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Pointing to Gifford v. USGBC, British Building Scientist Identifies Global Green Building Performance Failures

Global Green Building Performance

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald suggests that Henry Gifford’s class action suit against USGBC has resonated not only domestically, but across global real estate markets as well.

Consider the following: while visiting Melbourne to observe green Australian commercial office buildings, Roderic Bunn, the principal consultant at Britain’s Building Services Research and Information Association said that “[w]e are piling often unmanageable complexity into these buildings, so the consequence is unmanageable complexity. It’s the enemy of good performance.” Although Bunn stated that he was “not saying it [a lawsuit] will happen [in Australia] or in the UK,” he did affirm his belief that “Australian commercial and public sector buildings are suffering the same problems as those in Britain.”

Pointing specifically to Henry Gifford’s lawsuit against the USGBC currently pending in the Southern District of New York, Bunn went on to say that “[p]roperty organizations have accused the [USGBC] of selling green certification. Some people are waking up to the fact they believe they have been mis-sold a rating system that guarantees performance, and the construction industry hasn’t been quick to disabuse them of that notion.”

In addition to its referencing the Gifford litigation, I think the article is important to note because it highlights many of the same building performance issues that have plagued green buildings here in the U.S., as well as the operational issues that green lease provisions are designed to address. For example, Bunn observes that:

  • “We have been seduced by the often false promises of new technologies. A building can be mounted with wind turbines and photovoltaics, but they don’t contribute nearly as much as designers think they do because they haven’t driven down the energy requirement to begin with. We tend to glue these things on to the outside of buildings before we actually have reduced the loads of the building as far as we can go. The mantra should be ‘half the loads, double the efficiencies. Halve the carbon in the fuel supply before we go anywhere near on-site renewables. They are often expensive, small, very complex, and maintenance hungry, and the maintainability of these things is rarely taken into account.”
  • “The construction industry is very good at designing dreams but crafting nightmares – and it’s the managers who inherit the nightmares. We can’t afford to have a sustainable building not delivering what they are supposed to deliver.”

Bunn served for 16 years as editor of the Building Sciences Journal, which is the official journal of the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers, and has received numerous government grants to study building performance in the United Kingdom. Uniformly, according to Bunn, those studies found that “energy consumption was far too high, systems were not finished off properly, no one knew how to use them, and they were misfiring on a whole range of criteria.”

Some of the solutions which Bunn suggested to the Sydney Morning Herald include requiring the project team to remain engaged with the building for a period of time after construction is complete to get it “as close to the design targets as they can get. Finish it off properly, follow through. Builders should be appointed on the basis they will stay engaged for a significant period after occupation to fine tune and perform, monitor the energy use to optimum satisfaction.” Of course, in the U.S. construction industry, this rarely happens; the project team wants to get off the job as quickly as possible, and for the owner to keep it engaged for any additional period of time costs money.

Although addressing the gaps between green design, construction, and operations will continue to be a major challenge in 2011, I think it’s clear that the Gifford litigation is playing a major role in raising awareness about those gaps and increasing the level of conversation about the types of measures that can improve it. Indeed, Bunn also identified the new building performance reporting requirements in Australia for office buildings as potentially closing the gap between design and operations and allowing future green building projects to more meaningfully address it; as you may recall, as of November 1, Australia requires landlords to disclose the energy efficiency of their office buildings when they either sell or lease space that is larger than 21,530 square feet (2,000 square meters). (Ratings are based on the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (“NABERS”), which is on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, and Australia’s current median market performance stands at 2.5 stars). I think this is also important to note because, in the aftermath of the 2010 USGBC Legal Forum at Greenbuild, we pointed to building performance reporting requirements as a trend that will likely increase in 2011.

Finally, I thought Bunn’s remarks were also timely given the recent release of the International Green Construction Code for a second round of public comments in light of the types of green building practices that could soon become mandatory as part of building codes throughout the U.S. We’ll have more thoughts on the IGCC and what it means for the future of local-level green building programs in an upcoming article here at GRELJ.

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6 Responses to Pointing to Gifford v. USGBC, British Building Scientist Identifies Global Green Building Performance Failures

  1. Anne Whitacre December 13, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    In the US, most of the original LEED certified buildings were built for institutional and governmental owners. Have there been any long term studies about the performance in those buildings? Typically the institutional owner does get involved in long term maintenance, and trains their staff to properly calibrate the systems in their buildings. I would be interested in seeing how those early LEED projects have performed.

    • Stephen Del Percio December 18, 2010 at 10:49 am #

      Thanks, Anne. I believe GSA performed a study some time ago but I’m not completely certain. Perhaps someone else can chime in on this.

      • Ujjval Vyas, Ph.D., J.D. December 19, 2010 at 11:33 pm #

        Steven and Anne,

        There are various studies done by the GSA but they should be looked at with some significant skepticism. It is commonly known that the GSA has aligned itself with the USGBC from the very beginning of the latter organization and continues to be a vocal advocate for LEED. At the same time, there are also a large number of individual engineers and others at the GSA who see the attachment to LEED as counter-productive or at least problematic. But this gets us into the internal politics and career aspirations of GSA personnel that is commonly known but not publicly discussed. A very common phenomenon and I only remark on this as a cautionary point.

        Detailed performance reports of GSA’s green buildings show a mixed outcome at best when done by independent third parties (several studies done in conjunction with NIBS are of interest, though I am not sure if they are easily available). Some of GSA’s own reports should be available simply by googling “GSA building performance.” It is interesting to note that GSA recently increased the requirements of GSA facilities to LEED-Gold.

        It should also be noted that the GSA’s requirement for LEED may run up against some difficulties given OMB-A-119 guidance for federal agency use of voluntary consensus-based standards. It is rarely noted but the UDGBC’s LEED rating-system product has not obtained the status of a “standard” and has avoided going through the process required by the ANSI or other ISO-based organizations. The USGBC is fully within its rights to demur from this process, but this does create some confusion when it is represented as an official “standard” in the marketplace and with consumers.

        A blog of this type may not be an appropriate location for a public discussion of building performance issues since very few AEC entities or even third party consultants would be willing to suffer the ire of the GSA. As some have noted, agencies like the GSA are very good at spending public trust dollars for projects that have “good optics” for the right agency and government representatives. It is hard to fault people with access to the disposal of government funds when they make decisions based on personal benefit and prestige. But we should at least note it when using information provided to validate the disposal of such funds.

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