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Is San Francisco Reconsidering Its Green Building Legislation in Light of the LEED Performance Debate?

The San Francisco Chronicle has picked up on the recent flurry of commentary generated by Mireya Navarro’s piece in the New York Times about the LEED building performance gap. The article opens up by stating “[r]evelations that many buildings certified as green under a broadly accepted national standard for energy savings are not performing as well as predicted recently prompted changes to the [LEED] program and are forcing San Francisco officials to consider amending city rules that are tied to the older guidelines.” However, a closer look at the substance of the article suggests that city officials may actually be trying to expedite the application of the LEED 2009 system and its corresponding Minimum Program Requirements (“MPRs”) to large, private construction projects. (As you will recall, the new MPRs require that projects which pursue LEED certification to “commit to allow USGBC to access all available actual whole-project energy and water usage data in the future for research purpose” or risk decertification.) I also think the piece is noteworthy because it suggests an inextricable link between increased data reporting and increased building performance.

As you may know, among other provisions, the San Francisco green building ordinance requires commercial and residential projects greater than 25,000 square feet, or taller than 75 feet, to earn a LEED Certified rating from USGBC. The requirement for commercial projects increased this year to Silver and, in 2012, to Gold. Residential projects must earn a Silver rating beginning in 2010. Notwithstanding these phased requirements, in the Chronicle piece, the San Francisco Department of the Environment’s private sector green building coordinator Richard Chien states that “[w]e need to reconvene the task force that recommended the legislation and makes some revisions way before 2012. With the changes coming along [to LEED] we could be out of date and we need to address that.”

Interestingly, the San Francisco ordinance (No. 180-08 of September 4, 2008, codified at Chapter 13C of the local building code) states that “[w]herever specific LEED prerequisites or credits are cited, such references are to LEED-NC Version 2.2. More recent LEED . . . versions may be used, provided the credits and points achieved are as or more stringent than LEED-NC Version 2.2.” In other words, because the LEED 2009 MPRs are not referenced specifically, it’s not entirely clear whether they are included within the purview of the ordinance, particularly with respect to mid-sized commercial buildings which are only required to comply with certain LEED credits.

The introduction to the article is therefore inaccurate; San Francisco is not reconsidering whether to restructure its green building ordinance around something besides LEED based on perceived LEED building performance failures. Rather, it is evaluating if, as presently drafted, and based on the recent amendments to LEED in the form of LEED 2009, its ordinance will still (1) obligate covered projects to comply with the new MPRs and share performance data; and (2) whether the ordinance should be revised to expedite that requirement. This is precisely the type of scenario that has been suggested both here at GRELJ and elsewhere with respect to the potential consequences for state and local governments that incorporate LEED into legislation by reference. Notwithstanding its performance-related issues, LEED itself continues to be a moving target and policymakers must guide themselves accordingly when considering the merits of this type of legislative activity.

I also think the Chronicle article is noteworthy because it suggests- once again- an overarching perception that simply collecting an increased volume of building performance metrics will solve the LEED performance gap. For example, consider the following quote from architect Jennifer Devlin of San Francisco-based firm EHDD: “LEED has done an exceptional job of raising awareness. And the U.S Green Building Council recognizes that tracking energy use is vital to the sustainable building movement.” LEED has unquestionably raised public awareness about the environmental impact of the built environment and put building performance on the front page of major media outlets such as the New York Times and the Chronicle. But, as USGBC’s Building Performance Initiative and other efforts ramp up this fall, I think it is critical to keep in mind Larry Spielvogel’s thoughts from our last article here at GRELJ that the question of improving building performance is highly complex and clearly one that cannot be solved by simply compiling a longer spreadsheet.

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2 Responses to Is San Francisco Reconsidering Its Green Building Legislation in Light of the LEED Performance Debate?

  1. Brian Anderson September 12, 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    Thank you for another thoughtful post.

    As somewhat of a side note, your scrupulously detailed explication actually lessens my concern about the death of print journalism. I know there’s much more to that discussion, but if bloggers with your integrity and mind for detailed analysis (and careful citation) step in, I think we more than fill the void. In fact, we may be headed for a far better journalistic future.

  2. Stephen Del Percio September 16, 2009 at 1:08 am #

    Extremely kind words- many thanks.

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