LEED and Energy Use

LEED plaque.jpg

Do you remember, a number of years ago, the tempest about LEED and energy use?  LEED is a voluntary rating system, like a scorecard, where points are earned for different sustainability characteristics.  It's serious, in the sense that it requires tons of documentation by the design team.  It's criticized for a variety of reasons, especially because the points are mostly earned cafeteria-style, meaning the project team can pick-and-choose which sustainability measures to prioritize or ignore.

In 2009, Henry Gifford, a mechanical systems designer, brought a lawsuit against the US Green Building Council, contending that LEED-certified buildings were advertised as energy-efficient but in reality were not.  He lost the suit, however the episode established a perception that it's common for LEED-certified buildings to be energy hogs.  Lloyd Alter coined the phrase LEEDwashing.  (He also defended LEED and called Gifford "nuts.")  In Fine Homebuilding, Kevin Ireton asked "Is LEED a Fraud?"  Fast Company joined the chorus.

So, nine years later, does LEED deliver energy-efficient buildings?  Here's some new information, from an article in the journal BuildingsThe article is called "Assessment of Energy Credits in LEED-Certified Buildings Based on Certification Levels and Project Ownership," by Asli Pelin Gurgun and David Arditi.  Buildings has an exceptionally rigorous review process.

Gurgun and Arditi analyzed the credits earned by 1500 US buildings which achieved Silver-or-above under LEED-NC 2009. 

Most pertinent is LEED credit EA1: "Optimizing Energy Performance."  Projects could earn a maximum of 19 points.  In essence, the project earns a point for being 12% more energy-efficient than code, plus another point for each additional 2% increment.  For the 1500 projects in Gurgun and Arditi's data set:
     ● The projects in aggregate earned 54% of the points in this category
          ● Platinum projects earned 94%
          ● Gold projects earned 62%
          ● Silver projects earned 41%
     ● The average was 10.2 points earned, which corresponds to 30% energy savings
     ● 15 projects, out of 1500, earned 0 points

The authors conclude that energy efficiency points are well-used because typical strategies "are not difficult to implement" and because cost savings "is one of the primary drivers" for owners.

My quick reaction?  Not bad!  For Platinum buildings in particular, you can rest easy that energy efficiency has been prioritized in the design process.

Now, critics of LEED will surely point out a couple of things.  First, this study did not include buildings which achieved the lowest level of certification (LEED-Certified), so some of those buildings are likely to be average performers in energy use.  Second, this paper only examines credits achieved, and these are achieved by energy modeling, not actual energy performance.  As I've discussed before, User Behavior can profoundly affect the results.

In that vein, it's also worth looking at LEED credit EA5: "Measurement and Verification," which asked buildings to install metering equipment, measure energy use, and compare against the predicted values.  3 points could be earned.  For credit EA5, Gurgun and Arditi found:
     ● All projects in aggregate earned 34% of the points
          ● Platinum projects earned 66%
          ● Gold projects earned 36%
          ● Silver projects earned 28%
     ● More than half of projects (830 out of 1500) earned 0 points
(In LEED v4 this is revised and called "Advanced Energy Metering.")

My quick reaction?  Not good!  The authors speculate that these credits are avoided because they are costly.

So—again—does LEED deliver energy-efficient buildings?  Unfortunately the answer remains inconclusive.

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A final note: While most LEED critics argue that the rating system is not rigorous and susceptible to 'washing', in my 2011 article "The Limitations of LEED: A Case Study" (with Keith Hedges), I concluded that some early LEED projects were likely to be underscored, because the documentation process was opaque, difficult, and often assigned to an intern.

Mies at IIT: "Greenhouses"

 Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).  South face.  Photo ©Anthony Denzer

Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).  South face.  Photo ©Anthony Denzer

I have argued "The history of glass architecture is the history of overheating."1  Here's more evidence.  Serge Chermayeff is discussing Mies van der Rohe in a 1985 interview with Betty Blum2:

The buildings that he did for IIT were impossible in the summer.  He made them all glass, as usual, or a steel frame and practically all the glass was covered with aluminum paper by the users because it was impossible to work in them, too hot, greenhouses.

What would you have changed to make it more habitable?

It had to be a different kind of building and not the standard Miesian framed glass, it was impossible, absolutely impossible.  You can really say that all this kind of development, which we now look upon as history, at the time it was measured by use.  They are not photographs, they're not lovely drawings, they're places people use.  As places some of them are awful.  His later museum the National Gallery in Berlin was quite different, the mistakes were eliminated.  It was a great pavilion.

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Also on the blog:
Heating of Mies van der Rohe's IIT Chapel  (and note, the Chapel has no south-facing glass)
The Conservatory Effect

1. "In Service," Technology|Architecture+Design (2017).  Also, in The Solar House I show that many early solar houses overheated because proper shading was poorly understood.
2. Oral history of Serge Chermayeff; interviewed by Betty J. Blum, Art Institute of Chicago, 1985.

Against Sustainability

Have you noticed, as I have, a growing discourse against sustainability?  The pieces I'm thinking about are pessimistic (even "dark").  They argue we have intractable structural problems that make 'sustainability' a futile pursuit.  They are based in the discipline of philosophy or refer explicitly to it.

● In the 2016 New York Times essay, "Against ‘Sustainability’," Jeremy Butman started with Descartes and ended by asking: "When we talk about sustainability, then, what is it that we hope to sustain?"  He answered, "Instead of sustainability, we should instead speak of adaptability."

● In 2017 I encountered the Dark Mountain Project, through Brian Calvert's essay "So what if we’re doomed?" in the High Country News, a story of grand personal and environmental disillusionment.  This references the Dark Mountain Manifesto, a philosophical critique of modern civilization which is quite a few years old now but new to me.  It says: "Increasingly, people are restless...  Nobody knows what is coming.  Nobody wants to look."

● Guy McPherson's website Nature Bats Last has more pieces which fall into this category.  "Toward an Economy of Earth" is notable.  McPherson famously went "back to the land" before 2011.  (Disclaimer that McPherson is apparently accused of sexual harassment.)

● And late in 2017 British sociologist Elizabeth Shove published a slightly narrower critique: “What is wrong with energy efficiency?”  She argues that incremental efficiency measures only reconfirm "essentially unsustainable concepts of service."  This is based in part on ideas of French philosopher Bruno Latour.

● Other examples in this genre?  Please comment!

Personally, I don't know what to make of these views.  I'm not dystopian by nature, yet there's something compelling here, now.  I'm weary of the 'sustainability' conferences with huge carbon footprints, the meaningless corporate platitudes, and the well-meaning student projects which embroider the fringe of the garment.  At the same time, as a modernist, it's difficult for me to see the industrial revolution as an intractable problem.

Best of 2017

Kere Serpentine.jpg

My favorite experience of architecture in 2017purely subjectivelywas the Serpentine Pavilion by Francis Kéré (above).  Each year in London's Hyde Park the Serpentine Gallery asks a young-ish designer to build a temporary experimental structure.  Communal aesthetic pleasure is the only point.  Although frivolous things normally don't appeal to me too much, I just loved this. 

Other highlights from a month in Europe with students:
     In Paris, Parc Martin Luther King and the Clichy-Batignolles Eco-District
     In Barcelona, Palau Guell, one of Gaudi's wonderful lesser-known works
     In London, office visits to: Alison Brooks, Arup, Buro Happold, David Chipperfield, Cullinan Studio, SOM, Waugh Thistleton
     In London, the exhibit Circling the Square, at RIBA
     In London, artwork by Mathidle Nivet at Burlington Arcade
     And, a selfie from Mont St.-Michel:


Also in 2017 I was able to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial for the first time.  It's a deeply moving design which evokes a tremendous absence, both for those who were killed and for the broader sense of innocence lost as we live with domestic terrorism.

OKC memorial.jpg

I had several memorable speaking engagements on a variety of subjects: Greenhouse heating, Mid-Century Modernism, Charlottesville.  At the National Solar Conference (ASES) in Denver, I gave a rapid-fire talk about this website, about my experiences blogging, and about why blogging might be a good solution to the problems posed by the academic publishing industry.  ASES posted the video here:

Apple Park, by Foster + Partners


More reflecting on 2017.  When Apple Park—and in particular the Steve Jobs Theater—opened in September, I tweeted:

Apple Park tweet.jpg

Why do I say astonishing?  This represents the full resolution of the aims of modern architecture, begun in the 1910s20s.  It's the first time a building has truly realized the spatial qualities imagined by Mies, Corbu, Gropius and Neutra: the free plan, panoramic transparency, weightlessness.  Although I have not been there, the images are simply thrilling, and in my estimation the visual thrill is deeply resonant rather than superficial.

Nobody (as far as I can tell) has written about this structure as the culmination of more than a century of efforts by architects and engineers.  Are we so jaded that we can't see the importance of this achievement?  Is it out of style?  We think of modern architecture as revolutionary, having developed quickly.  The Steve Jobs Theater now asks us to reconsider the trajectory of 20th century architecture as a slower, longer arc.

Apple Park has been called "the most-hyped building of 2017," but it's far from the best-covered architectural project of the year.  First of all, credit for the architect is hard to find (thus the title above).  When I googled Apple Park I found the name Foster just once in the top 20 results, while Jobs showed up seven times.  Given the level of architectural accomplishment, there ought to be a lot of complaining about this kind of slight.  (I suppose nobody feels Foster is oppressed.)  Moreover, try to find an article which includes the floor plan, much less discusses it.

But even more importantly, who is the structural engineer?  (Upon digging: Arup, but who?)  And how does the structure work?  (I've pieced together a vague idea, but how does it work in an earthquake, for example?)  Where are the services?  How does power get to the lights in the ceiling?  Where are the fire sprinklers?  There's an elevator!?  In sum, how did Foster + Partners and their team manage to visually eliminate all the stuff that compromises modern space?  Again, nobody (as far as I can tell) has written about this. These accomplishments ought to be explained and celebrated!  They're exciting! 


Coverage of the project ([1] [2] [3] [4]) has centered on its conservative nature from the urban planning perspective.  It's an example of 1950s & 60s "Pastoral Capitalism," when American corporations fled city centers and built sleek technocratic headquarters with constructed landscapes in the suburbs.  It's car-centric and therefore a dagger to the heart of sustainable development efforts.  It's insular and anti-social.  It's too expensive. 

These are all valid points, although I bet some will be ameliorated over time, as for example the city densifies and new transportation networks are developed.  In any case, these points seem to me to be far less significant than the aesthetic, spatial achievement, which is clearly perceived through photos.  You can now draw a straight line through architectural history which begins with the modernist avant-garde and ends with the Steve Jobs Theater.  In journalism's terms, that's the lede.

Mies + Apple Park.jpg

Image credits: [top]  [middle]  [bottom left]  [bottom right]