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The Status of LEED in NYC, Positive Lessons

By: John Tepper Marlin

December 03, 2007

The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program is very successful, judging by the number of signs in New York City with large headlines indicating pursuit of this or that LEED certification, and the number of real estate advertisements that mention LEED certification achieved or in process.

LEED is a project of the U.S. Green Building Council based in Washington D.C.

The idea of using one's buying power to shop for a better world is at least 20 years old (the first edition of Shopping for a Better World appeared in 1988). The focus initially was on buying at supermarkets and the "conscious consumer" has persuaded European supermarkets as a group to use their massive buying power to encourage suppliers to become certified against environmental and social standards.

Actual NYC & Metro LEED Certifications, 2004-2007
Based on the advertising, one would think there must be hundreds of LEED-certified buildings. And indeed, for the NYC area, 155 projects are listed on the Green Buildings Council registry as being in the process of seeking certification. In addition, more than 200 more buildings in NY State (no regional breakdown is available) are on a confidential track and are pursuing their certification in a less visible way.

However, the number of buildings that are actually certified to LEED standards is just 14, according to the latest information, through September 2007, from the NYC area chapter of the Green Building Council .

The first NYC area certification was in April 2004 at the Gold level, the only certification that year. In 2005, one more was added at the plain-vanilla certification level. In 2006, eight more were added, including the first Platinum certification. In 2007, four more were added through September.

The fact that only one project is certified to the Platinum level suggests that this level is very hard to achieve.

C+F Office, New York 12/13/2006

The Solaire/20 River Terrace, New York 4/13/2004
Seven World Trade Center, New York 3/7/2006
The Helena, New York 6/9/2006
Tribeca Green, Battery Park City, New York 6/21/2006
Hearst Headquarters, New York 8/17/2006
Dagher Engineering Future Faci, New York 1/19/2007
New York Power Authority, White Plains 12/20/2006

NYC, Office of Emergency Management, Brooklyn 3/1/2007
Bronx Library Center, New York 7/21/2006
Gensler New York Office, New York 7/30/2007

NYMEX, New York 12/1/2006
Corona Maintenance Shop & Car, Queens 8/6/2007
Heimbold Visual Arts Center, Bronxville 5/4/2005

Eight Positive Lessons From LEED
A general problem with certification is that the standards of environmental and social activist NGOs tend to be very high. Activists go after the industry leaders (sensible enough for publicity purposes) while industry practice tends to lag behind. The LEED program offers valuable positive lessons on how to motivate both leaders and laggards. (In a subsequent article I will discuss some dangers with the LEED approach.)

1.The Yardstick, the LEED Point System, Is Easy to Understand.
Each good deed, like an Eagle Scout badge, gets you a point. Reduce water usage in the landscaping by 50 percent and get one point. Reduce overall water use 20 percent, one point. Divert 50 percent of construction waste, one point. There are 69 possible points in six areas. The bar is pretty low at 26 points for plain-vanilla certification of a new building. The point requirement goes up for silver, gold and platinum (minimum of 52 points). Only six points are required of all building projects: fundamental building systems commissioning, minimum energy performance, CFC reduction in HVAC&R equipment, a room for storage and collection of recyclables, minimum indoor air quality performance and environmental tobacco smoke control.

2. The First-LEED Level Bar is Easy to Achieve.
To persuade the average business that a certification is worth getting, it must appear attainable. That means a low entry bar. Apart from the six required points, all it takes to get a plain LEED certificate is 20 more points. Beyond that, builders can aspire to silver, gold and platinum certification.

3. The LEED System Is Flexible.
The 20 points beyond the first six to qualify for first-level LEED certification may be chosen from six different areas. Sustainable Sites (14 points possible), Water Efficiency (5 points), Energy and Atmosphere (17 points), Materials and Resources (13 points), Indoor Environmental Quality (15 points), Innovation and Design Process (5 points). The last was added because of complaints that the point-mongering approach gave insufficient recognition to overall environmentally friendly design concepts.

4. LEED Offers Challenges for Industry Leaders.
If green purchasing is a luxury good, then the Green Building Council has done a good job of promoting its top brand, the Platinum certification. In New York City, having been attacked for environmental failings in his previous office, Al Gore was eager to take space in a Durst building at One Bryant Park that seeks a LEED platinum rating. Battery Park City now has a building, "The Visionaire", that was designed to qualify for the platinum LEED rating. The Goldman Sachs building in Jersey City uses wood that is 100 percent compliant with LEED requirements. Ground has been broken for the first green school. Stop & Shop and Giant Supermarkets are building LEED-rate green supermarkets. The US Green Building Council is so confident in the difficulty of achieving Platinum status that those who do will get all certification fees ($2,000-$12,000) refunded for any building that achieves LEED Platinum.

5. LEED Builds a Green Industry.
The point system encourages builders to do certain things and buy certain products that help the green-building industry to grow. For example, a building gets a point for having an architect who is a LEED Accredited Professional, which encourages architects to get LEED training. Market researchers SBI (Specialists in Business Information) predict that the market for green building materials will grow from about $2.2 billion in 2006 to $4.7 billion in 2011, a growth rate of about 17 percent per year.

6. LEED Is Scalable and Expandable.
The LEED approach started with office buildings and spread to other types of buildings - applying the green focus to the built environment, such as offices, schools, hospitals, homes and communities. The ratings are in place for New Construction, Existing Buildings, Commercial Interiors (applicable to tenant improvements), Core & Shell,Schools, Retail, Healthcare, and Homes and are used by architects, real estate professionals, facility managers, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, construction managers, lenders, state and local governments across the country for public-owned and public-funded buildings and federal agencies like the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Energy, and State.

7. LEED Doesn't Reinvent the Wheel.
The easiest way to get points in the LEED program is to buy products that generate points, in particular certain building materials. The Green Building Council doesn't try to set a multitude of standards for building materials but instead endorses standards of tohers and refers builders to products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, described as "the most comprehensive" rating), Green Seal, Scientific Certification Systems (Green Cross), Green Guard, Carpet & Rug Institute, Building Green Inc., Energy Star Roof program and others. The FSC rating is the standard that most clearly complies with the principle of separation between accreditation and certification. The FSC sets the standards for the wood that is certified and then accredits other nonprofit organizations (like Rainforest Alliance) or businesses to certify that the wood meets the standards. This is best practice according to the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance (ISEAL).

8. Standard-Setting Is Broad-Based and Transparent.
The standards for the rating systems are developed through a multi-stakeholder process led by volunteer LEED committees. Members are practitioners and experts from many parts of the building industry. Stakeholders can comment and review and members vote on new rating systems. The system has an open appeals process. Ratings are now being developed in Neighborhood Development and comments have been flying fast.

NEXT: Some questions about the LEED System.

John Tepper Marlin, Ph.D. — Principal of CityEconomist and is an Adjunct Professor of Business Ethics at NYU's Stern School of Business

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