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Energy Performance in LEED Buildings: A History

“LEEDing from Behind: The Rise and Fall of Green Building” is a survey piece by Community Solutions executive director Pat Murphy that reviews the significant body of critical commentary on the energy performance of LEED buildings that emerged beginning in 2005 with Randy Udall and Auden Schendler’s seminal “LEED Is Broken – Let’s Fix It” article. Mr. Murphy’s stated purpose in writing his piece was to “show the history of the dialogue about LEED energy performance.” Many of the articles cited will be familiar to you, but this is the first time that I have seen all of them organized chronologically with their key points about LEED-related building performance highlighted. I think that reviewing the piece is extremely instructive in terms of framing both green building policy-related issues, as well as corresponding risk management considerations, from a much broader perspective. The article is the first in a three-part series in which Mr. Murphy will subsequently analyze the LEED premium and alternatives to the LEED rating system from a similar angle.

In this first piece, Mr. Murphy concludes that “[t]here has been concern with the LEED rating system relative to energy and CO2 since its inception. . . . LEED has failed to lead in the important areas that are measurable. Initially, [USGBC] adopted a weak status relative to energy consumption. [It] did not recognize and incorporate accountability and verification, unfortunately wasting years that could have providing important feedback relative to energy use. [It] has also not clearly and honestly communicated that LEED is not an exemplary indication of energy performance.” This final thought, of course, is of particular note in the context of many green building legal issues and why Mr. Murphy’s piece will likely serve as a critical backdrop to associated risk management strategies for stakeholders moving forward.

I encourage you to print off this first article, review it, and share your thoughts below in the comments; we’ll be adding the entire series to our Resources section here at GRELJ once it’s available.

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12 Responses to Energy Performance in LEED Buildings: A History

  1. Michael Gibbons August 5, 2009 at 5:25 am #

    This is a very interesting and thought provoking read. For all its popularity and marketing success, LEED has notably failed for years to offer a rating system that really rewarded and incentivized energy optimization over cherry picking the most convenient credits.

    Unlike some of the critics who are quoted in the article, however, I am not prepared to consign LEED to the dustbin just yet. For all the criticism of the NBI study and the mean vs. median comparison of data, if there was an apples to apples comparison, the LEED buildings were 15% more energy efficient according to the article. Baby steps have been taken where perhaps bigger strides could reasonably have been expected.

    The framers of LEED v3 have apparently been listening to the critics. There is a distinct reweighting of the credits in favor of increased emphasis on Energy and Atmosphere or energy related credits. Prerequisites and mimimum required optimizations have been increased. Though many have precipitously leaped to criticize the MPR requiring sharing of energy and water data for 5 years post certification, I support it. It reflects a welcome commitment from USGBC to collect the data to allow measurement and verification to play a greater role in the LEED system and to inform future development of credits and prerequisites. Data will not be used to decertify individual buildings which fail to perform in accordance with energy modeling predictions. Data will be utilized to understand and identify flawed energy modeling methodologies and credits that fail to reduce energy or water consumption.

    For all the value critics of LEED have brought to the sustainablilty debate over the years (and I believe they have added much needed value), I have noted a certain tendency among certain LEED critics, taking the criticism to the extreme, to begin resembling the wild eyed enthusiasts who were originally the subjects of their critical gaze. For such critics, LEED is synonymous with marketing hype and green lite and must at all cost (including, frequently, their own credibilty) be discredited publicly and zealously. The ancient Greeks had it right when they embraced the concept of “everything in moderation”. Many of the LEED critics need to drink from the cup of moderation and learn to temper their rhetoric and turn the critical eye inward occasionally. They may lose a headline but gain some valuable credibility.

  2. Tristan Roberts August 5, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    I was disappointed that Murphy’s paper is so biased and unobjective. Passages like this:

    “Brook [Daniel Brook, of Fast Company] points out that the LEED certification process may seem woefully oversimplified, yet it doesn’t even have the benefit of being cheap. Certification can cost more than $100,000 with all the paperwork and consultants, a lot of money for smaller firms and nonprofits. He asks if these dollars might be better spent on features that actually make a building green (meaning lower energy use) rather than simply winning certification. Brook thinks that just closing the loopholes in the checklist will only take the USGBC so far. In Europe, which has had baseline standards for energy efficiency since the mid-1990s, all new buildings are green buildings to some extent.”

    At the end, is Murphy quoting Brooks, or, as it actually appears, marshalling his own arguments in support of Brooks? And why is USGBC being criticized for the lack of countrywide green building standards?

    I looked at this a bit more here: One-Stop Shopping for Critiques of LEED

  3. Auden Schendler August 5, 2009 at 7:25 pm #

    Actually one of the firt (maybe THE first) critiques of LEED building performance (not archived in this article) from an energy perspective was done by Jay Stein and Rachel Buckley at Esource. We cited it in our paper, and they found that LEED didn’t mean much to anything in terms of energy efficiency. For all the back and forth on Henry Gifford and Joe Lstiburek’s papers, (and we can quibble about the details all we want, but it’s irrelevant and those guys are damn smart and fundamentally right) their points boil down to the fact that LEED buidings really don’t perform much better, if at all, than standard buidings. LEED evolved just on the cusp of our understanding that climate change wasn’t merely a problem, but a wildly urgent one, and that urgency on energy is only now working its way into LEED. (The architectural community lags even further behind, in my experience, equally weighting materials selection with energy performance.) All that said, LEED has been unquestionably successful in awakening the public to the concept of green building. Think of all the people who so proudly put “LEED AP” on their businesscard.It’s great to see, and that, in the end, may be what LEED is–a massive branding and PR effort that was successful in at least bringing the issue to the fore. We may improve LEED, or not, but green buiding will continue to progress as a result of it and the conversations it started.

    My updated thoughts on LEED and extensive stories from the green building trenches including work on a recent LEED building are in chapter 8 of my new book “Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainabiity Revolution.” (

  4. Marshall Leslie August 5, 2009 at 10:01 pm #

    I enjoyed Pat Murphy’s first article and look forward to reading the next two parts of the series. It contains a good chronology – except for the description of how building rating systems were introduced to North America.

    All building rating systems owe their existence to BREEAM – the “British Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology” launched in 1990 by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the UK. However, as we all know up north, Canadians facilitated the creation of LEED by introducing building rating systems to the continent six years before the USGBC’s launch in the USA.

    In 1989, the International Building Performance Simulation Association (IBPSA) met in Vancouver and Canadians were introduced to the then recently formed “Building Environmental Performance Assessment Criteria” (BEPAC) clubs that had begun to appear in the UK. (This was not IBPSA’s first gathering in North America – it also met in Seattle in 1985). BEPAC clubs played an important role in the BRE’s launch of BREEAM one year later.

    In 1992, BEPAC was formally introduced to Canadians by the Environmental Research Group at the School of Architecture, University of British Columbia. It became the first building rating system in North America. Version 1 for office buildings was published in 1993. BEPAC was field tested in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia. 18 buildings were assessed under BEPAC

    In 1993, “C-2000 a Program for Advanced Commercial Buildings” was launched as a demonstration program by the CANMET Energy Technology Centre of Canada’s Department of Natural Resources (NRCan). C-2000 initially required annual energy consumption less than half ASHRAE 90.1-1989 (later revised to reference the Canadian Model National Energy Code for Buildings); as well as high interior air quality, building reuse and durability. 13 buildings were designed to C-2000.

    Also in 1993, the Toronto Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) was introduced to raise energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions. Since 1993 more than 600 Toronto buildings have been evaluated.

    Then in 1996, “BREEAM-Canada, Plus 1132 An environmental performance assessment for existing office buildings” was published as a guide by the Canadian Standards Association under copyright to the BRE in the UK. (The authors travelled to Washington in 1997 to present BREEAM-Canada to the USGBC, but the USGBC lacked funds to undertake the project).

    1998 was a very active year …. The “International Green Building Challenge” took place in Vancouver with representatives from 14 nations – all of whom used the GBTool(now SBTool) software for building assessment and measurement. The Canadian federal government introduced the “Commercial Building Incentive Program” (CBIP) providing financial incentives for the incorporation of energy efficiency features in new commercial and institutional building. More than 550 buildings were evaluated under CBIPs before the program ended. And in 1998 the USGBC introduced the LEED 1.0 pilot program for New Construction (LEED-NC).

    Along with two other important pastimes – basketball and baseball – Americans owe a debt to Canadians for LEED.

  5. Stephen Del Percio August 7, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    Michael, if you take a look at Lstiburek’s analysis of the NBI study, you’ll note his discussion on page 5 regarding the statistical scatter of the data points and why that 15 percent figure is not all that meaningful. I agree with you that part of improving that scatter of data is USGBC’s effort to collect information on the energy performance of LEED buildings, but it remains to be seen exactly how that data will be made available.

    Tristan, I think the point of the paper was to focus exclusively on the LEED energy performance critique. We’ll see how Parts II and III turn out, but I think would have been difficult not to appear biased when presenting work from Henry Gifford, Chris Benedict, etc.

    Auden, we’ll definitely check out Chapter 8 from your book- thanks for the link.

    Marshall, thanks, as always, for your perspective. I think it’s important to keep LEED’s origins in mind as the system moves ahead through various iterations.

  6. Brian D. Anderson August 7, 2009 at 7:15 pm #


    I’m amazed at the breadth and depth of comments on this page. I really appreciate your hard work and the extremely thoughtful comments of Michael, Auden, Marshall and Tristan above. I think a book project is in order. Or perhaps Stephen could consider a blogging heads feature with his commenters facing off on or simply discussing these issues.

    As to Michael’s comments. I agree with Michael that the USGBC deserves credit for listening to critics and adapting its product over the years. Recent changes–the energy data requirement, the decertification process, the wholesale reallocation of points and focus on energy performance–show some real nerve and willingness to take risks on the part of USGBC. I have to admit that I’m a little queasy when I see the USGBC launch a PR initiative with attorneys commenting that LEED-related risks are “old wine in new bottles.” I understand the motivation and intent, but perhaps the USGBC would have been better served to have included and hopefully co-opted its critics.

    As Micahel also states, the USGBC has succeeded in changing the national dialogue about the potential for buildings and, some would argue, revived the determination and passion of architects to play a vital role in national energy and environmental policy. But the effect has gone beyond that even. I worked with some engineers seeking to design a green roads certification regimen. They were modeling that system on LEED! But unlike the USGBC, these academic engineers (natl experts in life cycle analyis) were stuck on how to justify an allocation of points or a mile-radius sourcing or whether and to what extent increasing the durability and longevity of the road would outweigh its increased short term environmental impacts. They also wondered whether and how they would need to evaluate the the macro and micro economic effects their system to see whether its point allocations and requirements had the effect of increasing, for example, the movement of people or businesses or unemployment or lower wage work, which could then have deliterious effects on the environment or quality of life.

    Out of my experience with those engineers and with my experience as a business lawyer, I’ve begun to see the USGBC’s activities as akin to the entreprenuerial activities of my clients. My clients are expert in generating cash for their businesses but they’re also unaware of or sometimes brush aside (without evil intent) financial, legal, contractual or other obstacles that would make the rest of us lawyer/engineer/accounants/academics and other salaried folk stop before starting. On one hand, it’s essential to behave like an entrepreuner when you’re leading a national effort against a sea of opposition and uncertainty. On the other hand, the USGBC is now no ordinary entreprenuer. Their product is being written into law, taxpayer money is being used to buy the product in lieu of additional housing units or green building elements, certification is a condition of recieving government grants or to being paid as a contractor, and the product may be made an integral part of national energy policy. When your product is having those effects, it’s imperative to have the highest levels of transparency, public disclosure, access to information, and a formal process for welcoming and evaluating criticism.

    Thanks again Stephen for all of your commentors.

  7. Pat Murphy August 10, 2009 at 1:49 pm #

    There are some key points that should be noted from the four early responses to my paper on the Del Percio web site. Michael Gibbons noted that LEED has weaknesses but should not be tossed out too quickly and that LEED critics tend to be are wild eyed and fanatical and should be more moderate. Tristain Roberts said that the paper is biased and not objective. Marshall Leslie noted Canada’s role was not recognized in the paper. And Auden Schendler said that in spite of its problems LEED has been successful in awakening the public to the concept of green building. He emphasized that LEED may really be a massive branding and PR effort that was successful in at least bringing the issue to the fore and says whether LEED is improved or not that green building will continue to progress as a result of it.

    I can’t recall the source but one presidential candidate years ago noted that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. To paraphrase this I might say that moderation in the pursuit of maintaining the atmosphere is no virtue. Our building emissions increase every year, and the threats for our children are considerable. In response to Mr. Roberts, in terms of CO2 emissions objectivity might not be as important as it normally is. During a recent trip to Germany I found them “fanatical” and not at all objective about climate change, resulting in better buildings, better cars, and lots of renewable energy. And on a per capita basis, Germans generate about half the CO2 of Americans.

    I would not argue with Schendler that LEED may really have been “a massive branding and PR effort” bringing green building to the awareness of the public. However, I would argue that this may not be a good thing, since the core green messages are “its easy being green” and “it doesn’t have to cost more to build green.” Both are not true. Thus LEED has educated the public to be complacent. I would say that LEED has obfuscated the issue about energy and CO2 by cleverly using the terminology of green – a term which cannot be measured by energy metrics. And as far as the people who have proudly put LEED AP on their business card after a few hours of training – would you want one of them to design the envelope and HVAC of your home? Or would you prefer someone who understands heat transfer?

    Stephen comment on Lstiburek’s analysis of the NBI study and why the 15 percent figure is not all that meaningful. This week John Scofield from Oberlin College will present his paper entitled “A Re-examination of the NBI LEED Building Energy Consumption Study” at IEPEC in Portland, Oregon. He reports no significant reduction in primary energy use for LEED office building relative to non-LEED office buildings.

    Brian Anderson noted that USGBC deserves credit for changing the energy requirements – which are now 32% of the points allocated, up from 25%. Not much progress in nine years in my opinion. He suggests that the USGBC would have been better served to have included its critics – something they have avoided for years. He notes that the LEED product is being written into law and the product may be made an integral part of national energy policy. What a tragedy.

    Pat Murphy

  8. Michael Gibbons August 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm #

    Mr. Murphy’s response regrettably illustrates the trend towards demonization of LEED among many critics of the rating system. The people he dismissively refers to as “proudly putting LEED AP on their business card after a few hours of training” are typically duly trained, qualified and licensed as architects and engineers in their respective states. Their training and qualification to design a building envelope and understand the principles of heat transfer exist independently of the “LEED AP” suffix. Mr. Murphy is creating a straw man (i.e., the notion that otherwise untrained persons are passing a two hour exam and are suddenly qualified to design building envelopes and HVAC systems) so that he can knock it down effortlessly.

  9. Pat Murphy August 11, 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    It is typical for a large organization that is criticized to attack its detractors. LEED and its supporters follow that pattern. If one looks at the list of critiques, the number who have done research and provided a reasonable criticisms are probably in the range of a few dozen at most. Compare this to the 100,000 plus LEED AP professionals actively quoting the official USGBC energy saving numbers which are countered by the organizations own research reports from NBI. Its not so much that LEED AP professionals are not capable architects and engineers – its that they have adopted the LEED approach to energy and advocate for that approach in spite of the research work done by the so called demonizers. Thus this is not an engineering or design issue but a political one.

    In my work I run across LEED APers frequently. I ask them if they have read the NBI report and do they know that LEED buildings energy savings are estimated to be in the 25-30% range and many of the buildings save no energy. To a man (and woman) they have expressed surprise at this information.

    Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Its possible that the LEED APs fit in that category. Certainly USGBC employees do. Yet if these groups do not accept the legitimate concerns of those with energy expertise, LEED may well be a short term phenomena. Recently, ASHRE announced its “Building Energy Quotient” program with a standard grading system from A to F. There is a crying need for accurate, verificable and reliable energy rating systems. If LEED doesn’t fill the bill, other options will come forward.

  10. Michael Gibbons August 11, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    We can agree that it is (currently) a mistake to equate a LEED certified building with a high performance building. LEED critics have made a legitimate case that there are many instances where LEED certified buildings are either “energy pigs” or performing at baseline energy consumption levels.

    To be fair and objective, however, there are also examples of LEED certified buildings that are indeed performing at energy efficient levels according to objective measurement and verification. Examples of such LEED buildings are found in the 2008 GSA Report entitled “Assessing Green Building Performance”. This post occupancy study of one year’s worth of operating data admittedly only evaluated 12 buildings but it measured and verified that several LEED buildings were in fact consuming energy at very efficient levels.

    We should also be able to agree that LEED certification is not synonymous with “energy pig” status. My only point is that many LEED critics seem incapable of acknowledging that many LEED buildings walk the talk and do operate in an energy efficient manner. This reluctance to acknowledge any energy-related success associated with LEED certification appears to be irrational and emotional at its core.

    I do agree with the point (also made earlier by Ujjval Vyas) that LEED understands that its rating system must incorporate measurement and verification to continue to maintain credibility and viability in the marketplace. The fact that LEED has instituted an MPR that requires certified building owners to produce or cooperate in the production of energy and water use data for 5 years post certification is testament to the fact that the organization itself believes it has to change to preserve credibility and “market share”. We can hope, expect and insist that the USGBC will marry its unmatched green marketing and promotional skills with objective and verifiable data allowing it to identify successful sustainable strategies and eliminate unsuccessful sustainable strategies.

  11. Marshall Leslie August 13, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    It strikes me that there is more consensus here than meets the eye and one thing we all might beware of – to employ a variant of Gresham’s Law – is to not allow buildings with no energy performance measurement to “drive out” those that make use of any kind of performance measure: LEED 3.0, ASHRAE’s BEQ, EnergyStar Commercial or the 2030 Challenge. And this is where I must present a very different concern …
    My analysis of Canadian LEED registered projects indicates that the majority are not proceeding to any level of certification. (The first projects registered by the CaGBC were in 2004 – prior to that some had been registered by the USGBC). What difference does it make what LEED 3.0 requires, if most registered projects will never be certified?


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