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Opinion / Editorial

Should the State Follow LEED or Get out of the Way?

by Todd Myers
February, 2005

Imagine a knock on your door. The salesman on your doorstep tells you that he can cut your energy costs by 35%, make your house more livable and improve your quality of life. And to top it off, he would provide this service for free.

You might be a bit skeptical.

Imagine if he then told you that you had no choice – that you were required to make the changes he was offering. You would become very skeptical of the promises, and you would be right to.

That, however, is essentially the offer some environmental activists are proposing in the legislature. They are asking the legislature to require the state to follow building standards created by Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED), with some exceptions.

Proponents of the LEED standard understand that the public and legislators have become sensitive to the cost of every new environmental requirement. When promoting these new standards their emphasis has been on the potential cost savings these buildings provide. According to a fact sheet published by one group advocating these new requirements, LEED would add between 0-2% to upfront costs and provides an "average cost savings of 39% for energy and 25% for water."

Many of these claims, however, are overblown or simply don't match the facts. Some of the examples cited by LEED supporters indicate that the initial costs are greater than advertised and the returns can be far less.

For instance a Tacoma middle school was projected to achieve 35% energy savings. During its first year and a half of operation, however, it is actually using 25% more energy than the average middle school in Tacoma, including one school built at the same time without the green building elements. This is not to argue that LEED will increase costs, but when statistics vary 60% from their projections, it is reasonable to call into question these claims.

Supporters also underestimate ongoing costs in some cases. The Lake Washington School District found that some of the systems used to meet LEED standards require significant maintenance, which eats into any potential savings. In one instance they had to pay $5,000 a year for window washing because "green" buildings use more windows to take advantage of natural light and the windows need to be clean.

There are some commonsense elements of LEED, such as asking architects and engineers to design energy systems that fit the specific needs of a building, rather than using standard boilers and other equipment that may use more energy than necessary. Unfortunately, activists used that foundation as a Christmas tree on which to hang the restrictions they want. They added political requirements that suit their political agendas, but may also increase environmental impact on forests and our air.

For instance, LEED rewards builders for buying locally. The definition, however, allows, in their words “lumber from Vancouver, British Columbia” to be counted as local as long as the final assembly is in Kent. LEED builders can actually outsource timber jobs to Canada (with forestry standards that even the environmental activists admit don’t match ours in Washington) and still be counted as local.

Just as we would be wary about someone who forced us to take a deal that seemed too good to be true, the people of Washington should be skeptical of the promises made by advocates of LEED’s green building standard.

• First, it appears that the estimates of initial costs are underestimated while the promises of energy savings are, in some cases, significantly overstated.
• Second, the standards may actually encourage the loss of local jobs by using a standard that allows outsourcing of most of the process.
• Finally, LEED includes some environmental standards that may actually increase the amount of impact on the environment.

Encouraging environmentally responsible building is a goal we should adopt, but a rigid, counterproductive and mandatory standard is not the way.





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