Green Building: LEEDing Us Where?

Philip Merrill Environmental CenterPhoto: Andreas Kollegger The Philip Merrill Environmental Center

The Philip Merrill Environmental Center is a 32,000-square-foot building in Annapolis, Md. It has the distinct honor of being the first structure to earn a “platinum” rating from a program called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).? When the complex was completed in 2001, it earned special accolades for its southern wall, which is shielded by slotted wood (partially made from recycled pickle barrels) to reduce the building’s interior temperature.? However, as David Owen notes in his cogently argued book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, the wooden barrier also prevents the sun from directly hitting the building’s photovoltaic panels, thus rendering a potentially energy-efficient feature effectively useless.

This irony captures a problem endemic to modern environmentalism.? Concerned consumers are flush with noble intentions, but too often these intentions succumb to external realities. A closer look at LEED-and green building in general-illustrates the nature of this conflict. Progressive cities across the U.S. offer tax incentives for builders to incorporate energy-efficient designs into their structures.? A quick review of my own environmentally conscientious enclave in Austin reveals rainwater collection tanks, native landscaping (“xeriscaping”), gravel driveways, solar panels, compost heaps, massive recycling bins, cork floors, self-composting toilets, compact fluorescent bulbs, and bamboo cabinets. These features are all vivid testimonies to an enduring environmental ethic. Truth be told, my own home has a “five star” green rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program. I’m rather proud of it.

“After all, step beyond the privileged confines of our ever-greening abodes, and you’ll discover that most American cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks.”

But a book as insightful as Owen’s forces me to wonder: do such efforts matter all that much? After all, step beyond the privileged confines of our ever-greening abodes, and you’ll discover that most American cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks. Don’t get me wrong, Austin is a wonderful place to live. But the fact remains: its overall blueprint runs counter to a truly sustainable lifestyle. Homes are large, if not steroidal, by the standards of densely packed urban centers like New York or San Francisco.? Cars are a necessity. Sidewalks are maddeningly intermittent. Bicycle lanes and bus routes are haphazard. Sprawling “house farms” and strip malls ring the city.? Air conditioners run full blast for seven months. Traffic snarls. We have no light rail or subway.

Of course, these are structural inefficiencies.? Generally they’re beyond individual control (although Austin voted down light rail twice!). Nevertheless, they place our personal environmental decisions-such as the choice to build a LEED-certified home-in a troubling context. Take the long view. From the moment of European settlement onward, American faith in Manifest Destiny has inspired aggressive development driven by land acquisition and individual choice. Sprawl started to become ingrained in the American character over two centuries ago and, as a result, middle America has inherited cities that value expansion over intensification. To an extent, this vexed inheritance turns our cork floors and compost bins into empty expressions akin to the sun-starved solar panels adorning the Merritt Center.

“We have built our country as we have built it,” writes Owen, “and we’re obviously not going to tear it down and start over.” True enough.? What we can do, though, is expand the notion of what it means to be an environmentalist. Tree huggers, organic farmers, and green builders will always play necessary roles in raising environmental awareness. But if Owen is right-if our only real hope is to live smaller, live closer, and drive less-future environmentalists will include inner city pioneers who make the urban core a more desirable place to live.? Police officers, school teachers, pastry shop owners, landscape architects, urban planners, coffee freaks and policy geeks-these people will be the real heroes of twenty-first century environmentalism.


Electric cars allowing us to stay in the suburbs is a much more likely scenario than everyone moving downtown to the point that all cities in the US resemble Manhattan.

Ken Pittsburgh

Add another one: Almost never travel by plane.

I know "green people" who fly to Costa Rica to stay at an environmentally-friendly hotel. Be green ... stay at home.


The fact that you voted down light rail is a *good* thing!


That's the problem; dense, highly populated urban centers are inherently, environmentally respectful because they facilitate sharing of resources while reducing a population's footprint . But sharing is socialism, and common space is for commies. If Milton were alive he'd probably be write: Better burn in Austin than bloom in Brooklyn.


james has a 'green mind'. i like the thoughts and the environmental conscience hidden in the writting.the diffence is between what we see and foresee.people like james make us see and foresee. life and the future.
the world needs green consciousness. no just at structural design planning level but all levels of life. so that life in earth can truly be 'ever green'.


Reducing your carbon consumption by 20%, or 50% or whatever over the next couple of decades isn't going to be enough. The real heros will be the people who fix the problem, or who eradicate their emissions, not reduce them. (At least according to the book this blog promotes!)


Too true, too true. I read somewhere (Rocky Mountain Institute?) that 95% of our energy impact is our personal transportation and climate control. That pretty much means that a smaller home and limited driving dwarf any other "green" efforts. I also think of this whenever I bike to the grocery store: every time you turn on your car you have paid for 11 plastic bags which are made from the by-product of your car's fuel refinement. So great if you brought your own bags, but it doesn't mean all *that* much...


If electric cars become cheap and common, it will only worsen sprawl. Over the past 10 years, commuters have shown the only thing that will limit their commute is the price of gasoline. If electric cars allow people to drive for pennies a mile ...


So I guess the moral is: Don't bother building green because it doesn't really make a difference. Discrediting one branch of sustainability to promote another seems counterproductive to me. Infrastructure and community planning will be central to the cause, but acting locally towards reducing impact and promoting distributed energy generation are also parts of the solution.
As for the wood slats blocking the solar panels: LEED sanctioned or not, bad design is still bad design.


Take a look at LEED for Neighborhood Development, which the US Green Building Council developed in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Congress for New Urbanism. It focuses on creating diverse, walkable neighborhoods (in both cities and towns) that are both environmentally friendly and have an authentic sense of place. It's not about making the whole country like Manhattan, but about giving people quality places to live and work that don't depend on automobiles.

Even the newer versions of the classic LEED rating systems have put more emphasis on the big picture in terms of energy efficiency and urban sprawl.


Don't diss LEED just because an architect got the design wrong, the basics are still valid. Overall LEED is just a vehicle to get us further down the road to better built environments and high performing buildings. We have had more discussion about the built environment, amongst a varstly increased diverse audience since LEED started than at almost any other time...and that's good. LEED can therefore be classed as not changing buildings...but changing our attitudes..the hardest subject to work with.


LEED, like all new green concepts, is a work in progress. A LEED-certified building or home has reduced its waste during the building's creation and entire lifetime (read: energy and resource usage, CO2 emmissions, water waste, toxicity), and hopefully after it's demoliton. Considering that buildings are major -- and I do mean major - contributors to overall CO2 emissions, the "feel good" certification that building owners are seeking out is a positive step in the right direction. Following LEED procedures minimizes waste, and anyone who invests in similar design considerations can make as much as an impact (without paying the LEED fees). For larger buildings, it can typically pay off in energy savings rather quickly, so nobody is flushing money down the self-composting toilet, so to speak.

Yes, the infrastructural issues we have in the U.S. are overwhelmingly rotten! But it seems to me that asking "why bother" is akin to giving up on every other thing we do for our environment such as recycling and driving smaller cars. Why don't you put more pressure on your local governments, instead, and consider paying slightly higher taxes to help pay for it? After all, it's your world too.


A. Aylett

A piece that I wrote for WorldChanging not so long ago deals with exactly this issue.

What is the use of a few green buildings if the rest of the city stays the same? Not much.

But boundary pushing buildings can help us reform regulations and mainstream sustainable design principles.

But without good land use planning, as you point out, that's all a moot point. Portland for example -- famous for having cut emissions below 1990 levels --succeeded in large part thanks to a strong urban growth boundary.

The trick is really is regulation. But we also need to make "density" as sexy as green roofs or solar panels. Talking about "20 minute neighbourhoods" is a good place to start.


Environmental bi-polarism in full bloom: thinking globally by acting locally, while hand-wrining over the slow pace of change. Did you think change would occur over-night? Many of the other commentors have it about right: change will come from a combination of technological advance and market forces - somewhat steered by government, though not managed by government. It will take a while, but it will take.


Quill, I'm not sure that electric cars will necessarily be cheaper to operate than gas cars. However, electricity can be produced in a sustainable and zero-emissions fashion (e.g., wind and solar power), whereas gasoline cannot.


As they currently stand, the LEED 2.x standards are humorous in some ways - for example, building features that don't actually incorporate energy savings (such as installing bike racks and showers) are worth as much as solar panels and high efficiency utility equipment in terms of achieving a certification. The intent is all well and good (the idea from the above example being that showers and bike racks will encourage bike commuting), but to attain a basic LEED certification doesn't require a highly efficient and/or sustainable design.

The good news is that LEED 3.0, soon to be out, includes significant changes to the weighting of LEED points and certification, with a focus on true sustainability and use of efficient technology.

The true solution, though, is as suggested, to live closer and smaller. I'm in the process of trying to sell my house to turn a 25-mile commute into a 1-mile bike ride, which is easier said then done in suburban cities. The frustrating thing for me, living in Raleigh, NC, is that our entire Triangle region is home to some highly innovative green companies, great sustainability efforts from government and private entities, and top-notch research institutions - BUT, that very regional association between three counties makes it difficult to live, work, and play in a small geographic area. Add in our lack of good public transit and long commutes, and we've got a lot of talkin' without a lot of walkin'



God, my Sister-in Law and Brother will hate me for this....A few years ago they decided to build a tremendously green house in Minneapolis. So--

It has artsy kitchen counters of compressed rubbish. The floors are fly-ash-crete (the most radioactive stuff you can buy). The siding is old barn siding. There are no fireplaces (they use too much energy), No garage (heat escapes when you open the door); low-flow shower-heads to save water, low flow toilets (take three flushes) only a few (energy-using) windows. The lighting is pretty dim too. The roof is flat (but the solar panels aren't). The roof leaks...but hey! it's energy efficient as hell....

Then they put it on the market for $749,000 and waited for the energy-conscious buyers.

And waited and waited....


I love the idea of LEED certification, but I became just a bit more skeptical about LEED when as part of obtaining LEED certification my office building painted "Hybrid" in two parking stalls close to the front door. Is a good parking spot really going to be a motivator for someone to buy a hybrid car? Even if it did increase the number of hybrid cars, why are we singling out hybrid cars when there are other vehicles out there with similar fuel efficiency? Even though there are at least two Priuses (Prii?) that regularly park in our parking lot, they don't necessarily park in the special spots set aside for them, so eventually people just started ignoring the label and using the spots.

We as a society will not make significant changes until the economics of energy force us to. That's only going to happen if we tax fossil fuels, or if we just use up all of the cheap sources. It will happen, but it's unclear when.



It's really a shame that most of the United States have been so shaped by the automobile. Outside of dense east coast cities, we have designed for cars, not people. It's no wonder we have so many problems: the whole foundation is flawed.

I hope one day to see dense villages and towns throughout the US like you can find in the richest and poorest European nations.


Do what you can, don't judge others, use less, limit reproduction, and enjoy our good fortune. It all makes a difference but the angst is a drag.