" must produce more energy than they consume (the excess is fed back into the grid), and are not granted certification until they've proved it for a period of 12 months. Net-positive water use and net-positive waste are also required.

The program sets an admirably high bar for sustainability. But to date, it has only fully certified 11 buildings. That's a tiny sliver of the market share of LEED.

The truth is, climate change isn't going to wait on the LBC slowly gaining adherents—or the incremental tightening of LEED standards. Carbon emissions seem to have stabilized, but carbon in the atmosphere is rising. At the current rate of emissions, we may have only a handful of years to limit global warming to a non-catastrophic 1.5 degrees. Retrofitting all urban buildings to be net zero sounds wildly ambitious, but that's what decarbonization would entail.

"The amount of carbon in the atmosphere continues to increase," Berkebile noted. "And unless we change that, we'll have beautiful LEED Platinum buildings in an environment where human life is not possible."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.