A couple stories surfaced over the past few weeks that highlight the disparity between what some observers hope will be achieved when building to achieve LEED certification and how the buildings actually perform.
One item, published this week by Timberjay.com, which serves Minnesota’s North Country, homed in on the energy efficiency performance of the U.S. Forest Service’s new Kawishiwi Ranger District headquarters, in the town of Ely. The building, which serves a portion of Superior National Forest, earned a LEED Silver certification, becoming the first building in the Superior system to achieve the designation.
The project scored green points for its use of recycled and locally manufactured materials (including siding milled near Grand Rapids, and locally quarried rock), and its commuter-friendly location. But when Forest Service engineers analyzed the building’s energy efficiency performance relative to that of the six older headquarters buildings in the Forest Service’s Superior system, Kawishiwi turned out to be the least energy efficient per square foot.
“It has been surprising and a little bit worrisome,” Forest Service engineer Art Johnston told Timberjay. “If we’re building these new facilities and they aren’t that efficient, it takes away the incentive to replace old buildings.”
Part of the problem, Johnston noted, is that it is taking a while to determine how to maximize the efficiency of the building’s mechanical systems. The building’s annual propane usage, for example, has been cut to 12,600 gallons from almost 16,000 gallons, and the overall electrical usage in the facility has been reduced significantly – but not enough to qualify the building as energy efficient, Johnston says.
A conflict between performance requirements and materials?
Stories like this are certainly not new. Kawishiwi Ranger District headquarters was but one of many LEED-certified buildings whose energy efficiency performance has been found wanting – a situation that last year prompted USGBC’s commitment to more rigorous performance-data analysis of the buildings it certifies and to stronger performance requirements to maintain certification.
Another critique of LEED certification standards, published in May by Environment and Human Health, a nonprofit advocacy group based in North Haven, Connecticut, focused not so much on energy efficiency performance but on the possible consequences of occupying a building whose designers embrace airtight construction but also allow use of materials that may contain harmful chemicals. And while GBA contributors and readers have long been aware of the issue, health professionals working with EHH have published a study that focuses on how LEED guidelines may aggravate potentially toxic conditions in a building.
“Although the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program has effectively encouraged energy efficiency in buildings, tighter buildings often concentrate chemicals released from building materials, cleaning supplies, fuel combustion, pesticides and other hazardous substances,” wrote John Wargo, professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University and the lead author of the study.
A doctor on the team?
Wargo added that while many of the thousands of chemicals used in building materials are known to be hazardous, the federal government allows their use to continue. “Although the primary stated purposes of the Green Building Council are to promote both energy efficiency and human health,” he noted, “even the Council’s most prestigious Platinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of the certified buildings.”
So the LEED program is getting pressure, from health professionals this time, to dig deeper into its evaluation of not just the provenance and recycling of the materials used in buildings, but the toxic effects they might have in completed structures. The study recommends a LEED scoring system that uses categories (health, energy usage, location, and so on) and a 0-to-100 rating scale. Also recommended: adding health professionals to USGBC’s team of program developers, and requiring government testing of building-material chemicals for toxicity and their potential effects on humans in buildings.
Scot Horst, senior vice president for LEED, told tech website Fast Company that “there’s validity in what these people are saying, and we want to work with them to improve LEED.” But, he added, “LEED could say there should be no chemicals in any building and no energy used and no water and every building should give back water and energy. We could do all that, and no one would use the rating system. We can only take the market as far as it’s willing to go.”