A milestone marking how green building is maturing in the United States has been reached: more square feet of existing buildings have been retrofitted to meet LEED standards than the square footage of new construction that’s LEED certified. Ever since the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program was established in 2000 and became the gold standard in green building, it’s been a young structure’s game: new construction is erected to meet LEED standards, but all those drafty old energy hog commercial buildings continued on their inefficient way.
Since old buildings vastly outnumber new ones — the U.S. Green Building Council says 60 billion square feet of commercial space already exists — it would take years to start harvesting widespread benefits from green building practices.
As Melinda Burns wrote for us last year, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development terms this scenario “sleepwalking into crises.”
“The Sleepwalking path achieves occasional advances, but these are soon lost and total energy consumption is much higher by 2050. The number of low-energy buildings grows erratically and slowly,” the business council wrote in a 2009 report.
In 2008, a year before the business council’s dire assessment, the Green Building Council started pushing to teach old buildings new green tricks. By the next year, the number of LEED-certified renovation projects (note that refers to projects, not square feet) exceeded the number of new projects, a trend that has continued since.
Burns’ article examined one such project, the Empire State Building’s “deep energy retrofit.” That effort included steps such as installing reflective barriers behind radiators; renovating the heating and cooling systems; providing electrical meters for tenants’ offices; and working with tenants to make sure they maximize the use of natural light through gadgets such as sensors that automatically switch off lights when enough sunlight comes through the building’s 6,500 windows.
Green continues to be a dominant trend in U.S. construction, even as LEED itself faces critics who challenge its effectiveness. In a January report on the green building market, McGraw-Hill Construction noted that LEED specifications are mentioned in 71 percent of commercial projects valued at more than $50 million and are currently a component in a quarter all new projects.