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Henry Gifford & USGBC’s Brendan Owens Consider Merits of LEED at NESEA Forum

The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (“NESEA”) held its annual Building Energy conference last week in Boston and sparks apparently flew during a panel discussion that featured Henry Gifford, whose controversial and well-disseminated “Lies, Damn Lies, and… (Another Look at LEED Energy Efficiency)” paper critiqued both LEED generally and the USGBC-promulgated New Buildings Institute study which concluded that LEED buildings were using 30 percent less energy than non-LEED buildings. The panel was moderated by BuildingGreen.com’s Nadav Malin and also included USGBC vice president for LEED technical development Brendan Owens. Boston-based blogger Michael Prager attended the panel and has authored an extremely insightful summary of the event, including quotes from both panelists and audience members. Many of the quotes in Mr. Prager’s article ring particularly salient in light of the uproar over the recent NAIOP study which I noted here at GRELJ last week in the context of using predicted performance as the basis for making building policy decisions. It’s clear that thus far in 2009 there has been a significant shift in attention towards building performance-related issues with respect to both LEED and green building policy generally. As states and municipalities prepare to receive close to $7 billion in stimulus funds to, in part, craft and implement local green building legislation, I think that the substance of the discussion at the NESEA event should become of increasing utility to both stakeholders and policymakers. Of course, as always, it also suggests the overarching importance of vetted contract language in connection with LEED or any other types of green building projects.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Gifford discussed both his problems with the LEED system generally, as well the basis of the critiques in his paper. “The first study we heard was in ‘07, and even before that, it was becoming law. The study came out and said that LEED-rated buildings save 25-30 percent compared to a national database. Well, I did a radical thing. I read the study, and I think there’s nothing in the study that supports, related to, or even references the conclusion. I think the conclusion was invented and stuck on. They found a 24 percent difference between two numbers, mean energy used by the national database and the median of the LEED buildings. Mean to mean would have shown that LEED did 29 percent higher.”

Mr. Owens responded by agreeing with Mr. Gifford that “before this research was done, there was a leap of faith involved, but the characterization of this as a scandal and a con is really unfortunate. I’ve never found anyone other than Henry saying that these buildings are using more energy. LEED is an assessment of potential for a building to perform. That’s all it is. We could do better to educate the public that the model isn’t good enough, yet. We haven’t really gone through and said ‘this is the first step in a 6 or 7 or 8 step process.’”

Fred Unger, a former board member of NESEA, challenged Mr. Owens and USGBC from the floor “to commit to not putting LEED or USGBC on any legislation” and called it a “scandal” that “LEED is being put into building codes when it still has these bugs to work out.” Mr. Owens responded by saying that although “the USGBC has never advocated putting this into law, it’s not the best use of this rating system.” According to Mr. Prager, Mr. Owens said USGBC would not make that commitment to keep LEED out of any legislation. He did, however, state that perhaps USGBC should have been more of an advocate in terms of articulating that LEED was not meant to be used as a legislative tool. Just as a side note, as recently as approximately one year ago, USGBC did have a statement on its home page that LEED was not intended for adoption into legislation or local building codes, but I am not certain whether it’s still there in any capacity or not.

I think it’s important for USGBC to engage building scientists like Henry Gifford at events such as these and, for that, I give it and Brendan Owens credit for attending the NESEA forum; indeed, one of the major disappointments of this past year’s Greenbuild event was USGBC’s failure to acknowledge LEED performance failures and other risk implications of building green. In a post at gbNYC that discussed the event, I wrote, with respect to building performance, that “[m]obilizing the industry is important, and creating green good will is great too, but I think the USGBC is missing a big opportunity here by not embracing these types of leaders who can help improve the energy performance of our buildings- we can’t lose sight of that ultimate goal.” Hopefully that’s what’s beginning to place here.

I also think it’s encouraging that green building performance issues are beginning to receive more media attention, particularly in the context of LEED. If anything, the NAIOP study and Henry Gifford’s ongoing efforts have stakeholders on both sides of the aisle considering the merits of predictive energy modeling more vigorously; hopefully that debate will continue as USGBC prepares to release its LEED 2009 system. In the interim, the construction and real estate attorney’s role in the context of building performance will continue to be- as Mr. Owens hinted at during the NESEA panel- educating clients that the LEED model “isn’t good enough, yet” and may present liability implications that they have not previously had to consider.

I am certain there will be much more to say about both this forum and the NAIOP study in the coming weeks and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reactions in the comments below. I also encourage you to check out the comments to BuildingGreen.com’s article discussing Mr. Gifford’s “Lies Damn Lies” paper, where folks like Fred Unger, Rob Watson, and Mr. Gifford himself have left a tremendously interesting series of responses which I think that you’ll find to be quite insightful.

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2 Responses to Henry Gifford & USGBC’s Brendan Owens Consider Merits of LEED at NESEA Forum

  1. Sara Sweeney March 16, 2009 at 7:59 pm #

    I am very glad to read about this forum and exchange taking place at last week’s NESEA conference. It’s needed, especially as LEED becomes even more mainstream than ever before. NESEA too, in my opinion, far outweigh’s USGBC’s efforts with respect to building solid, durable, energy-efficient buildings; NESEA focuses on the science and building buildings which work the way they “say” they are going to work. LEED tries but the foundation is just weaker right now.

    Unfortunately, however, I don’t know that NESEA has done a good enough job at getting the word out about themselves as a whole (members/research/energy-efficient building etc) whereas USGBC has. I attended NESEA in 2006 and found it the best conference I’ve attended on sustainable design (yes, far better than GreenBuild). The information from each seminar was loaded with good, solid practical information. The speakers are some of the gurus of energy-efficient design -and I don’t say this lightly at all; these folks are worth their salt and then some. But honestly, at the same time, you don’t hear much about NESEA day-to-day, whereas you sure hear alot about USGBC and LEED. Why is this?

    USGBC has done an amazing job at marketing and embracing and teaching green design -even if admittedly, it’s not perfect. But they have taken a crack at it at a much bigger level then NESEA has and are indeed, working towards changing the market place. Perhaps NESEA hasn’t been as dominant with marketing because the organization is more regional, being that it is the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association? I don’t know for sure, but I also don’t think that’s entirely the issue.

    I read Gifford’s paper when it first came out and was happy to see him take USGBC to task on its findings. At the same time, I was disheartened to learn that the findings published by USGBC had been, well, tinkered with so that report said what they wanted it to say, rather than laying out the facts. I was also however, not surprised to learn this either, quite frankly. I do think it’s crazy that we reward a building beased on a model rather than actual performance data based on two years of operation, as Gifford suggests. To boot, we keep building all these green buildings that look sexy but are not durable material wise/envelope system wise, nor are they energy-efficient, again starting with their building envelope. It pains me to see glass buildings with an R-value of about R-3 or R-4 being touted as sustainable. It’s an energy hog. Period.

    At the same time however, I don’t agree with Chris Benedict’s statement -and she is an architect whom I have great respect for, that “[she] would like LEED to go away, and [she] would like the USGBC to disappear from the face of the earth.” Although she is correct in stating that anyone with LEED AP after their name is now seemingly seen as the expert, versus those who have been deep within energy-efficient design for years, it is not fair to cast LEED or USGBC off as being completely incompetent, which is what I infer from this statement. The organization is not by any means, and is working each day against a lot of odds towards building a better built environment. Are they perfect? Again, no. I have several problems with the rating system. But again, they are trying at a much broader level than I see NESEA doing.

    The basic fact is, USGBC has a huge amount to learn from NESEA and NESEA has a huge amount to learn from USGBC. Put these two factions in a room together for a while and I have little doubt that the ensuing rating system developed would far exceed any we’ve seen thus far from USGBC. Yet from this exchange, I feel that NESEA acted more like a toddler having a temper tantrum than someone willing to come together. USGBC seemed able to stand up and admit some faults on the other hand. That doesn’t make the USGBC stupid/wrong nor does it make NESEA superior/right. Pointing fingers doesn’t get anyone anywhere, and right now, we have a gluttoness built environment to deal with. We need everyone to play on the same team. Marc Rosenbaum said it best in his comment that there weren’t many solutions discussed, and that it was mostly a rant. Well, now that the ranting’s over, let’s work together.

  2. John Morrill March 23, 2009 at 9:21 pm #

    I am struck (and very pleased) that author Del Percio refers to Henry Gifford as a building scientist. I have met the man, heard him give lectures and presentations, and indeed he is a building scientist. He understands buildings and how they work very well. I have also met and listened to many architects and engineers with grave doubts about how much building science they understand. A&Es may be able to design buildings, to meet written code or other written requirements, but I have worked to debug those same buildings and come away thinking the A&Es really don’t understand how buildings work. Or if they do, they don’t care. Either condition is dangerous.

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