Developing Sustainable Cities – What Does It Take?

Whether it’s designing schools, collaborative working environments, or even new neighborhoods, a fundamental tenet of my architecture is to promote sustainability in the built environment. But shaping the built environment is a complex design challenge and requires us to think beyond just construction and materials. Fortunately, greater attention is being given to the creation of ecologically friendly buildings. This positive trend warrants a closer look at the programs we rely on for direction and advice on the matter.

While I welcome any new tools that offer a means of evaluating effectiveness, I am aware that even the most well intended programs require scrutiny to assure they actually promote a public benefit. The LEED rating system is a terrific case study. In the book Architecture and Sustainability: Critical Perspectives for Integrated Design, Nicolas Rivard and I discuss the limits of LEED. This article aims to bring that discussion to a broader audience.

Today, governments must think beyond the impact of single buildings and address the larger scales of development that characterize contemporary urbanization. (Image source: Bernardyong, Wikipedia)

Who Benefits from LEED
In an attempt to establish a nationally uniform sustainable building certification, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) instituted the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. This first step has introduced concepts of sustainable development into public discourse, but the program falls short of addressing public interests at a community level.

LEED operates as a national (and sometimes international) certification program that gives credence to projects deemed “sustainable” according to USGBC standards. Despite not being an official government oversight agency, the USGBC has positioned LEED as the single most relied upon measure of environmentally sound building practices for the design and construction industry. This is problematic because LEED was developed by and for industry professionals and, thus, naturally caters to their vested interests.

To receive LEED certification, building projects must satisfy prerequisites and earn points to achieve various levels of certification. In a hierarchical structure of “credit categories” that operates much like credit cards, a participant can pick and choose from the points offered in assorted criteria, moving up the ladder in status from the basic certification (40-49 points) to silver, then gold, and finally platinum at 80+ points.

The certification holder gains status. The website boasts of having “an immense infrastructure developed to support the leaders in the industry as they innovate and create cutting-edge, high performance buildings.” In fact, we are told, “No other rating system has an infrastructure that comes close.” Certification holders are assured their “lifetime of returns” will not only come from monetary savings in energy, etc., but will also come as rewards in the form of “a host of incentives like tax rebates and zoning allowances.”

Aside from potential energy savings from following the LEED rubric, its certification grants builders with preferential status and legal leverage. Certification offers access to a huge infrastructure that makes large investments in itself and exclusive membership in a club that connects “professional credential holders” to each other. LEED is undoubtedly a strong marketing tool for business. The program is not, however, an effective or long term driver for sustainable growth and development.

And what about the public benefit? This is less obvious than the benefits afforded industry participants, since this voluntary program operates in place of, rather than in addition to, the mandates needed to change how we develop our shelters and neighborhoods.

Shortcomings of the Rating System
LEED attempts and fails to define the vague term “green building”. But the concept of sustainability cannot conform to a single definition. What is sustainable practice in one environment may actually be unsustainable in another. The plurality of definitions should all stem from the root word “sustain” which denotes nurturing and longevity.

“An apropos definition of sustainability would value economy and affordability. On the contrary, LEED implies a positive correlation between cost and sustainability. Affordability receives scant consideration. The current system places tremendous value on expensive building products and technologies while downplaying passive strategies and common sense. A LEED pursuant can earn points for purchasing mechanical louvers that protect his building from solar heat gain; he does not, however, lose points for deciding to orient the building’s glazed façade toward the sun and enabling excessive heat gain. The system is rife with contradictions that force people to chose between affordability and sustainability. This is a function of the conflict of interest inherent when members of the building industry, via USGBC, are determining what constitutes sustainable building.”  (Danish Kurani and Nicolas Rivard in Architecture and Sustainability: Critical Perspectives for Integrated Design)

There are additional challenges with LEED’s point system. Since points are not weighted according to impact, builders can find loopholes to seek the cheapest, rather than most environmentally effective, path to certification. The points-to-impact scale needs recalibration to eliminate inconsistency and require a baseline standard of sustainability for all certified projects. These glaring inadequacies in both the program’s rating system and outcomes are well documented.

So does the LEED program yield results when it comes to energy efficiency? Not always. Certification is awarded post construction but before a building has proven its performance. LEED measures potential energy savings, not actual energy savings. The rating system is an assessment of good design intent, not proven performance. But why? It’s easier (and cheaper) for the USGBC to calculate anticipated energy savings based on product spec sheets versus reviewing performance data from each project site. But optimal building performance requires educated users who understand how to efficiently operate the building. As a small step in the right direction, the USGBC now requires occupants to report energy performance for five years following construction. A next step would be to withhold certification until projects have proven themselves.

A significant design flaw of the rating system is its disregard for the nuances that differentiate regional and local environments. This one-size-fits-all national standard does the opposite by imposing uniform expectations that can detract from a community’s natural, social, economic, or political stability. In order to genuinely promote responsible building, LEED standards need major overhaul to allow projects to respond to their context’s most critical needs using available local options.

Sustainability in any context should also value human health. This factor is largely overlooked in LEED.  For instance, the rating system prefers buildings that are completely sealed and mechanically control the indoor environment; abundant studies have shown that sealed structures lock in toxins, such as formaldehyde and VOCs, from off-gasing furniture, paint, etc. Considering how much time we spend indoors these days, shouldn’t our buildings breathe some fresh air? The goal should not always be a mechanically controlled space. We should aim to construct spaces that work with, not in opposition to, the natural outdoor environment. Design strategies such as proper site positioning, heat escape options, and cross-ventilation routes allow structures to share indoor and outdoor advantages.

LEED’s definition of sustainability places architecture in opposition to the environment instead of in symbiosis with it. (Image source: Wikipedia and Neil Palmer, flickr)

The certification process itself is less than ideal. For many small projects and developers, the application fees are cost-prohibitive. One example is the Park City Utah Sports Complex which, rather than paying the hefty $30,000 for certification processing, opted to use the funds for testing wind turbines to power their facility. Despite their dedication to seeking real sustainable options, the USGBC did not certify the Park City project as an environmentally responsible development.

LEED lets too many projects fall through its cracks: good projects go without certification for lack of financial resources while unsustainable projects are often certified. Even if these programmatic weaknesses are addressed, LEED is still insufficient as the only assessment agency for sustainable building. As a voluntary rating program it has no authority to assure compliance with its minimal standards of efficiency.

Call for Government Action
National and local governments have generally been slow to acknowledge the social impact of ecological degradation. They are reluctant to impose regulations on industry without there being an immediate and direct safety concern. Yet there is clear evidence that environmental conditions of both indoor and outdoor spaces have a direct impact on our health, making it a governmental responsibility to protect the public’s health.

Local municipalities are in the best position to see the direct effects of inadequate building regulations. This makes them the perfect entity to assure that building practices in their communities account for local priorities and potential construction harms such as erosion and storm water drainage. Their own self-interests provide incentives to define and enforce sustainable development. The populace deserves to have an authority that guides sustainability for all buildings constructed in a community, not just a voluntary agency that awards projects seeking industry recognition. The local municipality is the appropriate authority for this task.

Unsustainable building practices can result in localized externalities and harms, such as energy over-consumption, landfill overcrowding, and poor water quality.

Irresponsible building practices can result in localized damage, such as energy over-consumption, landfill overcrowding, and poor water quality. (Image source: Nicolas Rivard)

Currently, local governments are relying on the privately developed LEED standards in ineffective ways. Municipalities such as Los Angeles, require that buildings beyond a certain size obtain LEED certification as a prerequisite to construction. Since the USGBC only certifies projects after construction, this Catch-22 forces municipalities to grant necessary building permits based on design intent rather than a validated certification. Given the number of changes that are typically made after design and during the construction process, these buildings may not achieve the intended sustainable outcome after all.

Some use tax incentives and expedited permitting to encourage LEED compliance. But this scenario shifts priorities from sustainability to profitability. Because of this reverse incentive, one Las Vegas casino developer who was a few points short of the platinum rating sought a quick and cheap way to gain additional points and earn a hefty tax break. The developer accrued these last points by merely printing signs for guest rooms stating that towels and sheets would only be laundered upon request. The city then awarded the casino a $25 million tax break for getting LEED certified based on this marginal improvement.

From 2005 to 2010, developers of seven LEED projects in Las Vegas saved $138 million in taxes by incorporating faux “green” features.

From 2005 to 2010, developers of seven LEED projects in Las Vegas saved $138 million in taxes by incorporating faux “green” features. (Image source: Alan Levine, flickr)

States such as New York have adopted LEED standards into law, without any customization that reflects their unique cultural and environmental conditions. Blanket acquisition of these standards into law abrogates legal rights and policy-making responsibilities of municipalities to a private interest group. Enforceable standards should be crafted by local governments; that’s their function.

These local actors will need national support and guidance as they determine and implement their own contextualized solutions. State and national government should assure that municipalities are establishing and enforcing sensible regulations of their own. Continuing education credits might even be offered to local industry officials and professionals to help them keep apprised of the latest environmental concerns and solutions. Municipalities should be provided with capital assistance to initiate and manage these new responsibilities.

Though LEED can be a useful guideline, it falls short of being a definitive solution to achieving sustainability in the built environment. The program can still maintain its goal of encouraging industry to voluntarily reach for new levels of sustainability. It can still give kudos and recognition within the industry and still connect industry professionals to one another. But governing should be left to governments that are run by the people they serve.

Supersizing Impact
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but today, megacities like Shanghai are built seemingly overnight. Today’s development happens not just at the scale of individual buildings, but of entire blocks and neighborhoods. Though the USGBC has recently established a LEED rating for neighborhood development, this optional standard is far from enough. Urban design and growth must be subject to municipal regulations that reflect local nuances and demand environmentally sound practices.

Think local, act global is a familiar meme that has guided us for the past few decades. It acknowledges that all large scale and meaningful change, whether in attitude or action, comes from fostering the local community and expands in a collective nature outward. Managing the escalating scale and rapid pace of contemporary urban development requires a culture of sustainability in everything we do. Sustainability cannot be achieved simply through bricks and mortar. Only our collective behavior and mindset can achieve it.


Sources: “The Limits of LEED” book chapter by Danish Kurani and Nicolas Rivard in Architecture and Sustainability: Critical Perspectives for Integrated Design