A Response to LEED Critics

Over the past few decades, the LEED rating system has been revolutionizing the construction industry. The creators of LEED, Rick Fedrizzi, David Gottfried and Mike Italiano, wanted to design a rating system that would promote sustainability in the building and construction industry. However, the recent focus towards promoting environmental sustainability has opened the door to some critics who claim the rating system is not working as intended.

Sustainability is defined as “the ability to be sustained supported, upheld, or confirmed.” Today, the term is mostly associated with the ecological benefits of responsibly balancing and managing our energy and resource consumption. While environmental sustainability is a major part of what it means to be “sustainable”, ignoring the other aspects of the term detracts from LEED’s triple bottom line mission. When building owners purchase a LEED building design, they are making a long-term investment in a higher quality indoor environment for building occupants, increasing profits for building owners and creating a healthier planet.

Buildings that are seeking LEED certification can earn points from eight different categories- location and transportation, materials and resources, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, sustainable sites, indoor environmental quality, innovation and regional priority credits. Critics note that points from some of these categories actually increase the building’s energy consumption; however, there is usually a good reason behind these decisions. For example, in order to increase indoor environmental quality, the building engineer might use an airflow system that uses more energy to improve air quality. From an environmental standpoint, sacrificing energy consumption for better indoor air is not a responsible decision. However, when you consider that on average people spend 90% of their day inside, it then becomes a design factor worth including.

Although LEED building do not all performs the same, collectively they out-perform standard buildings. In a study conducted by the GSA Public Buildings Service, LEED buildings use 25% less energy and report 19% lower aggregate operational costs, 27% higher occupant satisfaction and 36% fewer carbon dioxide emissions. This well rounded analysis highlights the overall success of the LEED rating system in creating buildings that are better for people, profits and the planet.

Photo source: http://www.bee-inc.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/LEED-for-the-win.png


Investing in Solar

When you pay your electricity, bill, you’re not just paying for the electricity. In fact, about two thirds of your bill is covering the cost of the infrastructure needed to run the electricity from the power plant to your home.

Electricity is first generated at the power plant.  Here in the northeast, most of our energy is supplied from burning fossil fuels. However, once an electron is created and sent to the grid, it is impossible to tell if the electron was generated from burning fossil fuels or if it came from a renewable energy source.

After the electricity is generated, the voltage is increased so it can travel more efficiently though transmission lines to the substations. From there the voltage is decreased and the electricity is sent to homes and businesses at a low level that is safe for consumption.

As you can see, there is a massive amount of infrastructure that goes into delivering electricity to your home or office building, which why your electricity bill is roughly three times the price of what is actually costs the power plant to generate an electron. On the other hand, solar panels require none of this infrastructure. The power that is generated on-site supplies energy directly to the building where it’s located, off-setting the need to use dirty, expensive power plant energy coming from the grid.

Although a lot of people are deterred from the high initial cost of installing solar panels, there are now many alternative funding options to help finance solar instillation, such as tax rebates or leasing your panels. Furthermore, as the price of grid electricity continues to increase, the energy you generate from your solar panels will still continue to be free, giving you a higher return on your investment.

As solar system technologies continue to improve and the cost of utilities remain on the rise, solar is becoming a more attractive investment for both individuals and businesses. When we also consider the negative environmental impacts from dirty power plants, solar becomes a smart investment for both ourselves and the future of our planet.


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Green Schools, Education Programs and the Future of Sustainability

In order to find enduring solutions to global problems, we must always seek the root of the issues we hope to solve. Climate change concerns grow every day, and at the source of the problem are the unhealthy behaviors that start with the children in our society.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing the human population. Global warming is amplified by human behavior, which begins to develop at a very young age. One of the ways we can start to address this issue is by educating our children about how to live more sustainably. The good news is that many of our nation’s school systems are one step ahead of us by implementing inspiring programs in our schools. The positive effects of these programs on young people are creating a movement in our country, which will inevitably lead to a positive effect on our climate.

Every year, the USGBC Colorado Green Schools Summit showcases Colorado’s exemplary school leaders and industry experts and provides a forum for professionals to share their passion for sustainability. One of the stories presented at the Summit that resonated the most with me was the Douglas County School District in Colorado case study. In recent years, the Douglas County School District has grown over 400%, making it the fastest growing school district in the nation. Douglas County has not passed a bond since 2006 for the purpose of funding energy saving renovations, yet has still managed to cut energy usage by 30% per square foot, resulting in a total of $3.2 million in energy savings since 2006. All of this has been achieved by a completely student-run sustainability program.

The students involved in the program study energy saving measures, focus on the changes that they believe will make the most impact and implement them on a district-wide basis with minimal interference from administration. When Sustainability Director Lee Smit started this program, he had 11 students, all of which did not expect to graduate high school. Through mentoring and engaging the students in real, sustainable solutions with results they could see almost immediately, all 11 students went on to graduate. Most of those students even went on to attend college, choosing majors related to sustainability. Since the inception of the program in 2006, student participation has risen to 7500 students throughout the district. Smit reports that the vast majority of students involved in the program chose environmental professions or majors after graduating high school.

Besides making their buildings healthier, schools across the country are also adapting healthy food programs to educate students by growing and eating fresh fruits and vegetables on their campuses. The keynote speaker for the 2013 USGBC Green Schools Summit was Stephen Ritz, a school teacher in the Bronx that has enabled inner city students to grow fresh vegetables. The majority of Ritz’s students live below the poverty level and do not receive the proper nutrition they need to thrive. His program, The Green Bronx Machine, was created to teach students how to farm vegetables to improve their own health and sell at famer’s markets to help fund their educations. The food grown in their gardens are used to create balanced meals in the schools cafeterias and at their kitchen tables at home. Ritz has witnessed school attendance rise from 40% to 93% since the inception of his agriculture program.

Stories like these truly display the promise that lies within the young people of our country, and we applaud the teachers and administrators at the forefront of this movement. Teaching passion for healthy buildings and food in the young people of our country is the future of sustainability, and the positive impact on the students and communities is inspiring.


Photo from GreenBronxMachine.org