"Building green" soon may be more about stealthily raking in cash from taxpayers than constructing "eco-friendly" buildings, if the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC, has its way in Congress.
Part of the energy bill pending in Congress essentially would require that federal buildings be constructed according to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standard of the USGBC.
The new requirement could be quite lucrative for the USGBC since it charges fees ranging from $2,200 for small buildings to over $23,000 for large buildings for certifying that they have been constructed or retrofitted according to LEED.
When Senate Republicans led by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe objected to the requirement on the grounds that LEED was designed as a voluntary standard and that it constituted "brand endorsement by law," Sen. Barbara Boxer deleted the specific reference to LEED from her bill and claimed, "This problem has been addressed."
While Boxer did delete explicit mention of LEED, she didn't really delete the LEED requirement from her bill but just camouflaged it. Boxer's current bill would empower the General Services Administration, the agency responsible for purchasing goods and services for the federal government, with the authority to select the green building standard that would be applicable to federal construction. But the GSA already has made up its mind on LEED
The GSA Web site states that, "all GSA new construction projects and substantial renovations must be certified through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System of the U.S. Green Building Council."
The GSA also has a seat on the USGBC board of directors. Political shenanigans enabling the USGBC to feed at the taxpayer trough aside, are there benefits to building to LEED standards? That's open to debate.
According to the October 2003 report "The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings" that was prepared for California's Sustainable Building Task Force with the assistance of the USGBC, the vast majority of the purported financial benefits of green building comes from alleged gains in productivity and worker health.
A building constructed to the highest LEED standard was estimated to produce about $3.37 per square foot worth of financial benefits per year, or about $33,700 annually for a 10,000-square-foot building.
While this sounds great, 82 percent of these benefits arise from claimed improvements in worker productivity and health, according to the report. Unfortunately, these alleged benefits are just that, claims with little supporting data.
University of California-Davis researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2004 Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology that, "Although much attention has focused on sick building syndrome, chemical sensitivities and mycotoxicosis, there actually is very little evidence that these conditions have an adverse effect on human health."
Acknowledging that indoor air quality is an important issue, the researchers said that "well-designed scientifically valid studies must be performed to determine if real health risks from indoor air exist."
So it seems unwise, then, to rush to adopt standards that largely have not been studied and may not produce anything close to the claimed benefits.
Even some green-building proponents say LEED needs to be overhauled. Auden Schendler, a LEED accredited professional with the Aspen Skiing Co., and Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen, Colo., published the 2005 report "LEED is broken: Let's fix it."
Contrary to its marketing, green building costs more than conventional construction, adding anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent to a building budget, according to Schendler and Udall.
"The myth that going green costs nothing is damaging to clients who discover the reality deep in the process," they wrote in their report.
LEED certification, which depends on a building scoring 26 out of 67 possible points to qualify exalts form over substance. Schendler and Udall reported that one builder received 1 point for spending an extra $1.3 million on a heat recovery system that will save about $500,000 in energy costs per year and 1 point for installing a $395 bike rack.
"Why install new HVAC equipment for a few extra points when you could get the same points by changing the color of your shingles at no extra cost," they asked.
Schendler and Udall recounted their own experience in which their LEED score was reduced and their building's reputation was effectively "tarnished" because the geothermal HVAC system they installed was compared against another geothermal system rather than a more standard gas-fired boiler.
They likened this process to shopping for a new car: "You might consider a Toyota Prius rather than an SUV [but] if you bought the Prius, LEED would evaluate its performance against a Honda hybrid not the guzzler alternative."
Schendler and Udall also wrote that the "overblown claims of green building benefits are misleading."
Noting that the financial benefits of green building tend to be presented in general societal terms rather than those of individual building tenants and owners, Schendler and Udall observed, "In short, societal gains don't profit builders on a budget, unless that builder happens to be Gandhi. . Yes, kids and postal workers do better in day-lit spaces, but it's better to note than to bloviate about these benefits."
So what are we to make of the stealthy effort by congressional Democrats to make taxpayers shell out fees to the USGBC for unjustifiably increasing the price of every federal building constructed? Or does that question answer itself?