I’m a little disappointed by Daniel Brook’s Slate essay “It’s Way Too Easy Being Green,” on the supposed slackness of the U.S. Green Building Council’s “LEED” standard for environmentally sound construction. It starts promisingly, ripping the fact that a Mumbai tycoon’s private skyscraper is officially considered green, but devolves quickly into nitpicking. At heart, Brook’s criticism is that LEED standards reward people who have neither the green mentality nor the inclination to work really hard to be friendly to the environment.
The LEED checklist points system is to blame, Brook writes:
Installing a $395 bike rack is worth the same under the LEED checklist system as installing a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system. Which is the cynical builder going to choose? A builder more interested in good PR than being good to the environment can even get points purely by chance. A new casino project in Philadelphia, which the city is requiring to pursue LEED certification, is located, like most downtown buildings, within a quarter-mile of a subway stop, earning a LEED point for transit accessibility. But the developer on the project, which includes a 3,200-car garage, won’t commit to running a shuttle bus between the subway stop and the casino to encourage customers to take transit. No points in that.
Well, maybe there ought to be points deductions for some of your more flagrant anti-environmental choices. But the underlying argument strikes me as practically meritless. Does it matter that bike racks are cheap and easy to install, when considering their actual environmental value? If there were nowhere to lock up my bicycle, I and maybe two dozen other people where I work couldn’t use them to get to and from work day in and day out, eight or nine months of the year. An efficient heating system brings long-term payback for the builder and/or landlord; a bike rack is really worth nothing, financially, most places. Putting a good one in (the checklist requires capacity for five per cent of the building’s occupants at peak times, plus changing and shower facilities) should be worth a point or two.
And as for proximity to subways, it’s true that most downtown buildings would pick up that point easily, but it’s a pressing concern that many builders are not, in fact, building downtown. Those that are should be acknowledged somehow.
You need to rack up 26 points like this for minimal certification, and most aren’t this easy.
I carry no brief for the green building council, and I’m not particularly qualified to say that its rating system is perfect. It’s not a fair criticism that the LEED standards don’t judge people’s attitudes well enough, though.