Village Green: It's Time to Update What Constitutes a 'Green Building'

For most of the US Green Building Council's LEED for Homes award winners, the residences' green features will be offset by the damage caused by the sites' automobile dependence, and distance from jobs and services.
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The US Green Building Council, which my organization NRDC supports and to which we donate lots of staff time, including mine, is a terrific organization that has done a lot for the environment and arguably has changed the paradigm for building construction and operation in this country. Much of this has been accomplished through the organization’s flagship certification program, LEED, which awards platinum, gold, silver, and certified ratings to buildings based on environmental criteria. The US is closer to being sustainable than it would be without their impressive body of work.

But the Green Building Council also has a reputation for emphasizing bells and whistles -- building technology -- in its criteria defining what makes a building “green,” often overlooking or minimizing building-related factors that can be more significant to the environment. Building location, the availability of transportation choices, and the resource savings inherent in the reuse of older buildings are among the more commonly cited of these. Perhaps this is not surprising given that the organization’s membership, board and committees are overwhelmingly populated by representatives of the building industry, their architects, and their consultants.

The organization’s 2009 LEED for Homes award winners -- the very best of the best, in USGBC’s judgment -- prove that its reputation for stressing technology over other factors is well-deserved. Of the six non-military winners, only one is in what the popular rating service Walk Score considers to be a walkable environment. Only one (the same) shows up on Google Earth as richly served by public transportation. The rest are in locations best described as varying degrees of automobile dependence and sprawl.

One result is that the added environmental benefit of the residences’ laudable green features will be offset by the environmental damage caused by the sites’ automobile dependence, poor environment for walking, and relative distance from jobs, shops and services. Another result is that the public, the building industry, and policy makers will continue to be misled about how best to achieve true environmental performance in our built environment.

Here are two of the winners, their descriptions in the organization’s press release, and some additional information and commentary by me:

“This year’s Innovative Project award was given to the Platinum certified BrightBuilt Barn project, the result of a two-year collaboration between Kaplan Thompson Architects, Bensonwood Homes and a team of green building experts from throughout the northeast U.S. BrightBuilt Barn was recognized for implementing innovative strategies and techniques that go above and beyond the scope, requirements and prerequisites within the LEED for Homes rating system.”

Above is an image of the project’s location, on Spruce Mountain in the vicinity of Rockport, Maine, on Google Earth. In Walk Score, which measures and rates a site’s proximity to common shops, goods and services, the location gets a 6 - yes, 6 - out of 100 (From Walk Score: “Car-Dependent/Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car”). There is, as you might expect, no discernible transit service. The site also reports that 92 percent of its users nationally have a higher score than that of the platinum-certified award winner.

The BrightBuilt Barn is an accessory building for owners who also own a nearby 4,400-square foot house that they use as a second home.

“Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity’s Hope Crossing project was selected to receive the Outstanding Affordable Housing Project award. The project is a 59-acre affordable housing development that once complete, will be the largest LEED certified Habitat for Humanity community in the U.S. OG&E, the local energy utility, donated upgraded windows, efficient foam insulation and compact fluorescent lights that help contribute to an expected 50% reduction in monthly energy bills.”

Since Hope Crossing’s homes have not yet been rated by the Green Building Council, we do not know what the level of certification will be. We do know that the project appears to be on the outer fringe of the region and that the plan comprises 217 homes on the 59-acre site, for a raw density of between three and four homes per acre. The Walk Score is a shocking 3 out of 100 (“Car-Dependent/Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car”). While Oklahoma City is not exactly known for its urbanism, fully 95 percent of the city’s residents enjoy locations with a better score. There is no transit information for the location in Google’s database.

There is always much to appreciate about a Habitat project, and one hesitates to be critical of their important work. But many providers of affordable housing, including Habitat elsewhere, have chosen more accessible sites and more walkable design. This is especially important to their clients because the affordable housing constituency more than any other needs convenient access to keep transportation costs down. Judging from the Walk Score data, the only thing that likely kept this site from scoring even worse is a park 0.59 miles away - but, due to poor street connectivity, the actual walking distance is well over a mile.

One of the other five winners was military housing on Keesler Air Force Base, for which there are no Walk Score data. Another had an excellent location, with a Walk Score of 72, better than two-thirds of its community's residents as a whole. The scores of the other three were 38, 43, and 48. To be sure, those are better than the scores for BrightBuilt Barn and Hope Crossing; but, as noted above, none scored better than its community average, and all were automobile-dependent. (I have posted my review of all of the winners on NRDC's site.)

Now these are not necessarily bad projects at all, and some are praiseworthy apart from environmental concerns. (I am pleased that three of the seven winners are affordable to working families and a fourth is for military personnel.) Given their on-site building features it is not necessarily wrong for the Green Building Council to certify them at an appropriate level of "greenness." Perhaps doing so will give sprawl developers and luxury second-home builders more incentive to at least incorporate green technology in their designs.

But to certify them at the highest level attainable? Don’t you think that, if we’re going to highlight not just certified projects but award winners deemed to be the very best, we should select more of them in high-performing (or, jeez, just better than average) sites? There is a large body of evidence demonstrating that the market for housing is shifting (see also here) rapidly in favor of more walkable, mixed-use, urban settings? I have reported frequently on terrific innovative, green projects on redevelopment sites in accessible locations (For example, Denver; Atlanta, image below; Cincinnati; Rockville, MD; Seattle; San Mateo; Oakland.) Apparently the Council didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t believe what it says.

Beyond changing market preferences and common sense, research proves that we use more energy getting to and from a building than does the building itself, and that even the greenest suburban household, on average, will not match the energy- and emissions-reduction potential of an ordinary household in a more urban location (see also here), to say nothing of a green urban household. Nationally, transportation is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions, contributing more to the total than do either residential or commercial buildings (and only slightly less than those two categories combined). Location matters immensely to the sustainability of development.

Yet the LEED for Homes evaluation scorecard assigns only ten of its 136 available credit points, and none of its prerequisites, to the “location and linkages” category.

The usual arguments in favor of continuing to give location such short shrift in green evaluations are (1) to transform the market, we must meet the market where it is, not where we wish it were, and (2) “but the architect/builder/engineer doesn’t choose the site.” I’m not persuaded by either. On the subject of market transformation, building site choices are part of the market that must be transformed. We must reward those who make the right choices for the environment much more than we reward those who don’t. Besides, as noted, the market has changed already, so that these award winners are less representative of the housing market as a whole than they used to be.

As for who chooses the site, LEED certifications benefit developers every bit as much as they do designers, perhaps even more so. Developers do make site choices and absolutely should be encouraged to make better ones. As I said above, I’m not arguing here that these platinum-certified, national award winners aren’t at all “green.” But I am arguing that there are much more deserving examples (including virtually any of the many green, affordable, urban housing projects built by Jonathan Rose Companies - full disclosure: a friend and NRDC trustee) if we are going to name the very best. (Image below: DC's Columbia Heights, where much new housing has been built; Walk Score 92.)

A better answer might be that the new rating system LEED for Neighborhood Development does emphasize location, transit access, walkability, and proximity to shops and services (in addition to green technology). It is the new-generation definition of what is green under LEED, and it has now been piloted, completed, fully approved by the partners who developed it (including NRDC, along with the Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism), and published for all to see. But, for reasons best known to the Green Building Council's leadership, developers are not yet allowed to use it. Past LEED-ND chair Doug Farr has suggested that compliance with LEED-ND’s standards should be a baseline requirement at least for platinum-level certification under other parts of LEED. How about it?

As noted, I salute the Green Building Council for its outstanding work for sustainability. The environment is better for it. Without exception, the staff members I have met from the organization have been bright, dedicated and professional. I also am proud that NRDC has contributed as much as we have to the Council's undertakings, and I hope we will continue to do so.

But It is past time to take the important work of promoting green building to the next level. We know a lot more about the factors that determine the performance of our built environment now than we did when the LEED template was established. It is time to be much more candid to ourselves, the public, and policy makers about the environmental damage done by even good buildings in bad or mediocre locations, and to start doing something about it.

Kaid Benfield writes occasional "Village Green" commentary on Huffington Post and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard site. For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.

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