LEEDing the Pack

The Van de Kamp Bakery building, even with its interior scraped nearly clean, already stands apart in its neighborhood: With its storybook façade of stepped gables and high arching windows, it looks like an estate plucked out of the Dutch countryside and planted incongruously in the industrial flats of Los Angeles. New York architect J. Edward Hopkins designed it in 1930 in the style of the Harlem Renaissance; 70 years later, the Los Angeles Conservancy and a coalition of community groups saved it from demolition. Now, the Los Angeles Community College District wants to turn it into the first building in the world to be certified by the prevailing green-building standards in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

For a guiding interpretation of what improving environmental standards might mean, LACCD’s trustees looked to the standard set by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). “It’s a solid, objective standard to compare yourself against,” says Larry Eisenberg, LACCD’s executive director of planning and facilities management. “LEED is a diverse, interesting kind of rating system, and it’s pretty essential. It considers everything from indoor air quality to energy efficiency to site orientation.”

Eisenberg is not alone in his high regard for LEED. For eight years, the USGBC has been granting certifications to buildings constructed according to its agreed-upon criteria, and LEED has become synonymous with greenness in building design. Membership in the USGBC has grown from just a handful of organizations in 2000 to nearly 6,000 today. Green building is booming. And cities across the country have embraced the LEED metric: San Francisco, Portland and Austin, Texas, all require new municipal construction to earn LEED “silver” certification, the second of the four levels. In 2003, the Los Angeles City Council voted to require that all new public buildings meet the first level, and this past August, the council voted to expedite the approval process for developers willing to step up to silver.

All this enthusiasm might lead one to believe that LEED standards have been developed based on the latest scientific research, factoring in the life cycles of construction materials and climate variations; that they have been arrived at independently and without compromises with the building industry. But not everyone agrees. Instead, some say, the building council’s “consensus-based approach” means that it has catered to manufacturers whose products it should have banned, ignored regional idiosyncrasies and set up a point system that makes some of its criteria meaningless. The certification process takes so much paperwork that some perfectly green developers have opted not to pursue it. (“They’d rather put a painting on the wall from Sotheby’s,” says one architect.)

What’s more, LEED certification, say the program’s critics, does not make a building green.

Developed by a volunteer team of architects, engineers and manufacturers beginning in 1995, the LEED system rates buildings based on criteria in six categories: sustainable siting, water use, energy, materials, indoor air quality and design innovations. Buildings earn points for various features. Basic certification requires 26 to 32 points; silver, gold and platinum levels require more. The documentation-heavy process can be cumbersome — some building owners aspiring to LEED status have estimated the cost of certification as high as $60,000 once you add up all the labor required. The point system does not vary by region or climate; as Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Co., discovered when he went to construct a LEED-certifiable building in Aspen, Colorado, a reflective roof counts as much in leafy, open Aspen as it does in New York City, where it truly does its job of countering the urban heat-island effect.

Nor does the point system always accurately measure impacts on the environment. “LEED has to be broadly applicable,” says Kyle Copas of the renowned green architectural-design firm William McDonough + Partners. “So you find places where the scorecard-and-checklist approach goes wrong. For instance, you get the same points for putting in a set percentage of bicycle racks as you do for lowering energy costs by 10 percent. It creates the potential for design firms to use LEED to go, ‘Oh, this one’s cheap, and that one’s cheap — let’s do it,’ whether or not it’s the right thing to do. There’s no way to weight the decision making for things that are the most critical.”

Worse, at a few critical junctures at which the USGBC had the opportunity to approve or reject certain materials, it made what many green-building advocates consider the wrong decision. Late in 2004, for instance, a LEED task force examined the evidence on polyvinyl chloride (PVC), commonly used in pipes, flooring and wall coverings. PVC requires massive amounts of chlorine and fossil fuels to produce and leaches dioxin — the second most toxic substance known to man, right behind plutonium — into waterways and earth. Yet the building council, after intense lobbying by the vinyl industry, declared that PVC “does not emerge as a clear winner or loser” and refused to give credits to builders who avoid its use.

That makes LEED standards “cigarette science,” Bill Walsh, national coordinator of an environmental-advocacy group called the Healthy Building Network, said in a press release at the time. It threatens “to undermine leaders in the green-building field” and “contradict established environmental-policy goals.”

Copas, who says his firm has pioneered another way of thinking about green design and created a “cradle-to-cradle” philosophy in which all materials are recycled, says PVC is out. “We are adamant about using alternatives,” he says.

Still, the architects who work with William McDonough advertise their LEED accreditation proudly on their Web site, and Copas confirms that he still considers the building council’s appraisal useful. “For us, LEED has always been a tool,” he says. “It’s one tool in evaluating environmental components of a design. It is not the only tool. It is not the end goal. But as a consensus-based, market-driven tool, it has been able, in 10 years, to expand awareness of the environmental aspects of building design.”

LEED certification has also fueled the demand for nontoxic materials and made sustainable building the fastest-growing sector of the construction market. Only a few hundred buildings have been certified so far, but ideas about green building are now being filtered throughout the construction industry.

Probably the best use of LEED, then, is just the way Larry Eisenberg describes applying it to the renovation of the Van de Kamp Bakery for LACCD. Instead of settling just for LEED certification, LACCD looked for more criteria: In advance of construction, the building has sought the approval of the U.K.’s Building Resource Establishment Environmental Assessment (BREEAM). “We thought it was an interesting study and comparison,” he says. “BREEAM is the predecessor to LEED in Europe, and it takes into account some things that are social in nature. One example that made sense to us is that it asked, ‘Have you engaged your community in the design of the building?’ In the LEED system, you get no credit for that, but, of course, every building you put up has an impact on the community.” As a consequence, the neighborhood groups around the LACCD’s Northeast Satellite Campus Atwater Village location “have been active participants in the project.” The college system is the first to build sustainability into its policy in response to community input. “It was the community that told us, ‘We need someone who’s going to be a champion and support this stuff.’ Now we see it as a way to give another kind of education.” The buildings will boast high-efficiency lighting, recycled-content carpets, and air-conditioning units that shut off when the windows open. “One of the things they wanted was a wellness center,” adds Eisenberg. “So the building now has a wellness-center component.”

Other designers and architects have used LEED as a starting place from which to develop their own criteria. At Stanford University, a green-building working group culled from the best of green-building guidelines to invent its own rules, tailored to the unique needs of the campus. In Chicago, a coalition of architects, city planners, engineers and politicians joined forces to develop green-building criteria based on LEED’s silver certification but specifically tailored to Chicago’s particular environmental challenges. Says Sadhu Johnston, a commissioner in the city’s Department of Environment, “We prioritized storm-water management, urban heat-island effects and energy efficiency, and we added some things: We didn’t want to build a healthy building, for instance, and fill it with formaldehyde furniture.”

Johnston likes the LEED standard, he says, because “there’s a lot of greenwashing out there, and it’s hard to know what you end up getting. There are always naysayers around trying to stop any kind of change in the construction industry,” he says. “We work with developers who say, ‘This is going to be too expensive; the city of Chicago can’t afford to do this.’ ” His answer: With the cost of energy rising, “no city can afford not to do this.”

And in fact, says Johnston, many cities no longer wait for radical thinking about environmental design to be handed down from a council based in Washington, D.C.; they’re pushing forward on their own, with or without LEED’s stamp.

“Cities are leading the charge in the green-building movement,” he says. “And that’s a really good sign.”