The Life And Death Of Green Design

07/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Words By William Bostwick

Renzo Piano's New York Times building in midtown Manhattan is a glass-skinned tribute to one of the oldest and most prestigious newspapers in the world. It's also a thousand-foot-tall middle finger to the environmentally-friendly-design establishment. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design--you probably know it as LEED--sets the official standard for sustainable architecture. For most of today's high-profile projects, like the new Bank of America skyscraper going up a few blocks away from the Times building, certification is de rigueur. But Piano and the Times didn't bother, and they're not alone. More and more architects have realized that the old standby for certification, with its checklist approach to what's good for the environment and what's not, rewards rule-following and ignores the kind of big thinking that makes architecture worth caring about. Not only that, many architects have an alternative--one that scraps LEED altogether in favor of a holistic approach to sustainable design.

Eight years ago, when LEED began, the reaction was different. While the federal government twiddled its thumbs, a small nonprofit group called the U.S. Green Building Council set out to define "green" design by creating the LEED standards. Architects and environmentalists thought LEED would make sustainable design easier. But the odds were stacked against it. You thought your neighbor's Hummer was bad? Buildings eat up 72 percent of our electricity and 31 percent of our natural gas, and spit out 38 percent of our greenhouse gases. Just one American house releases 26,000 pounds of greenhouse gases each year. LEED promised a solution.

LEED is like a standardized test. Architects start by registering their building--technically an optional step, but one that gives access to study guides that can help decode some of the test's stickier questions. Plus, there's a marketing incentive: Even if a firm doesn't go through the whole certification, it can still tout a "LEED-registered" building. (Condos sometimes do this so that they can sell apartments long before the building is ever examined.) The test has 69 questions about things like materials (are they locally made? Recycled?) and energy use (does the building run on renewable power?). For fulfilling 26 criteria, a building gets certified. Do better, and your building can be Silver, Gold, or, for 52 correct answers, Platinum.

It sounds simple enough, but since 2000, only about a thousand buildings have made the cut. Why? Certification is expensive. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to jump all the hurdles, from registration and energy modeling to hiring inspectors. A new industry of LEED specialists has appeared just to make sense of the notoriously tricky paperwork. The environmental news website reported that certification usually adds the equivalent of 1 percent to 5 percent of the budget to a building's total cost. When a project's cost runs into the millions of dollars, that's a lot of dough. And LEED encourages that spending, asking architects to go through the process again after the building has been up for a while. This has been good business for the Council. A Fast Company investigation found that the USGBC earns 95% of its $50 million annual budget through its programs--one of which is LEED--unlike other nonprofits which rely heavily on grants and donations. Still, many feel that the USGBC's success hasn't made life any easier for designers. The program is still cumbersome. Some even say it's fundamentally flawed.

The problem is the checklist. All 69 items on the list are measured equally, so things like nonsmoking policies have the same ultimate value as a costly and complicated green roof or solar-panel system. That means that, if you do it right, you can slap on attributes to your building like bike racks or a non-irrigated lawn and have LEED call you green without really thinking seriously--or creatively--about the environment. It promotes, in other words, a piecemeal, buffet-style attitude toward sustainable design--a little of this, a little of that--rather than a holistic rethinking of the design process.

But things are changing. First of all, LEED is up for review this fall, and the USGBC is expected to incorporate new factors like local climate and the building's performance over time. Separate rating systems are also gaining momentum. The Green Buildings Initiative's Green Globes system is more user-friendly than LEED, without the mountains of paperwork, and Energy Star, known for certifying products like washing machines and computer monitors, is expanding into the big world of architecture. Then there's the American Institute of Architects' 2030 plan, which aims at cutting fossil fuel use by U.S. buildings in half by 2010 and making all buildings carbon neutral by 2030. The 2030 plan is promising, but LEED is not going to get us there. Like any standardized test, LEED works best as a measurement tool, not a paradigm shifter. Change has to come from the architects themselves.

That's why Piano's New York Times building matters. The project is sustainable in ways that are hard to quantify because Piano incorporated environmental solutions into the fundamental fabric of the design. A 70-by-40-foot skylight and an interior courtyard-garden allow natural light into the tower's offices, lowering electricity use but also defining the look and feel of the whole building. What to LEED is just a single attribute, to Piano is an integral part of the design. This is a radical and innovative idea, and it picks up where LEED left off, moving greenness from a privileged subset of design into a basic design strategy--not a prize, but a process.

The onus, then, is on the architects, and they're responding by forgetting about LEED and rethinking sustainable architecture. They're turning the standardized test into an essay question that asks of green design the same things we ask of all good design: Does it have a unifying theme? Does it make a statement? Does it inspire? In the end, what's good for the planet is good for architecture in general, and so perhaps it's best to leave "green" undefined and unquantifiable, transforming it from a supplementary title into a fundamental way of thinking. Green architecture is dead. Long live green architecture.