Earlier this week, we all felt the warmth when green building’s two-part special on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered kicked off. Obviously, green building is neither obscure nor fringe-y at this point — billion-dollar industries tend not to be — but breaking through onto NPR was a big deal. It helped, of course, that part one of the program was informative, evenhanded and even a little surprising at points. But with the excitement of part one came the anticipation of part two, which promised to do the “some say” stuff — you know, “LEED is a success, but some say it’s not so good” or whatever. NPR being NPR, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a troll parade — there would be no Fox News show trial in which some kook kicks green building for being too expensive or not working and then mumbles something about more study on global warming or whatever. But NPR’s choice of focal point for the second part was kind of bracing. It’s our old friend Henry Gifford.
Or… well, maybe you don’t know who Henry Gifford is. I kind of didn’t, but Stephen sure does — in Mr. Del Percio’s look at Greenbuild 2008, Stephen addressed a discussion of “A Better Way To Rate Green Buildings,” a paper by Gifford that questioned the efficacy of LEED’s grade-the-blueprints model. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with questioning the merits of LEED,” Stephen wrote then. “It seems like the type of thing we should be doing in order to continue refining the system. Mr. Lstiburek and Mr. Gifford are the types of people who should be speaking at Greenbuild, either keynoting or providing stakeholder education about best design practices or commissioning procedures once a building is operational. Mobilizing 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.”
Since then, LEED 3.0 has come out, and with it a new — that is, a notable but tenuous — focus on building performance reporting. The second part of the All Things Considered series finds Gifford back, and still half-trollish and entirely reasonable. “Gifford’s bottom line is that LEED awards certification before the energy savings are proved,” NPR’s Franklyn Cater writes. “‘LEED certification has never depended on actual energy use, and it’s not going to,’ he says. ‘You can use as much energy as you want and report it and keep your plaque.’ Gifford says LEED should have teeth. If the building doesn’t perform as predicted, yank the certification. And as for the growing number of governments that require LEED? ‘It’s a tragedy,’ he says.”
Which, really, is kind of classic Gifford — totally correct in its skepticism, but maybe a little bit overstated in terms of tone. (Because, honestly, there are bigger tragedies that can befall a community than writing LEED into the law) It might be argued that the controversy over LEED is somewhat similar in its overstatement — no, LEED doesn’t work as well now as we all might want, and no it’s not improving as quickly or as dramatically as we might hope. But I’m inclined to think that LEED’s progress towards the ideal — which will be powered by the fear of non-performance/false advertising lawsuits like the one going on at Riverhouse, as well as by the efforts of gadflies like Gifford — will find its own course, and that LEED 4.0, whenever it arrives, will be notably better than 3.0. And 5.0 notably better than that, and so on — that’s the way these things work. Cursing the darkness can be fun, but lighting a candle is better. Gifford, of course, does both, and I’ll join Stephen in hoping that the USGBC pays more attention to outside voices and different perspectives as it works up its next iteration. And I’ll also note, again, that it’s great to have this level of attention and reportage focused on green building — part two of All Things Considered once again frames the argument evenhandedly and economically, and Cater’s accompanying essay/report is once again pretty excellent.