Discovery Guides Areas


Green Buildings: Conserving the Human Habitat
(Released October 2006)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Web Sites


What Is Green? LEED Certification


One way to think of Green Buildings is as an accumulation of elements: environmentally friendly principles, recycled and natural materials, locally generated energy, energy conservation, water reuse, air quality, and so on. While this may be a bit mechanistic, it is the most objective and quantifiable method. Such a checklist is indeed the principle behind Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification, developed in 2000 by the United States Green Building Council and currently the most accepted method of judging the "greenness" of buildings.

A number of certification processes for various products to ensure that they match their claims of environmental friendliness. For instance, the Forest Service Council certifies wood products ( and the United States Department of Agriculture recommends a number of agencies for certifying organic food ( Certification of green buildings is one of the newest tools for ensuring consistent, high-quality environmental standards.

building in New York city
The Condé Nast Building at Four Times Square, 1999 (New York, NY) is the largest building in the United States to establish standards for energy conservation, indoor quality, recycling systems, and sustainable manufacturing processes
Fox & Fowle Architects. ©Andrew Gordon Photography

LEED certification does not divide into a binary "green" or "not green," but judges four levels of greenness: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. It does so by giving credits based on a variety of larger categories, subdivided into specific criteria. For instance if a site is part of a brownfield redevelopment, it gets one point out of 14 possible under the "Sustainable Sites" category. Water use reduction of 20% scores a point, on-site renewable energy is worth 1-3 points, reuse and recycling of building materials score points, as do low-emitting materials, and so on.

Abbreviated LEED Checklist for New Buildings
CATEGORY possible points
Sustainable Sites
Water Efficiency 5
Energy & Atmosphere 17
Materials & Resources 13
Indoor Environmental Quality 15
Innovation & Design Process 5
26-32 points = LEED Certified
33-38 points = Silver certification
33-38 points = Gold certification
33-38 points = Platinum certification
For the full LEED Checklist with a complete breakdown, see

If LEED certification provides definite criteria for what could otherwise be a slippery process, it has also been criticized as bureaucratic and mechanistic. Two environmental professionals active in the green building movement, Auden Schendler and Randy Udall, state: "We're concerned that LEED has become costly, slow, brutal, confusing, and unwieldy, a death march for applicants . . . that makes green building more difficult than it needs to be."18 These critics argue that the process of certifying a building is unnecessarily expensive, encourages gaming the system to find the cheapest ways of adding points, and doesn't necessarily produce the most logical, integrated, environmentally friendly results for a given project.

Instead of LEED, Schendler and Udall recommend the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America program19 as an example of a collaborative process that's far more effective. Yet another green building practitioner defends LEED, explaining that it's unfair to compare it with a program intended for smaller housing that provides less comprehensive environmental measures.20 Some hard numbers from a state of California study support the LEED process: "LEED buildings cost an average of $4 more per square foot than typical construction," but, over twenty years, "they would generate savings of $48.87 a square foot (in current dollars) for standard- and silver-certified buildings, and $67.31 for gold- and platinum-certified buildings."21

Go To Here Comes the Sun: Passively Aggressive about Energy

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