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Building Science

Why Is the U.S. Green Building Council So Out of Touch?

Glass boxes with tankless water heaters aren’t enough

Image 1 of 3
Rick Fedrizzi, the CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, was recently asked about the latest developments in residential green technology. His first answer: "Tankless water heaters."
Image Credit: USGBC
Rick Fedrizzi, the CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, was recently asked about the latest developments in residential green technology. His first answer: "Tankless water heaters."
Image Credit: USGBC
What’s the R-value of an all-glass façade? Many LEED-certified buildings are all-glass boxes, which are terribly inefficient.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
A sign in front of a LEED for Homes community being built by Habitat for Humanity in Nashville, Tennessee.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

Yesterday I read a short interview with Rick Fedrizzi,* the CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and it got me to thinking about that organization. They’re probably the largest, most well known green building organization in the world. Their flagship program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is likewise probably the largest, most well known green building program in the world.

Many in the building science and green building community, however, think the organization and the program are off-track.

If you go to their website and read about them, they sound great:

We believe in better buildings; places that complement our environment and enhance our communities. Places that give people better, brighter, healthier spaces to live, work and play.

They see a huge problem — bad buildings — and have proposed solutions. The LEED program has as its objective to change the way we design, construct, and commission buildings to save energy, be more sustainable, and make the occupants happier. These are all good things.

The problems with the USGBC and LEED

If you know anything about the organization, you’ve probably heard that Henry Gifford filed a lawsuit against them a couple of years ago. You may also know that Joe Lstiburek, the godfather of building science, has been highly critical as well. In a recent article, Lstiburek wrote, “the LEED fascists made things difficult and unworkable.”

What are the knocks against the USGBC and LEED? Mainly:

  • All-glass buildings
  • Questionable energy savings, primarily because they’re all-glass
  • Too expensive
  • Excessive documentation

On the all-glass front, Lstiburek spoke here in Atlanta a few years ago and showed how buildings evolved to better and better thermal performance over the millenia…and then regressed once we started building glass boxes. Many new LEED certified buildings are glass boxes.

My April Fool’s Day article this year was US Green Building Council to Require All-Glass LEED Homes. A surprising number of people believed it was true! Even some people who should have known better fell for it. A few believed it all the way through to the end, despite my made-up window USGBC spokesperson, Crystal Payne, saying things like, “…as it turns out, saving energy just isn’t that important.” What does this say about the USGBC?

It costs a lot of money to get LEED certification for commercial buildings and for single-family homes. When I was studying for the LEED AP exam in 2004, I read about how the extra costs upfront would be paid back in energy savings and productivity. But what about those LEED certified buildings that don’t show the energy savings? To be fair, the costs for multifamily, affordable housing projects are said to be quite reasonable, and even Lstiburek has said that the LEED for Homes program doesn’t have the problems that the commercial buildings program has.

Documentation of everything is required for LEED certification: Chain-of-custody for sustainably grown forest products, receipts for waste disposal, VOC levels in paints, color of the drywall hanger’s socks, and much more. (OK, they haven’t added sock color…yet.) It’s so burdensome that one LEED Green Rater I know says that a lot of his LEED projects never get certified because the builders just can’t manage to track all the documents.

Evidence that the USGBC is out of touch

If you go to the About USGBC page on their website, they brag about their own headquarters in Washington, DC. In a sidebar titled, Leading by example, they list the ‘green’ features of their building. The first one is, “floor-to-ceiling glass windows that offer abundant natural lighting.” The second one is even better: “a two-story waterfall that brings the outdoors in and helps control indoor humidity.” Really! I hadn’t realized that DC was such a dry climate.

Back to that interview with Fedrizzi, though. In it, he was asked what are the latest technologies for homes. His first answer: “You have the tankless water heater that basically on demand heats water for your entire house, only when you need it.”

Tankless water heaters?! This isn’t new technology, first of all. I’ve known about them since the ’80s. Second, tankless water heaters would be further down the list than many other things. In water heating, I’d put drain-water heat recovery and heat-pump water heaters above tankless. At the top of my latest technology list, though, would be ductless minisplit heat pumps.

When asked about commercial buildings, Fedrizzi responded: “The glass industry is changing exponentially. There are companies in Silicon Valley that are actually putting invisible solar collectors into the glass, so every glass building will be able to generate almost its own energy.”

Let’s ignore the silliness of his statement about how the “glass industry is changing exponentially.” Oh, OK. It’s hard to ignore something so ridiculous, isn’t it? People like to use the word ‘exponential’ without understanding what it even means, and that appears to be the case here. He’s just trying to sound sophisticated but this just comes off as silly.

Maybe he’s been talking to some really smart engineers who have this figured out, but I don’t see how such a building could really generate “almost [all of] its own energy.” A lot of this energy generating glass would not get much direct solar gain and thus could hardly be cost-effective (unless it’s way cheaper than I imagine). If it’s a glass box, there will still be a lot of heat loss and heat gain, and at night that’s all that the glass will do for you.  Oh, wait. Glass at night would take away any privacy. Guess they forgot that naked people need building science.

If you ran a cost-effectiveness analysis on such a building and compared it to a building with a more reasonable glazing ratio that had a decent amount of insulated walls, I can’t imagine that the energy generating glass box would win. What am I missing, Rick?

Can’t we make this work?

I really want to believe in the USGBC and LEED. They’ve done an amazing job at creating demand for a label that many people don’t even know the meaning of (and often mistakenly call LEEDS). I just don’t think they do enough good to justify the amount of money that goes toward the certification.

One of the complaints I hear the most from builders and trade contractors is that they’d like to see the money that goes toward program verification and certification instead go to the labor and materials in the building itself. I think that view goes too far, but their point is a valid one. When certification becomes so expensive that you can’t do some of the great things with a building that you’d like to do, or you do them and the building becomes too expensive, then perhaps the expensive program needs to recalibrate.

There is certainly a need for certification programs and third party verification. They need to be grounded, affordable, and realistic, however. LEED is not. Fedrizzi is out of touch. The USGBC needs to recalibrate.


Last week, USA Today ran a story on how LEED has become “a system that often rewards minor, low-cost steps.” They highlighted their exposé with a discussion of a LEED certified casino in Las Vegas that even allows smoking inside.

* Tip of the hat to Martin Holladay, the Energy Nerd of Green Building Advisor for tweeting the link to article yesterday. In some ways, he’s more of a curmudgeon than the Green Buildling Curmudgeon himself.

Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is an energy consultant, RESNET-certified trainer, and the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard


  1. user-1140531 | | #1

    Picture = 1,000 words
    Fedrizzi's portrait seems to fit the story well.

  2. user-1087436 | | #2

    Yes, I agree, from this angle Mr. F. does bear an unfortunate resemblance to a Scientology representative. However, he is probably a perfectly nice, sincere fellow. I too abhor the glass cube syndrome in modern architecture. But what I want to know is this: Is it even possible for architects to design office buildings that aren't covered in glass? I mean, is it possible for them to do it and keep their jobs? Something is driving them to this madness. What?

  3. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #3

    An even better one...
    @Ron & @Gordon, Click the link to the interview I mentioned, and you'll see an even better photo - Fedrizzi inside a glass box.

    @Gordon: Good question. I'll bet if the design were good enough, architects could sell lower glazing ratios. We have a few here in Atlanta.

  4. JustHousing | | #4

    LEED is still broken
    Thank you Alison, for once again raising the necessary questions about LEED and USGBC usefulness. You join the ranks of not only Henry Gifford and Joe Lstiburek, but Randy Udall and Auden Schendler before them. Back in 2005, Udall and Schendler wrote a powerful and thoughtful article raising the same questions being asked today. The article was called "LEED is Broken. Let's Fix It."

    Sadly, LEED is still broken and it doesn't appear to me that anyone with the power to do so is trying to fix it.

  5. dankolbert | | #5

    Allison - did you read the cover story in the October Env. Building News? A good piece on LEED 4 and reminded me of what I liked about LEED in the first place.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    Thanks for the comment.

    For interested GBA readers: here is a link to the article Dan is talking about:

  7. Tristan Roberts | | #7

    LEED v4 development
    Agreed, Rick Fedrizzi said spoke on some topics that he either should be more informed about, or that he should know better than to speak about at that level of detail.

    Agreed, there are some all-glass buildings that are LEED-certified, but let's have some context: some of those buildings are certified under earlier versions of LEED that are outdated, and haven't incorporated some of the lessons learned from the 2005–6 "LEED is broken" days.

    At a time when all-glass buildings are favored by architects, is it any surprise that some would manage to get LEED-certified? Is that LEED's fault, or is it a credit to LEED that those buildings have done many innovative, environmentally friendly things they might not have otherwise done? LEED is not an energy standard like Passivhaus—it looks at material sourcing, IAQ, water efficiency, location, and other measures.

    The casino discussed in the USA Today article allowed smoking under a LEED workaround (aka loophole) that was closed with the launch of LEED 2009. LEED 2009 also ushered in energy and water usage reporting requirements that are being stepped up further in the development of LEED v4.

    I agree that documentation time and costs relative to LEED are too high and that USGBC should make a concerted effort to bring them down. I'm not sure they're doing enough on this, but I'm open to seeing what they come up with for LEED v4.

    Speaking of LEED v4, we are smack in the middle of what is likely to be the final public comment period for the next version of LEED. If any of you guys have specific feedback on how LEED is broken, beyond an unfortunate headshot for USGBC's chairman, post a public comment.

    By the way, for another response to the USA Today article, see this post by my colleage Nadav Malin.

    There is a serious discussion to be had about LEED and how it should be improved, but let's at least focus on the last three or four years of LEED history, which evolved considerably since the 2005–8 period that many complaints seem to focus on, as well as the next few years, and let's see some specific concerns aired.

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Tristan Roberts
    You make some very valid points. Thanks for posting.

    I also appreciate the link to Nadav Malin's response to the USA Today story. However, I think that Nadav is too quick to praise the developers who built the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas. Nadav wrote, "USA Today acknowledges that the team behind the Palazzo also did some pretty important things, such as solar-heating the swimming pools and using occupancy sensors to control ventilation to hotel rooms."

    Well, the reduced ventilation rates make sense, I suppose. But Nadav's point doesn't address the fundamental contradiction that occurs when a luxury hotel in Las Vegas hopes to get a green label.

    As to Nadav's other point -- the idea that the installation of a solar thermal system to heat swimming pool water at a luxury hotel in Las Vegas is "pretty important" -- all I can say is, "Hunh?"

  9. Tristan Roberts | | #9

    location and green
    Martin, I have no major disagreement with your quibbles.

    I'll use your post as an opening for a conversation I'd like to have about LEED. LEED correctly recognizes that a large proportion of a building's overall environmental benefits (or harms) are related to its location, and it gives quite a few points for buildings in transit-friendly locations. That's part of the reason that an all-glass skyscraper in New York City can get LEED-certified. It's about total energy use, including commuting, not just energy use within the building.

    However, it could be argued that if a building is located in NYC, it's probably located there not because of LEED but for other market reasons, and rewarding it with a slew of location-based points doesn't create any benefit. Perhaps LEED projects in NYC should get only token recognition for their location, and be forced to work harder on other measures, such as onsite energy use?

    It's like the old business problem faced by grocers: your goal might be to hand out coupons to get someone who doesn't buy breakfast cereal to try it, like it, and come back for more, but some percentage of coupons you give out for cereal will be used by people who eat that cereal anyway.

    Back to Las Vegas, if you were playing God, perhaps you wouldn't want any buildings built in Las Vegas, and would prohibit LEED certification in such an unsustainable location?

    These are some of the challenges that USGBC has taken on in promoting LEED as a nationwide, single yardstick for recognition of green buildings. I think in the future we'll see it evolve in interesting ways around these issues, but we'll only get to that point if smart people like the folks here stay engaged, and if USGBC keeps making it worth it.

  10. lutro | | #10

    Destructive criticism
    I certainly offer destructive criticism from time to time, and I am not a great fan of LEED and USGBC. Still, they have tried to do something that is very difficult, inspiring a large number of people and institutions to try to build in greener ways. They have made some progress on it, and they have made it easier for all of us. Both as a seeker of understanding and as an advocate for improved environmental actions, I regret the amount of superficial and easy-target criticisms leveled at LEED, almost to the exclusion of the discussion on solid, doable change proposals. Posting unflattering pictures of your targets is pretty close to an ad hominem attack. I'm not a fan of calling people fascists, either, as in your quote from Lstiburek, which this article seems to be using as evidence against LEED and USGBC.

    Let's ponder the poster child of this article's criticism of LEED, glass buildings. I agree that glass-walled buildings have multiple problems, yet how many of these can be laid on LEED? These buildings were popular before LEED. They are popular now in non-LEED buildings. Does LEED make it more or less likely that architects, builders, and building owners will choose this style? Finally, what are the chances that LEED would have gotten any traction in the commercial building sector, if it prohibited all buildings that had glass walls? Or allowed smoking? If the goal is to move the public and the industry to a greater level of environmental responsibility, it must attain some level of acceptance. This can't begin from a position of extreme eco-rigidity.

    I am a fan of what USGBC and LEED are trying to accomplish, and I have respect for the difficulties of doing anything in a semi-democratic environment, both within USGBC and in the larger society.

  11. Brent_Eubanks | | #11

    energy vs. materials
    It seems like the complaints about LEED all center around either the documentation burden, or poor energy performance. As an HVAC engineer, I primarily deal with the second issue.

    My experience has been that there are at least three points of breakdown that lead to all-glass buildings and poor energy performance:

    - Most architects do not seem to understand why a window will not (and cannot) perform thermally as well as a properly designed and constructed wall. I honestly do not understand how this incomprehension can persist - I can only assume this is due to a lack of physics and engineering training.

    - There seems to be an eagerness to uncritically accept the the performance claims of glass manufacturers - anyone who tells you they can give you an R-20 window needs to be looked at VERY closely. And, it should be noted, the R-value of a material does not tell the entire story of its thermal performance - another factor that does not seem to be widely understood.

    - There does not seem to be a good understanding of what energy models are, and are not, good for.
    First of all, they are really quite primitive compared to those used by other engineering professions (e.g. aerospace) so they are generally believed to be more capable, flexible, and accurate than they actually are. Much of the code dates from an era when computer limitations forced the use of non-physical approximations. Those approximations often break down when you try to force the software outside of its comfort zone - as many high performance buildings must necessarily do.
    Secondly, they are not intended to provide an accurate estimate of absolute energy use - they are intended to compare case A with case B. They are not well suited to the goal of designing zero energy buildings.
    Worst of all, the unfortunate reality is that it requires both dedication and skill to get an energy model to tell you the truth. It is very easy to intentionally or accidentally construct an energy model to tell you what you, or your client, wants to hear. Using an inappropriate baseline model is a very easy way to (quite accidentally) make a terrible building look quite good. Vetting these models is time consuming and costly, and requires skill and integrity on the part of the evaluator, just as it does on the part of the engineer who created them. Of course, the illusion falls apart if one looks at actual energy bills, but by then it's too late - the building is built.

    Part of the answer here is better energy models, which are easier to use (so you spend your time working with the results, rather than fighting the software) and more capable (so you can model radiant surfaces, displacement ventilation, etc without obtuse work-arounds that are of questionable accuracy). But that is going to take time, and is only a partial solution anyway. Real progress is going to require that both HVAC engineers and architects educate themselves and be honest with themselves and each other (and the client!) about the real limitations of both the models, and of the technologies that they are intended to simulate.

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    Response to Derek Roff
    I'd like to respond to the allegation in your statement, "Posting unflattering pictures of your targets is pretty close to an ad hominem attack."

    The author of this article, Allison Bailes, is fully responsible for the opinions he expressed. However, he is not to blame for the photo of Rick Fedrizzi. I am.

    When Allison sent me the article, he mentioned that he did not have permission to use the photo of Rick Fedrizzi that accompanied the Hartford Courant interview that inspired this blog. Allison asked me to see if I could locate another photo of Rick Fedrizzi to accompany this piece.

    I decided to use a photo of Rick Fedrizzi that Rick had previously given us permission to use. It is a photo that was supplied to GBA by Rick himself -- to accompany an earlier (2009) GBA article by Rob Moody (Q&A with Rick Fedrizzi). When we ran that photo in 2009, no one posted any comments referring to the photo as "unflattering."

    In fact, Rick Fedrizzi likes the photo. He recently used the photo to accompany an announcement he made on the USGBC website; you can see it here: Letter from Rick Fedrizzi.

    The photo has been used to accompany many pro-Fedrizzi articles -- for example, USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi Recognized with Olmsted Medal.

    Now that we've got the issue of the photo out of the way, we can return our discussion to the more important points raised by Allison Bailes in his blog.

  13. John K | | #13

    Fedrizzi & tankless water heaters
    Fedrizzi is merely a spokesperson with a fancy title, i.e., a figurehead and glad-hander. Don't expect technical revelations from this man.

    By the way, he may tout tankless water heaters as energy savers, BUT they are proven water wasters (and significant water wasters, at that!). This is one of the problems with USGBC, that of promoting things or even including provisions in LEED that have either not proven to be beneficial, but, in some cases, DETRIMENTAL to the environment. Well-intentioned people with a lack of science or other information (or even time to gather information) issuing statements and guidelines that are out of touch with 'real world' practices. Question: Do the overall benefits to the built environment resulting from LEED outweigh the screwball stuff that has no foundation in science? Probably they do.

  14. David_Gregory_CZ3_CA | | #14

    Architects, Clients, and Glass Buildings
    There is a move away from all-glass buildings, but not fast enough. It helps when they melt pool-side lounge chairs or damage expensive art. Architects may know better, but many clients - and buyers - want glass for the look, and the views; and perhaps for constructional reasons (single, flush exterior plane and material / joint system). Don't blame the architect.

    But windows as voids that can be read against the solid mass of the building can be beautiful; and might be making a comeback, based on a very biased sample: A competition-winning project in south China that is going into construction (see attached), which is also wrapped with terracotta rain-screen cladding then perforated metal louvers; and two recent works by ADEPT (in collaboration with others) that use the solid / void as design element and branding (solidity for a bank building).

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