Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Greenwashing the District



Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or in some sustainable backwater like, Tulsa. . . or New York, you’re familiar by now with LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Started by a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1993, this sustainable building rating program has been administered by the US Green Building Council since 1994 and has emerged as the gold standard for sustainable design.

The program certifies buildings AND accredits architects (and anyone else who cares to memorize arcane passages from the the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers standards on ventilation). L’Enfant Terrible has been accredited since 2006 and has won many cocktail arguments against lesser, unaccredited architects in that time.

Among American cities, only Portland has more certified buildings than Washington, but with hundreds more currently under way, Washington will soon be the undisputed champion of LEED certified buildings. A dubious honor according to an excellent and provocative new book by New Yorker and writer David Owen, Green Metropolis: What the City can teach the Country about True Sustainability. The “City” in Owen’s subtitle is New York, and the “Country” is that vast, unpopulated Saul Steinberg's “View of the World”. Owen’s thesis is simple: that thanks to its sheer density, New York City is the most sustainable city in America and that when one considers all the externalities, the most inefficient building in Manhattan is better than the most sustainable building outside of a city. Owen makes a strong case. A majority of New York’s commuters take mass transit or walk to their jobs in tall buildings served by centralized infrastructure. New Yorkers, like city dwellers all over the world, consume fewer resources per capita. If you love the country, you should live in a city.

As a counterpoint, Owen singles out Washington DC as the antithesis of New York’s compact, sustainable design. Washington’s fatal flaws, according to Owen, are L’Enfant’s plan for broad avenues and sweeping public spaces and Washington’s restriction on building height, all of which conspire to spread the city out and make density impossible. “The sprawl of Metropolitan Washington is not a perversion of L’Enfant’s plan,” says Owen, “It’s the logical result.”

But Owen reserves his most pointed criticism for the very tool we hope will make our cities greener, one building at a time: LEED. It’s a little known fact that most architects, particularly the ones who take sustainability seriously, all hate LEED. With its prescriptions and brownie points for bike racks and proximity to alternative fueling stations, LEED is — in Owen’s estimation — both too difficult and too easy. Too difficult because the process is stupifyingly bureaucratic, requiring even LEED accredited designers to hire expensive LEED accredited consultants to manage the paperwork. And too easy because even after much refinement, many designers and developers still game the system with a few cosmetic changes to achieve LEED certification with a minimum of effort, expense, or innovation.

Owen sites a 2008 study by the USGBC that LEED certified buildings rent for $11.24 per square foot more and sell for $177 per square foot more than non-LEED buildings and enjoy 3.8% higher occupancy rates. This lesson has not been lost on developers in Washington and one can hardly blame them for taking every advantage in this economy. On your next drive around the city, look carefully at the construction signs and you’ll discover how few new project are not LEED certified. But the question remains: is our city really more sustainable, or is this just greenwashing on a colossal scale?

17 comments:

Eric on Apr 6, 2010, 3:54:00 PM said...

I have one word: Paris.

With height limits even more restrictive than DC, along with wide boulevards and some pretty big open spaces, Paris has still managed to become twice as dense as New York City.

This is not to say that the Big Apple isn't sustainable, because it is. But height limits have a limited (pardon the pun) effect on densities and tall buildings are clearly not the be all end all of sustainable tactics. We could all live 50 miles away from our jobs and still be sustainable if we drove solar-powered cars and lived in mud huts.

DC is one of the greenest cities in the country, and while LEED does help, it certainly doesn't do all the work.

IMGoph on Apr 6, 2010, 7:44:00 PM said...

sure, the height limits keep the city from being denser, but claiming that the width of the streets has something to do with it is a bit of a stretch, methinks.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Paris is the perfect counter point to the argument that high limits reduce density. DC only has 600k not necessarily because of the high limit. But, rather the fact that we have so many single family homes and private years. DC could easily have 2 million people without raising the height limit.

Cites said...

"Owen sites a 2008 study by the USGBC that LEED certified buildings rent for $11.24 per square foot more and sell for $177 per square foot more than non-LEED buildings and enjoy 3.8% higher occupancy rates."

Seriously? Get worse. QC your work.

Justin on Apr 7, 2010, 9:22:00 AM said...

There is an alternative to LEED building standards called Green Globes. It is based out of Portland, Oregon and it is much less bureaucratic.

A-lo on Apr 7, 2010, 10:11:00 AM said...

If the future of our cities is based on Manhattan, I will be seriously depressed.

Tom said...

But the posting doesn't really indicate *why* LEED is just "greenwashing." Having bike racks is a good thing. But LEED gives an applicant points for a lot of other stuff.

I'm not saying I don't agree with the headline -- it's just that the argument isn't made. I'd like to know more about what, exactly, makes LEED non-sustainable. The bureaucratic problems don't go to the core of that question.

David on Apr 7, 2010, 2:44:00 PM said...

Overall, the LEED program has been enormously successful at creating and transforming the market for green design. I believe this was a fundamental goal of the USGBC when creating the program. All those LEED buildings around DC create a market for materials with recycled content, for instance.

The certification bureaucracy is what most architects complain about and the USGBC is well aware of these complaints. Other people and designers who argue that the LEED requirements are too lax should realize that an overly stringent program would stifle growth in the marketplace. While designing a zero energy building is commendable, if the USGBC had required this level of design at the outset, the robust market for green design would not exist today.

The more LEED buildings the better!

Ken on Apr 7, 2010, 6:27:00 PM said...

Cites;

The quote about the sales and rentals is accurate; that's the author's contention, we did not independently verify that he is right.

Anonymous said...

Another reality of DC's height limit is that we have more street trees and green roofs that NYC which makes DC a far more sustainable city, than the steel metropolis to the north.

I appreciate how LEED has pushed innovation and forced change in code and regulations that opened the door for further innovation.

Looking at the numbers in DC, the real story is the rise in LEED EB O&M buildings both registered and certified. These are existing buildings operating in more energy efficient and sustainable manner than they are currently. That is great if LEED is a tool that can take them in that direction.

Anonymous said...

Co Star actually puts the numbers even higher than the study quoted in the post.

LongTimeRez said...

Ken-

I don't think "Cites" was quibbling about the facts and figures in the post but about the improper use of the word "sites" in the sentence. It should read:

"Owen cites* a 2008 study by the USGBC..."

*short for "citation" (5. the act of citing or quoting a reference to an authority or a precedent.
6.a passage cited; quotation.)

John H on Apr 8, 2010, 6:17:00 PM said...

I'm not convinced with Owens' argument that the height limit is a big constraint on DC's ability to be resource-efficient. As others have noted - Paris, or most of New York City beyond those portions of Manhattan that are built out higher than 10-12 stories.
Taken to the extreme, high buildings begin to become more inefficient, as the costs of vertical transportation and utility distribution increase.
Also excessive concentration of jobs in the center, could be less efficient than distributing jobs closer to people's homes, and also concentration requires building more capacity into the transportation system to accommodate those peak loads.
So maybe if DC just kept spreading out at 10-12 stories along new transit lines it might develop a more efficient network than NYC.

I agree with the LEED is so bureaucratic comments. But to its credit, it is a work in progress though, 3.0 has given more emphasis to energy use, and it does make designers or owners think about issues that previously would have been ignored - like bike racks.

Bill Brasky on Apr 9, 2010, 9:50:00 AM said...

Regarding the favorable rental rates and sales prices quoted, I do not dispute this fact however, consider for a second the age of LEED certified buildings and those that are not; newer building or recently retrofitted/rehabbed will always be more desirable than older product. This result does not prove a direct cause and effect relationship IMO

realWashingtonian said...

Re: Bill Brasky

I had the same question, about the differences in leasing rates and prices being due to age, not LEED certification. Not sure about the study cited, but the Co-Star study says that it controlled for age of building.

Anonymous said...

I hate that Leed is like a private island with limited access with the general public and even entrepreneurs.

They should capitalize on there position as a organization at the forefront of green policies by providing free clinics to entrepreneurs, building owners and managers.

LEED instead has a anti-social feel and approach.

Anonymous said...

I hate that Leed is like a private island with limited access with the general public and even entrepreneurs.

They should capitalize on there position as a organization at the forefront of green policies by providing free clinics to entrepreneurs, building owners and managers.

LEED instead has a anti-social feel and approach.

 

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