This website is accessible to all versions of every browser. However, you are seeing this message because your browser does not support basic Web standards, and does not properly display the site's design details. Please consider upgrading to a more modern browser. (Learn More).

You are here: home > opinion > in my opinion

LEED certification - More hype than substance

By Donna Kelly
Posted Tuesday, December 14, 2010

e-mail E-mail this page   print Printer-friendly page

Pittsboro, NC - LEED Certification is often promoted as being about energy efficiency. Despite a substantial additional cost many critics claim it doesn't deliver and is more hype than substance.

LEED Certification – More Hype Than Substance

The NC state motto is “esse quam videri” or “To be, rather than to seem”. While a good sentiment at any time it’s especially important in our current difficult economy. We can’t afford to spend scarce resources on empty promises.

One area where Chatham County has spent a lot of money in recent years “to seem rather than to be” is on LEED certification. We were told the resulting energy efficiency would pay for the added cost. Actual energy efficiency is something we can all agree on whether our primary motivation is to save money or to save the environment. Unfortunately, LEED certification does not necessarily mean energy efficiency and certainly does not guarantee it. There are other alternatives that are much more cost effective.

What is LEED Certification?

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. If we look at the website of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) under What LEED Delivers we find:

Third-party certification through the independent Green Building Certification Institute ( assures that LEED buildings are constructed as intended. GBCI includes a network of ISO-compliant international certifying bodies, ensuring the consistency, capacity and integrity of the LEED certification process.

An organization’s participation in the voluntary and technically rigorous LEED process demonstrates leadership, innovation and environmental stewardship.

Note that there is no guarantee of any energy savings. While most people believe Green building and LEED’s primary focus is energy efficiency it actually incorporates much more than that. The areas covered include toxicity, air quality, storm water, mass transit, materials, water, waste and location. While these may be important factors to consider, they are not all easy to measure or produce any meaningful future savings to offset their cost. Therefore, the assertion that LEED certification will pay for itself through future energy savings is more hype than reality. The value of these other features must be judged on their own merits, not falsely sold on claims of energy efficiency that may or may not be present.

The certification process is essentially qualifying for points from a checklist of options. If you satisfy enough points you get a Platinum, Gold, Silver or basic Certified label. Because of the wide range of areas covered it was possible to obtain LEED certification without any energy efficiency measures prior to the 2009 revamp and may still be possible. Not surprisingly most buildings qualify near the bottom of their point range for a given category. Any performance standards are based on computer modeling, not actually measurements. Although the 2009 revamp addressed some of the worst problems with the system many critics believe there’s still a long way to go before it’s a worthwhile investment.

Criticisms of the LEED Program

There have been numerous articles written questioning the value of the LEED certification process. While supporters will argue that the program is still being refined and is improving, critics claim the process is too expensive and delivers too little, that it’s more hype than substance. This report focuses on a few representative articles and an extensive review article but there is a lot more information available. This is a complex issue so it’s vital to separate the facts from the hype.

The NY Times has run a number of articles over the years critical of the LEED program. Two good examples that give an overview of the issues are from late 2009 and address the poor performance of some LEED certified buildings in terms of energy use and the attempt by the USGBC to improve the LEED program. Common criticisms focus on the lack of verifiable results, the ability to accumulate points through the use of items such as bike racks and bamboo flooring, instead of energy efficiency measures. Also, since the program is based entirely on design and not function, it does not take into account how the building will be used which can dramatically affect energy use. A study of 121 new buildings certified in 2006 showed that more than half did not qualify for the Energy Star rating and 15% used more energy than 70% of comparable buildings. Although a few buildings have performed well, as would be expected the best performing buildings were not the cheapest despite claims that LEED is cheap and produces large savings.

An extremely detailed review of the criticisms of the LEED program is available from Community Solutions. From their website:

The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, founded in 1940 as Community Service, Inc., is a non-profit organization that educates on the benefits and values of small local community living. We envision a world where people live sustainably and cooperatively in local communities, which are diverse, equitable, and just.

This sounds like the type of organization that would support the LEED program. However, they ran an extensive, three-part critique on LEED in their newsletter that was incorporated into a book. The first two parts are available on their website. The crux of their criticism is that LEED does not deliver and is a distraction from meaningful energy efficiency measures that should be the heart of any true sustainability program.

According to their research the USGBC was formed in 1993 as a non-profit composed of design professionals and corporations, many from the building materials industry, with the goal of transforming the green building marketplace. Their approach was to involve industry in the process right from the start. The concern some critics have is that this approach has led to more “greenwashing” than actual results. Companies get good public relations by getting plaques and accolades rather than making serious reforms.

Despite claims of a rigorous process, the focus of the program is on the certification process, not on actual environmental responsibility. Basic certification is not much more than meeting basic building codes. Any higher rating is gained by adding points from a checklist of options. There is a lot of bureaucracy involved and a whole industry of LEED certified professionals needed to obtain certification. This all leads to a substantial income for the USGBC.

Often cited complaints include the certification process costs too much, point-mongering is rampant – reaching the bare minimum for a rating class using the cheapest and least effective points possible, excessive bureaucracy, overblown claims, and a lack of life cycle analysis or actual performance requirements. Furthermore the entire process relies entirely on paperwork with no actual inspection of the building. Many argue that the money spent on certification could be better spent on actual energy efficiency measures.

LEED is more about green building in terms of less quantifiable issues such as toxicity, air quality, storm water, mass transit, etc rather than energy efficiency. It’s primary focus is on materials, water, waste, location, etc. rather than energy use. There is very little data available on actual energy use since reporting is not required as part of the program. A voluntary reporting system was put in place with the last upgrade to the system so more information may be available in the future although without comprehensive reporting it will be difficult to make any widespread conclusions. Most of the data that is available comes from a 2003 study that suffers from a number of flaws, especially small sample size and comparison of inconsistent measurements. The data in the 2003 study does not actually support all the claims it makes but it’s still the most widely cited report on LEED performance.

When compared to the Energy Star program a survey has shown that tenants are willing to pay more for rent in an Energy Star certified building while they are not willing to pay more for a LEED certified building. This shows that people are willing to pay more for energy efficiency that is measurable but not for broader claims of “sustainability” with no objective measurement.

LEED is often promoted as a low cost option yet makes claims of high returns. Any system making such claims should be questioned very carefully since most people realize that you can’t get something for nothing. Investing in true energy efficiency and quality construction will pay for itself in future energy savings and decreased maintenance costs, but investing in a certification process that does not guarantee either makes no sense. The conclusion of Community Solutions is that the LEED program is more about marketing than about results.

Here in NC, the Civitas Institute devoted most of its Fall 2009 Civitas Review to discussing a number of NC environmental initiatives. Much of the criticism centers around the fact that many of these programs do not deliver on their promises and some have unintended consequences that make them worse than what existed prior to their implementation. One of the articles focuses on Green schools and describes several supposedly green schools that actually use more energy than comparable non-green schools. Other claims that the better environment in the green schools will lead to better performance have also not been born out by test scores. The schools did use considerably less water, primarily due to requirements to use waterless urinals, something that could easily be done without any special certification.


The area of estimated costs and expected future energy savings is where the hype around LEED really comes into play. Claims have been made that LEED certification often adds less than 1% to the cost of building but can produce up to 30% lower energy usage. This is the beauty of dealing in non-specific terms. Yes, some LEED certified buildings have been done with little additional costs, however these are generally not the same buildings that produce the greatest energy savings. Also, there’s a big difference between the basic LEED Certified classification and LEED Platinum. Obviously the costs and benefits will both increase as buildings qualify for a higher level of certification, yet claims of costs and performance rarely distinguish between the various classifications.

Estimates of the additional costs associated with LEED certified buildings vary widely. Although the USGBC usually claims the additional costs to be 1-3%, other studies have cited additional costs of up to 8-10%. Additional costs include both the actual construction costs as well as the “soft” costs or those associated exclusively with the certification process. These include additional design costs, project organization, energy modeling, and compliance documentation and application fees. It’s these “soft” costs that are particular troubling and have been estimated at 1.5 – 3% of construction costs. One estimate for the Margaret Pollard Middle School was that LEED certification cost an additional $2 million.

The county should release information on just how much LEED certification on recent construction has cost as well as the final LEED certification reports so we can see just what that money purchased. Actual energy usage information should be made available once these buildings are in use so everyone will be able to decide whether or not our money was well spent.

Alternatives to LEED Certification

There are many alternative ways to ensure energy efficiency and good construction. Just putting some basic efficiency requirements in any building contract is a start. There are many resources available on how to design good, efficient buildings from a variety of sources some of which the county has already used.

In 2008 Chatham County entered into a Performance Contract with Johnson Controls to renovate many county buildings. Although this type of project was specifically for renovation of existing buildings, they do offer programs for new construction as well. Our experience with this contract should be reviewed to see if it’s lived up to expectation and could be used for future projects. This is an example of a program that guarantees results. The following is taken from the Johnson Controls website:

Performance contracting often is thought of as receiving a guaranteed amount of energy and water savings that helps offset some or all of the costs of facility and infrastructure renewal projects. Johnson Controls helped establish performance contracting, and we’ve delivered it to a wide variety of organizations such as schools, hospitals, universities and governments. Traditionally, performance contracting allows users to make capital improvements, save energy and water, reduce emissions, improve sustainability and address tight budgets – and use the expected utility and operational savings to offset the cost of the upgrades. If Johnson Controls doesn’t achieve the savings that are guaranteed, we pay you the difference between what was guaranteed and what was actually achieved. The key is verification. Johnson Controls measures, manages and reports on our progress.

Progress Energy offers an energy efficiency for business program that offers rebates and performance-based incentives for new buildings and renovations. From their website:

The Energy Efficiency for Business Program is available to all Progress Energy business customers, including commercial, industrial and governmental customers. This program offers cash incentives (rebates) for prescriptive (predefined) energy-efficiency measures as well as custom measures. A performance-based incentive is offered for new buildings and major renovations that pursue energy efficiency on an integrated whole-building basis. In addition, technical assistance incentives are available to offset design and engineering costs.

Some may question looking to an energy company for energy efficiency ideas, but it actually does make sense. While it’s true that businesses make money by selling their product and energy companies are selling energy, businesses must always look at the bottom line. It’s possible to increase profits by doing things more efficiently rather than increasing volume. Energy companies must be able to meet the demand of their customers during peak times as well as low demand times. It’s extremely expensive, and incredibly inefficient, to build plants that are only used a few times a year to meet peak demands. By encouraging energy efficiency, energy companies can continue to meet demand and supply a quality, consistent product without the expense of new, peak plants. Thus the company actually makes more money even though they may be selling less power because of the substantial expenses they’ve avoided. Given the highly regulated nature of the power industry, it’s much more effective for them to take this approach whenever possible than to just keep expanding.

Chatham County has partnered with Progress Energy in the past to look at energy issues including a pilot program in 2007 with the school system that provided a Progress Energy employee one day a week. This is another example where we should look at what resources are available from existing sources and review our past experiences.

Most people are familiar with the Energy Star program for appliances and electronics and recognize the logo as a symbol for energy efficiency. Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. What many people don’t realize is there are also Energy Star programs for buildings as well. Unlike the USGBC there is no cost just to join and partner with Energy Star to obtain access to many of their resources. While there would still be additional costs for the actual energy efficiency construction, there would be no additional costs for the certification and there would be a more realistic expectation of results. Energy Star buildings aren’t certified until energy usage information is reviewed and verified after at least one year of operation. This is a program based on results, not speculation.

Another approach to energy efficiency is the Building Operator Certification program. A very large part of how much energy a building uses depends on the actual users of the building. If people leave the lights on or set the thermostat too high or too low any energy savings will be wasted. Making sure that the people responsible for maintaining the building actually know the best ways to make efficient use of the building can be just as, if not more, important than how the building is constructed. More research would be needed into whether or not this organization actually delivers but it is listed here as an example of another important piece of the efficiency puzzle.

Building Operator Certification (BOC®) is a nationally recognized, competency-based training and certification program that offers facilities personnel the improved job skills and knowledge to transform workplaces to be more comfortable, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.


While we can all agree that energy efficiency and saving resources is a good idea, the most important goal is to do so in a cost effective manner that ensures the best expectation of results. While Chatham County has engaged in a number of approaches over the years, the one receiving the most publicity and being cited as official policy is the LEED program. Unfortunately a review of numerous resources reveals that this is not the most effective program and is most likely wasting precious financial resources. The county should rescind its policy of obtaining LEED Silver certification for all new county buildings and pursue other, more cost effective methods of ensuring good quality construction and verifiable energy efficiency.


References & Links

US Green Building Council – the organization behind the LEED standards

What LEED delivers

LEED New Construction Checklist

2 New York Times articles critical of LEED program:

Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label

By Mireya Navarro August 30, 2009


LEED Seeks to Beef Up Its Credentials

By Colin Miner September 4, 2009

Community Solutions


LEEDing from behind, parts 1 & 2:

Unfortunately part 3 isn’t available on the website but the whole series is the basis for a book

Civitas Institute

For an NC perspective, Civitas devoted its Fall 2009 Civitas Review to environmental and Green issues, including these two articles in particular:

A Bright Green Future, or Is It? By Francis X. DeLuca

Why We Should Give a Red Light to Green Schools By Bob Luebke

Reference to cost of LEED certification for Margaret Pollard Middle School

Johnson Controls

Performance contracting


Johnson Controls gave presentations about the Performance Contract at these BOC meetings:

2-4-08 work

8-4-08 work

Progress Energy

The Energy Efficiency for Business Program

Reference to school system program with Progress Energy

Chatham County BOC 6-6-07 Budget session, Pg 3-4 Discussion of New Schools Star

Building Operator Certification

e-mail E-mail this page
print Printer-friendly page
LEED certification - More hype than substance