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LEED Gold: Worse Than Worthless, Part 2

Last month we explored the stated reasons why a New York mechanical systems designer, Henry Gifford, filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Green Building Council. He contends that the USGBC has fraudulently led its clients to believe that LEED-certified buildings are more energy efficient than their non-LEED contemporaries, while the statistics seem to refute the USGBC claims. I concur with Gifford, but my concerns run even deeper.

This brings us to the most serious indictment of the USGBC: the charge that it is more concerned with wielding power than with protecting the environment. This is an admittedly subjective conclusion that I have come to that others might not draw, but it is not a reach. Weigh the evidence yourself, then decide whether corporate influence on LEED guidelines is prevalent in the USGBC:

• Consider that LEED projects benefit from corpulent tax credits from hundreds of federal, state and municipal programs, and that a number of government entities have actually mandated LEED certification for any subsidized project over a certain dollar amount.

• Consider that five billion square feet of commercial space is currently involved in LEED certification.

• Consider that $464 million worth of construction registers with LEED every business day!

• Consider that since 2000, the USGBC’s membership has quadrupled to a whopping 20,000-member organization, including manufacturers, suppliers, contractors, design professionals and government entities throughout the building industry.

• Consider, intuitively, the awesome power vested by virtually all Americans in an organization that claims to be a trusted steward of the planet’s well-being.

Power Corrupts

Call me old-fashioned, but I subscribe to some pretty well-worn adages, and one of them reads: “power corrupts.” I think we’ve established the power component above; as for the corruption, let’s revisit that membership demographic. What possible motive could all of these corporate interests have in joining such a powerhouse organization like the USGBC aside from the altruistic zeal that is inevitably aroused at the prospect of saving the planet? While I am certain that many are somewhat well intentioned, can we perhaps indulge for a moment my suggestion that there might be just a tad of enlightened self-interest among some of the more predatory members? Could there be a fox in the henhouse? A skeptical contemplation of the profit motive leads one to consider that the benefits of membership include a vote in the council favoring your own product or service at the exclusion of your non-member competitor. Might this not provide some added incentive to join the ranks?

If this all seems a little too hypothetical, consider that Rick Fedrizzi, founding member and CEO of USGBC, is also a 30-year employee of the Carrier Corporation, a leading HVAC systems manufacturer. Suspiciously, LEED adopted a criterion back in the 1990s based on refrigerant use that effectively barred Trane, Carrier’s number one competitor, from LEED projects for more than a decade. Hmm … coincidence or market manipulation?

Such tales have led key supporters, and even USGBC board members to question whether the council is an environmental group or a manufacturer’s association. And while objective readers may not conclude as readily as I have that there is a shady shade of LEED green that has a monetary cast to it, the evidence given here should at least give reasonable people pause.

Ask Yourself …

But put aside my personal judgment that the USGBC has become an outsized watchdog that is more concerned with driving off the competition than with environmental abuse. Ask yourself: Is it possible to build a non-LEED commercial project in our community that is more energy efficient than its LEED counterpart? The USGBC’s own statistics bear out that this is being achieved quite frequently. The next logical question is, why spend upwards of $100,000 more for a building that is less green?

The answer is clear: If you are content with only the image of environmental altruism, then having a Big Brother organization like LEED to help you jump through hoops should give you that golden feel-good feeling you’re after, excessive cost notwithstanding. But if you understand that energy conservation is the most effective path to positive environmental change, perhaps you should reconsider LEED’s usefulness.

For myself, I find greenie points worse than worthless, and I find the specter of a rapidly expanding green bureaucracy rife with corporate thugs a much more alarming prospect than the unlikely event of the Floridian peninsula becoming the next Atlantis. But then, that’s me.

Vince Bailey is an estimator and project director for MKB Construction, a Phoenix, Ariz.–based wall and ceiling contractor.

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