Where is LEED Leading Us?…And Should We Follow?

CityCenter, a Gold Building in Las Vegas, demonstrates the irony of a Certified, sustainable, building in the unsustainable context of the desert.

At this point, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that the Earth is under siege. From us, from our resource-consuming ways, ultimately, from our thoughtlessness.

Green Design is not just a catch-phrase, but a mindset. As Architects, implementing the principles of Green Design means putting thoughtfulness back into our actions, conscientiously considering our built environment, and reversing the havoc we have wreaked on our resources.

To do that, we need to know what Green Design means, and be able to evaluate what it is and isn’t. Using Earth Day as our excuse then, let’s examine the single most influential factor on the future of Green Design: LEED.

To its credit, LEED has moved a mountain: it has taken the “mysticism” out of Green Design and made Big Business realize its financial benefits, incentivizing and legitimizing it on a grand scale.

But as LEED gains popularity, its strength becomes its weakness; it’s becoming dangerously close to creating a blind numbers game, one that, instead of inspiring innovative, forward-looking design, will freeze us in the past.

Read the 10 Pros & Cons of LEED, after the break…

LEED Gold Office Tower in Warsaw. © Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects

The Pros and Cons of LEED

LEED came to life from an unlikely pair. A scientist, Rob Watson, and a Real-Estate developer, David Gottfried, who wanted to establish Green Building as a viable emergent market. So they came up with a business-savvy strategy.

As Richard Fedirizzi, the current CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, explains: “If we could invite business to the table, we could develop standards relative to building performance, buy in at the very top, and be able to transform the marketplace toward sustainable buildings.” [1] A trickle-down effect.

To create a LEED they could “sell,” the USGBC faced a challenge: convincing businesses that building Green wasn’t about hugging trees and eating granola, but about creating environmentally conscientious buildings that would consequently increase efficiency and decrease cost. But how?

PRO #1The USGBC provided research-backed standards that gave Green Design credibility.

The USGBC formed committees of experts to determine the kind and amount of characteristics a building must have to merit the word “Green.” [2] After all, a building can call itself “Green” by installing a rooftop garden, but if it has materials air-lifted from China and  poorly insulated windows, its poor use of resources would suggest it’s really not that “Green” at all.

LEED Point System. © USGBC

PRO #2: LEED established a broad-spectrum, holistic approach to being Green. 

Thus was born LEED, a set of standards that refocused attention towards a “life cycle” evaluation of a building. Its point system necessitated that a building earn points across a range of key areas, ensuring a more holistic design approach that prioritized long-term energy-efficiency as well as worker health and productivity. (For a helpful breakdown of LEED, check out our infographic).

PRO #3: LEED legitimized/mainstreamed Green Design as a Business investment.

The tactic worked. Before LEED, businesses shunned environmentally-friendly materials or energy-efficient systems for their high initial cost and “pseudo-science.” [3] LEED legitimized building Green, making businesses clamor for its long-term cost-saving and, let’s be honest, PR potential.

PRO #4The desire for LEED’s status symbol often ensures follow-through of Green building practices.

As soon as businesses jumped, generating publicity and bragging rights, others followed suit. Search “LEED” in Google News and you’ll see thousands of businesses, schools, homes, proudly advertising their accreditation (from 12 in 2000 to 12,000 today). It’s so coveted, the desire to attain it often trumps the difficulties reaching it. One architect, Brian Malarkey, of Kirksey, sums it up so:

“Having worked on millions of square feet of LEED projects, I am here to tell you that sometimes the only thing preventing cutting out a particular green feature is the potential loss of LEED credits and a resulting rating that’s lower than desired. Bragging about your green buildings without this third-party can sound hollow.” [4]

The first LEED Silver Condos in Seattle, by Mithun. ©Benjamin Benschneider

CON #1: LEED’s status symbol and point system encourage you to “game” the system (and not think about the environment at all).

Of course, the desire to chase LEED for its status symbol rather than its actual environmental benefits (you can think of it as Conspicuous Conservation) has its own drawbacks. Consider the article “How to Cheat* at LEED for Homes“:

“pick up as many points as you can by doing the easy stuff. While this isn’t technically cheating, it will feel like it because many of these things are things that quality builders do already [...] here are 22 simple things you can do to get up to 70 points [..] 1. Build a smaller home/call everything a bedroom…” [5]

This “gaming” mentality results from LEED’s unweighted point system. To explain (using the classic example): if a building includes a bike rack, it will earn a point. Fair enough, it’s an easy to way to encourage alternative transportation and employee health. The extremely costly redevelopment of a “brownfield,” an area contaminated by hazardous substances? Also one point. [6] Tough choice.

Moreover, LEED only provides up to 4 Bonus points in the category of Innovative Design, meaning you could create the most cutting-edge display of sustainable design that’s ever been imagined, but if it doesn’t fit the categories, it won’t make the cut. For those looking to check boxes, and even those genuinely concerned about the environment, LEED makes no incentive for innovation.

Kerchum Residence, the first LEED Platinum home in Western Canada, by Frits de Vries Architecture © Lucas Finlay

CON #2: LEED is difficult & expensive to do on your own.

Moreover, as the need to “cheat” suggests, and despite online tools to facilitate the process, understanding LEED can be an “overwhelming and intimidating” process of research and time-consuming paperwork. You can either spend weeks familiarizing oneself with the details or spend money to hire a consultant. [7]

Then there are the fees for registration ($750 to $3,750) and certification ($1,500 to $7,500), the high construction costs associated with sustainable materials and systems, the required commissioning fees, and expensive energy modeling (not required but highly useful for de-tangling the matrix of energy efficiency). [8]

This has led some buildings to forego LEED altogether. While LEED certifiable, Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center, didn’t become certified “because it could have added as much as $75,000 to the cost, just for the paperwork,” according to Ken Leinbach, the center’s executive director. [9] Without (and sometimes even with) the financial backing of a business/institution, LEED just isn’t feasible.

A LEED Certified, solar-powered parking garage. Found via TreeHugger. Photo © Wendi Marafino.

CON #3: LEED is an isolated evaluation of a building’s design, which ignores context and performance.

Indeed, for some in the Environmental Design game, the entire concept of a LEED certification is laughable, for one fatal flaw: no matter the un-sustainability of the context (the middle of a desert, for example), no matter its purpose (even a structure for parking), if a building adheres to the requirements, a fundamentally unsustainable building could still attain LEED certification. [10]

Moreover, LEED is a design-tool, not a performance-measurement tool, and although a LEED-certified building can report its annual energy and water use (in exchange for a “report card” of its usage rates), there’s no guarantee that it’s actually following through on the energy-saving measures its design proposed.

CON #4If LEED becomes a mandate, it loses its adaptability.

Unfortunately, the more status LEED gains, the more businesses seek its approval, the more Federal departments and local governments begin to adopt it and provide tax breaks to incentivize it – the more that designers/developers will begin to blindly follow its requirements without truly questioning them at all.

As Warren Cooksey, councilman for the city of Charlotte, North Carolina (then debating following LEED for its municipal buildings), put it: “The quickest way to fail to be a leader is to adopt someone else’s standard and follow it blindly.” [11]

The VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre, by Perkins+Will, aims to meet the LivingBuilding Challenge, an alternate Certification system to LEED.

The Last Word

THE FINAL CON: As it stands, LEED represents a conceptual framework that, while better than the status-quo, does not encourage forward-thinking design 

LEED provides very little room to recognize design that goes beyond the scope of its categories. As part of a huge bureaucratic structure that takes years to update, LEED cannot help but be perennially stuck in the past.

Would, for example, a building reflecting the principles of Regenerative design, that aims to be more than carbon-neutral, to replicate/regenerate nature and integrate a building with its natural context, be LEED certified? Probably not. If LEED, fast-becoming the standard in Green Design, can’t recognize this next frontier in Green Design, is it really that useful tool at all?

THE FINAL PRO: The USGBC is receptive to change.

For LEED v3, the USGBC attempted to correct its short-comings by amping up the categories of Site Sustainability and Regional Priority (which could theoretically compensate for less sustainable locations). Perhaps even more radically, it has developed LEED-ND (Neighborhood Development) which looks beyond the limits of the building towards its context, and would encourage the smart design and performance of more effective sustainable communities. [12]

As LEED 2012 prepares to be released, we can only hope that it will correct its pitfalls: improve its bureaucratic complexity and cost, increase the weight – or even mandate – points of critical importance, provide a system to monitor building performance, encourage a more nuanced understanding of context, and – vitally – allow more room for the innovation that will lead us into the future.



[1] Kamenetz, Anya. “The Green Standard? LEED buildings get lots of buzz, but the point is getting lost.” Fast Company. October 1st, 2007. <http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/119/the-green-standard.html>

[2] Holtry, Matthew. “USGBC: True Green LEEDership.” TriplePundit.com. August 17, 2009. <http://www.triplepundit.com/2009/08/usgbc-true-green-leedership/>

[3] Seruga, Anthony. “Building Green – Getting Started.” LEED.net. <http://www.leed.net/leed-construction-articles/getting-started-green-building.asp>

[4] Bardaglio, Peter W. “To LEED or Not to LEED.” Today’s Campus. <http://www.todayscampus.com/articles/load.aspx?art=1823>

[5] Seville, Carl. “How to Cheat* at LEED for Homes” GreenBuildingAdvisor.com. May 24, 2011. <http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/green-building-curmudgeon/how-cheat-leed-homes>

[6] Koncelik, Joe. “U.S. Green Building Council Launches LEED v3 – Bike Racks v. Brownfields” Ohio Environmental Law Blog. May 7, 2009. <http://www.archdaily.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=227934&action=edit&message=10>

[7] ”The Cost of LEED Certification.” BuildingGreen.com. May 1, 2010.<http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm/2010/5/1/The-Cost-of-LEED-Certification/>

[8] Bowen, Ted. “LEED green-building program confronts critics and growing pains.” Grist. October 27, 2005. <http://grist.org/cities/leed1/>

[9] Schendler, Auden. “Top green-building system is in desperate need of repair.” Grist. October 27, 2005. <http://grist.org/cities/leed/>

[10] Alter, Lloyd. “Slate on ‘Decidedly Dupable’ LEED” TreeHugger. January 2, 2008. <http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/slate-on-decidedly-dupable-leed.html>

[11] Vanderpool, Cory. “LEED: Follow or Blaze Your Own Green Trail.” TriplePundit.com August 17, 2009. <http://www.triplepundit.com/2009/08/leed-follow-or-blaze-your-own-green-trail/>

[12] Shaw, Charles. “LEED is expanding to neighborhoods, and Doug Farr is leading the way.” Grist. October 12, 2006. <http://grist.org/politics/shaw3/>


Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Where is LEED Leading Us?…And Should We Follow?" 23 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=227934>
  • jim

    think now: Im a building owner and LEED certification gives me value and my tenants too. Without LEED where is the incentive to ask an architect to design the type of building LEED offers?

    We know architects can innovate if asked to but why should we ask them to if there is no incentive? Each municipality can cook up its own version of LEED then its up to each architect to navigate local bylaws without any consistent result or basis for evidence based analysis. So much for bureaucracy. LEED does add a layer of complexity to design but hey that is the story of architecture over the centuries.

    Right now LEED is an easy target for criticisms but at least it is a target by which all other efforts compare themselves. Thus LEED is leadership.

    Most architects are not remotely interested in ‘green’ innovating so much less their clients to fund and support sustainable design. At least LEED success -and sustainable building- depends a lot on ‘buying’ into it by the major stakeholders.

    Without the recognizable standard of LEED, that Vegas building would have been built like a conventional building with no improvements. And there would be far fewer ‘green’ buildings today even if Joe architect had a better idea.

  • Trep55

    As the greens struggle to figure out how a cause so righteous, so necessary has gone so far off course, the Kool-Aide drinkers among them have frenetically concocted and endlessly repeated a narrative that casts all blame on the vileness and the stupidity of their opponents. Those awful climate deniers and their nefarious Big Oil paymasters are the vicious super villains who stopped this glorious social movement dead in its tracks. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and other evil quacks manufactured the appearance of scandal — the East Anglia emails, the ‘glaciergate’ charge and so forth. Aided by a clueless media, and pushed by evil carbon emitters, these non-stories took on a macabre life of their own.

    You want to make the air cleaner to breath via architecture, fine.But don’t tell us the earth is melting its do-or-die/ Armageddon when there is just as much “scientific” evidence on both sides of the argument.As architects/humans we find a need to comprehend everything and inject logic into every unexplainable scenario we encounter.Who’s to say that climate change is supposed to happen and we are supposed to adjust rather than fight against?Just doing what i was taught in arch-school listen and challenge…

  • PatrickLBC

    Excellent article, thank you for examining both sides of the issue. While LEED is mostly about politics and bragging rights, it is better than nothing. And for those people who actually care about sustainability, there are many other rating systems (Living Building Challenge, the 2030 Challenge, etc.) that DO encourage innovation and holistic sustainability, without the high cost and bureaucracy of LEED. But for the 95% of clueless developers, LEED is a good start.

  • Emily

    I really appreciate the two-sided view of this article, as I think there are both more negative and positive arguments for LEED than people may realize at first. However, I would urge you to look at the draft of LEED 2012 to get a more accurate view of where LEED is heading for the future. These drafts are publicly available at usgbc.org/LEED2012 and include a new credit category for Location and Transportation, as well as more performance-based and life-cycle thinking approaches. Of course, it is still not perfect, but LEED is striving to maintain its leadership role in the green building community.

  • Ralph Bennett

    Good piece – misses some points. LEED basically encourages good things – appropriate orientation, energy efficiency. natural light, views and ventilation, low impact site development – and the integrated design process which brings everyone to the table.

    It is getting more complex – LEED 2012 adds categories addressing process, not content; and its development was apparently led by ceiling raisers, not floor lifters. And it is hugely expensive and complex already.

    Enter the IGCC which will lift the floor – but has its own issues, including being patterned too closely on LEED while being “mandatory”.

    LEED is fine for what it is – a voluntary standard – and a very useful taxonomy of building. Don’t sweat cutting edge – creativity is not being suppressed. Worry more about mandatory standards – adopted by public officials with good intentions and little knowledge of building.

  • Susana Saraiva

    This is an excellent article for people to understand the positive and negative aspects of LEED certification, however I must say that, I dont think we can blame the tool, but only the actors. It is the responsibility of designers to be able to follow rules and create good design, if big corporations are just interested in the certification well that wouldn’t be nay different if there was no certification, meaning, they wouldn’t care about design anyway. The tool is trying to do its best to make designers and companies be aware of environmental issues, and like all tools it can be tricked, its up to companies, media, designers, schools, organizations to raise awareness on environmental issues + the importance of good design.