Green Building Laws: Are We LEEDing Legislators Down the Garden Path?
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Green building is about more than saving money, but policymakers are embracing the business case for LEED and other rating systems--with sometimes confusing results. A school bike rack is standard, but it doesn't help anyone if the bike r... "The whole standard ends when the design is over," points out Mark Frankel, technical director of the New Buildings Institute . LEED and Washington's own similar programs offer "the potential for better operation"--but how the building is operated and occupied is beyond the designers' control. "There is this wide misconception that you can design to LEED standards and everything will be OK," Frankel continued. "LEED is not a code. It leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding for jurisdictions to use it as a code." The report estimates that these buildings cost 1%–3% more, and legislators want to know when they'll get their money back: that's why they commissioned the report. LEED, though, is not just about saving energy, water, or money. Depending on the choices the client makes, it can also be about protecting people from carcinogens, supporting the local economy, providing habitat for wildlife, and many other public goods. Like bike racks. Measuring ROI means tracking energy While we can certainly look at such choices and see how they improve quality of life and might even save a community or a state money in the long run, we don't get a monthly gas bill letting us know that Little Johnny won't get lung cancer when he's 62 or that our bioswales will help prevent a disastrous flood in 2045. No, it's probably not fair to mandate a whole-building design standard and then measure its cost-effectiveness by looking at nothing but utility bills. But the green building community has put a lot of effort into making the business case for sustainable building practices. Can we back up our claims with actual performance outcomes or not? Now that policymakers are paying attention and want to calculate their ROI, we have to stick with results we can measure in the short term. And then we have to measure them. Apparently, building owners in Washington aren't any better at this than anyone else in the country, despite the legal requirement that they do so. While the report pushed some people's political buttons by showing mixed energy results from buildings that actually had data--along with a more promising trend showing better results after the first year of operation--its main finding was uncomplicated and apolitical: there's not enough information. Most people either didn't have a way to collect it, didn't know how to use the equipment designed to collect it, or didn't dedicate staff time to collecting it. Better performance requires better operation "Our recommendations were focused on improving data collection," said Keenan Konopaski, legislative auditor for Washington's nonpartisan Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), which conducted the study. Such a recommendation is a tricky business in the current legislative environment, since state agencies "need to improve how they are collecting data" (which means dedicating labor hours to the task) while "they are also reducing budgets." That's a bit of a Catch-22, though, since energy managers usually end up paying their own salaries. As the report shows, the building managers who could boast the most impressive energy savings were practicing resource conservation management in all their buildings--not just the new ones--and achieving Energy Star across the board, even in historic buildings. While designers cannot have direct involvement in resource conservation management, the green building community as a whole could certainly do a better job of acknowledging that good energy performance comes from good building management--not just high-performance gadgets. The latest trend: mandated energy disclosure Frankel thinks we may need to face the music sooner rather than later. "Things are changing really fast now with disclosure ordinances," he said. "People are not going to be able to run away from that data anymore." What do you think? Have green building advocates oversold the economic advantages of sustainable design? And can people working on the design side do anything to ensure that building operators and occupants do their part to save energy? Should energy and water tracking just be a standard part of every green rating system? We welcome your comments below.