Weighing in on the debate. Is it too easy to be green?

November 7, 2012 John Shardlow

Why it's important that we continue to foster healthy conversations about the benefits of the LEED framework.


When USA Today examined LEED Certified commercial buildings standards, it spurred a dialogue that should be continuous. The newspaper article reported that more than 200 local, state, and federal governments have accepted LEED certification as the standard they use to determine eligibility for expedited permitting, tax deductions, and other benefits. The core premise of the article was to question the proportionality of public benefits associated with LEED when compared with what can be significant private, economic benefits.

This was a substantive article based on solid research and was well reported. It raises important questions, and I would argue that it fosters a healthy conversation that should be continuous and evolve over time. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) responded with an equally strong argument, citing their commitment to continuous updating and improving their standards and the inclusive and democratic approach they have taken to on-going improvement. As one of the leaders of a company dedicated to sustainability in all aspects of our diverse practice, I am also not ready to apologize for seeking profits for advancing environmentalism. On the contrary, I would argue that the ultimate success of the green industry will be dependent upon finding ways to make solid profits while delivering communities and buildings that are better for our planet.

A fundamental problem at the core of this discussion is how to measure sustainability. The whole notion of establishing a single unified system measuring a diverse set of characteristics of buildings in widely varying climates and contexts is incredibly challenging. How can you standardize the assessment of value for features as varied as solar panels, water conserving faucets, green reminders in hotel rooms, or employee bike racks and showers? Unfortunately, universal certification programs such as LEED require exactly that. It is also why it is so important to continuously review and measure the results and make changes as necessary.

The USA Today article was a healthy critique and one that the USGBC and all of us involved with promoting sustainability need to acknowledge and appreciate. At the end of the day, hotels in desert locations shouldn’t get points for water conservation when they have massive fountains spritzing scarce water into the air, regardless what types of faucets are in their rooms. Likewise they shouldn’t get green points for preferential parking for energy efficient vehicles only to accommodate Hummers and Land Rovers. These unfortunate examples should not negate the incredibly positive overall contributions of the green building industry, or dissuade us from continuously striving for better ways to measure and reward sustainability.

About the Author

John Shardlow

John Shardlow is a senior principal in our Minneapolis, Minnesota, office. John is an advocate of creative reuse and redevelopment with a focus on transit oriented development (TOD)—maximizing benefits from transit investment from a corridor-wide level down to individual projects.

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