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

CityCenter, a LEED Gold Building, in Las Vegas demonstrates the irony of a LEED 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…

The Pros and Cons of LEED

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

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.

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

LEED Point System. © USGBC

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 certification credits and a resulting rating that’s lower than desired. Bragging about your green buildings without this third-party certification can sound hollow.” [4]

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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 Last Word

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

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.

[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.

[4] Bardaglio, Peter W. “To LEED or Not to LEED.” Today’s Campus.

[5] Seville, Carl. “How to Cheat* at LEED for Homes” GreenBuildingAdvisor.com. May 24, 2011.

[6] Koncelik, Joe. “U.S. Green Building Council Launches LEED v3 – Bike Racks v. Brownfields” Ohio Environmental Law Blog. May 7, 2009.

[7] ”The Cost of LEED Certification.” BuildingGreen.com. May 1, 2010.

[8] Bowen, Ted. “LEED green-building program confronts critics and growing pains.” Grist. October 27, 2005.

[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.

[11] Vanderpool, Cory. “LEED: Follow or Blaze Your Own Green Trail.” TriplePundit.com August 17, 2009.

[12] Shaw, Charles. “LEED is expanding to neighborhoods, and Doug Farr is leading the way.” Grist. October 12, 2006.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Where is LEED Leading Us?...And Should We Follow?" 23 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/227934/where-is-leed-leading-us-and-should-we-follow> ISSN 0719-8884

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