Addressing energy needs through ‘green’ design

While the debate continues on how society will fuel its growing needs for energy in a way that reduces negative impacts on the environment, economy, and national security,  the other side to the problem involves reducing the growth of that energy demand, or possibly reversing it.  Reducing energy demand in buildings is nothing new, but has traditionally lacked standardization and was only approached on a voluntary basis, motivated by both energy prices and the image of environmental awareness.

Recently, especially in the United States, the LEED Certification system managed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), has gained popularity and is becoming synonymous with green building design.  The certification system awards points for following the USGBC’s opinion of what constitutes sustainable building design, with varying levels of achievement awarded based on the final score.

However the publicly held definition of “green” differs significantly from the USGBC definition. When LEED buildings are discussed, especially those achieving the “Platinum” level, the general idea is that these building exemplify the end goal of green design by striving for energy and resource independence.  Yet for buildings being built under the LEED version 2.2 guidelines, the most broadly used, improvements to energy efficiency net you a total of only 10 points out of the possible 69 (14%). Achieving platinum requires at least 52 points, meaning that a building could operate just as energy inefficiently as a non-LEED building and still achieve this heralded status.

LEED certification instead focuses primarily on construction practices and building materials, both very important aspects, however it lacks significantly as a means to reduce demand side energy consumption.  Version 3.0 addresses this somewhat, making energy efficiency worth 19 points out of a total 110 (17%), however it would still be possible to achieve platinum with no significant reductions in energy usage.

If LEED is going to maintain its status as the role model in sustainable building design, either the public is going to need to re-align its definition of sustainability, or LEED is going to become intensive with how it regards energy demand and life-cycle concerns, similar to EPA’s Energy Star program or ASHRAE specifications. In the meantime, a LEED certified building simply does not necessarily imply a low energy building.

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One response to “Addressing energy needs through ‘green’ design

  1. Aaron Townsend

    “…either the public is going to need to re-align its definition of sustainability, or LEED is going to become intensive with how it regards energy demand and life-cycle concerns…”

    The public can re-define its definition of sustainability all it likes, but it’s not the definition that counts–it’s the actual environmental impact. Environmental impact occurs in many ways, but over the course of its lifetime a building’s largest environmental impact is due to its energy consumption. So, LEED should further increase the points available and required in the energy efficiency portion of its rating system.

    As an engineer with professional experience dealing with architects and LEED, I applauded the efforts of the USGBC but believe the LEED system is fatally flawed because it focuses too much on process (i.e. “points”) and not enough on results (i.e. “measured data”). Not too long ago LEED came under fire from within the green building community due to a study that claimed to prove that LEED saved energy–the uproar occurred because of questionable assumptions and methodology used in the analysis which skewed the results in LEED’s favor. Others who looked at the same data reached different conclusions, including the conclusion that LEED buildings might actually use more energy than non-LEED buildings.

    The links below describe the controversy:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/science/earth/31leed.html?_r=2&th&emc=th

    http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/insights/mis2014leed2014ing/

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