Taking the LEED on smoking bans

My apartment hunt in downtown Portland yesterday brought unexpected frustration. As I strolled among modern high-rises with big balconies, surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops and independent specialty stores, I thought I’d found a perfect city for me. Yet time and again I was told that my kind are not welcome in these apartments: the residences are completely smokefree, inside and out.

I’m not a frequent smoker but I do think that enjoying a good cigar and a glass of whiskey with a close friend is one of life’s great pleasures. With Oregon’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants coming into effect soon, my home will be one of the few places that I’m allowed to light up here. Being forbidden from enjoying a cigar or pipe even on my own deck or balcony is close to a deal breaker for me. Walking around the Pearl District yesterday, passing block after block of apartments where I would not be permitted to pursue my hobby, I felt for the first time what it’s like to be a minority facing discrimination. Admittedly I suffer for a lifestyle choice rather than for an immutable characteristic of my being, so I won’t pretend it compares to racial or sexual discrimination. But still, it was a new experience for this middle class white guy.

I assumed that these anti-smoking policies were how apartment buildings cater to West Coast nanny state types who have fantastically misinformed beliefs about the dangers of secondhand smoke. However much that might irk me, it would be hypocritical of me to deny them the right to live in the kinds of communities they prefer. I respect their rights of property and freedom of association, even if they won’t extend the same courtesy to smokers and business owners.

Then at one of these properties I learned that there’s actually another force at work. LEED certification, the seal of approval from the United States Green Building Council, now mandates that buildings be completely smokefree and ban smoking near doors and windows.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. In eco-conscious cities like Portland, it’s a marketing advantage to have a building LEED certified. Builders submit their designs to the USGBC, are given a checklist [pdf available here] of features the council looks for, and the number of items they can check off determines their LEED rating: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. Most of these items involve matters like energy efficiency, reusing materials, reducing water use, and other goals clearly related to environmental purposes. You might wonder what controlling residents’ smoking habits has to do with any of this. I certainly did.

It turns out that LEED certification considers six categories of evaluation, one of which is indoor environmental quality. If tobacco smoke is considered a pollutant, banning smoking is one way of addressing it. One could make a plausible case that LEED certified buildings shouldn’t allow smoking indoors, where habitual smokers could pump a lot of smoke into the ventilation systems. But in proximity to an exterior door? Or on a balcony? There’s absolutely no scientific justification for banning this. Walking by a smoker on the way into the lobby is not going to kill anyone. It’s annoying, perhaps, but it’s not a matter that needs to be addressed by green building codes.

Apparently LEED used to allow indoor smoking as long as adequate ventilation and filtering was provided. I’m not sure what led to the change, but an absolute prohibition on smoking is now a required item for certification. To put that into perspective, of the more than 70 items on the LEED checklist, only 7 are necessary prerequisites. In the indoor environmental quality category, increased ventilation, low-emitting materials use, thermal comfort, and outdoor air delivery monitoring are all optional. In other categories things like materials reuse, building with certified wood, managing refrigerants, using renewable energy, reducing water use, and minimizing the heat island effect are optional. For a project that’s primarily concerned with environmental protection, prioritizing outdoor smoking bans over these other concerns is strange indeed.

As I said before, I don’t object to leasing companies forbidding smoking if that’s what their customers want them to do. I do object, though, to the USGBC forcing bans onto anyone who wants to advertise their green building practices. Most people don’t know the details of what goes into the LEED checklist; they just want to know that a building is energy efficient, clean, and doesn’t waste resources. Banning smoking outdoors has nothing to do with that and muddles legitimate environmental concerns with restrictions on people’s personal behavior. Worse, it casts doubt on the merit of the USGBC’s other standards. If the organization has so little respect for scientific validity when it comes to smoking, it makes one wonder about the entire checklist. Is it guided by respectable science or by political correctness? Not being an expert in design, I have no way of knowing.

Update: In the comments, Matt D tracks down the full guidelines [pdf] and notes that LEED certification does allow for smoking in residential areas in certain proscribed circumstances:

OPTION 3 (For residential buildings only)
– Prohibit smoking in all common areas of the building.
– Locate any exterior designated smoking areas at least 25 feet away from entries, outdoor air intakes and operable windows opening to common areas.
– Minimize uncontrolled pathways for ETS transfer between individual residential units by sealing penetrations in walls, ceilings and floors in the residential units, and by sealing vertical chases adjacent to the units.
– All doors in the residential units leading to common hallways shall be weather-stripped to minimize air leakage into the hallway.
– If the common hallways are pressurized with respect to the residential units then doors to the residential units leading to the common hallways need not be weather-stripped provided that the positive differential pressure is demonstrated…

The third one seems like it might be the most restrictive, perhaps impractically so for high rise buildings with lots of shared ventilation. The priority given to anti-smoking measures by LEED standards still strikes me as out of touch with its mission. But it is in fact possible to get around a complete ban, and I thank Matt for the correction.

Comments

  1. RumorsDaily says:

    My guess would be that the exact same people who look for environmentally sound buildings also look for buildings where they’ll never have to see a smoker, and have weighed-in heavily with the LEED folks. In fact, the lack of smoking is probably more important to them than any actual construction requirements as they’ll actually have to deal with the smoker, whereas they’ll likely never even notice if a building uses old growth versus new growth wood in its construction.

    I’d also like to think that if they’re going to try to pitch their argument about the ban on outdoor smoking in the strongest possible light, it would be that outdoor smoking is not a health risk, but merely creates odors that some tenants may not want to deal with.

    I personally look for buildings where dogs aren’t allowed because, hey, no dogs!

  2. Barzelay says:

    Even if one doesn’t mind avoiding tobacco and other smokeable things, I argue that having a place for guests to partake is part of what makes one a good host.

  3. VdV says:

    I have to say that this bit is a tad misguided: “I assumed that these anti-smoking policies were how apartment buildings cater to West Coast nanny state types who have fantastically misinformed beliefs about the dangers of secondhand smoke.”

    The reason these kinds of regulations come about is not that people are concerned they’re going to get cancer by living next to smokers; the real impetus is the godawful odors that emanate continuously from the homes of said smokers. Seriously, if your balcony is the next over from mine and you sit outside smoking every evening, that pretty much eliminates my ability to open my windows unless I’m willing to have foul-smelling clouds wafting through my apartment. It’s a quality of life issue. Smoking is an extremely projective habit in terms of its effect on the immediate surroundings of the smoker. People who smoke seem incapable of grasping just how unpleasant the smell of burning tobacco is to people who don’t.

    That said, I absolutely agree with your general point that sneaking a smoking ban into something like LEED is a lame way to go about achieving smoke free living. I’d much rather see building owners straight up advertising nonsmoking buildings if that’s one of the benefits they’re selling.

  4. Matt D says:

    First, welcome to Portland.

    Second…

    I do object, though, to the USGBC forcing bans onto anyone who wants to advertise their green building practices.

    They’re not forcing anyone to do anything. LEED certification is voluntary, and developers/property owners/etc are free to advertise their green building practices all they want–they just can’t claim LEED certification unless they meet LEED specs.

    Also, I just looked at the 2.2 guidelines and they pretty clearly indicate that indoor smoking is allowed inside individual units in residential buildings:

    OPTION 3 (For residential buildings only)
    ❑ Prohibit smoking in all common areas of the building.
    ❑ Locate any exterior designated smoking areas at least 25 feet away from entries, outdoor air intakes and operable
    windows opening to common areas.
    ❑ Minimize uncontrolled pathways for ETS transfer between individual residential units by sealing penetrations
    in walls, ceilings and floors in the residential units, and by sealing vertical chases adjacent to the units.
    ❑ All doors in the residential units leading to common hallways shall be weather-stripped to minimize air leakage
    into the hallway.

  5. Matt says:

    I’d like to echo VdV’s comments. We recently had new neighbors move in, and they’ve been less than ideal. They play loud music at odd/innappropriate hours, we often hear them shouting or other making other noises, and they obviously smoke. It’s been oppressive. I can live with the music/weird noises. The smoking has me seriously considering my options.

    I think a cigar here and there is completely reasonable, but that’s a balance that can be difficult for many people to establish. When it’s interfering with others’ quality of life – especially in their apartments – then it’s going too far, and a ban might be a reasonable response.

  6. Jeff says:

    Yeah, given that LEED is voluntary, and that an apartment high-rise could call itself “green” and explain its green features without the LEED label, isn’t this just a case of the market responding to an increasing demand for smoke-free apartment buildings?

  7. StupendousMan says:

    “…people are concerned they’re going to get cancer by living next to smokers…”

    And they would be very wrong. I assume they have no problem standing next to idling buses and trucks with diesel engines. But hey, who thinks people are rational.

    “It’s a quality of life issue. Smoking is an extremely projective habit in terms of its effect on the immediate surroundings of the smoker”

    As is perfume, cooking odors, loud noise, finger licking, crying babies, etc.

    I added finger licking because I’ve noticed, anecdotally, that the loudest anti-smoking types are often the most socially obnoxious people. Talking with a mouthful of food, slathering saliva on their fingers, unattended squalling children, etc.

    Some people enjoy the smell of tobacco smoke.

  8. Jacob Grier says:

    Jeff — Sure, if you assume perfect competition and perfectly informed consumers. But you guys never let me get away with that here :)

  9. Matt D says:

    And they would be very wrong. I assume they have no problem standing next to idling buses and trucks with diesel engines. But hey, who thinks people are rational.

    Regardless of whether it gives you cancer, it still diminishes air quality, which is why LEED addresses it.

  10. StupendousMan says:

    Matt D.

    So do other things people do. Are they allowed to light candles, wear perfume, have a fireplace, cook pungent dishes?

  11. VdV says:

    Hey StupendousMan, I love how you selectively excerpted that first quote to make it look like I was saying the opposite of what I was actually saying. That really improves your credibility as a commenter.

    As for your second point, sure, our culture offers a wide variety of ways for people to be inconsiderate assholes to each other. Does this mean I should be ok with living next to inconsiderate assholes? No it does not. Does it, on the other hand, mean I love the idea of living in a building where at least one kind of inconsiderate assholery is prohibited? Oh yes it does.

    And hey, people who like the smell of tobacco smoke? More power to them. They’re entirely welcome to keep themselves in the densest cloud of tobacco smoke that’s still breathable if it makes them happy, so long as they keep said cloud on their own property or in smoke-friendly public spaces.

  12. Matt D says:

    So do other things people do. Are they allowed to light candles, wear perfume, have a fireplace, cook pungent dishes?

    Actually, I’m pretty sure LEED has guidelines for fireplaces too.

  13. Jeff says:

    Jacob – why would we have to assume that? Even in our imperfect marketplace, wouldn’t a significant demand for smoker-friendly apartment buildings lead to the existence of one, given that there’s no state law against them?

  14. StupendousMan says:

    Vdv,

    I actually misread what you wrote. I guess the cancer fear has been trumpeted so often I re-wrote it in my head.

    “…so long as they keep said cloud on their own property or in smoke-friendly public spaces.”

    The fact is in certain states there are almost no places to smoke. Period. It’s not the marketplace that created this situation, it’s lawmakers.

    Jeff,

    “Even in our imperfect marketplace, wouldn’t a significant demand for smoker-friendly apartment buildings lead to the existence of one”

    The invisible hand works great in models not so well in the real world. Smoke free venues didn’t come about through market forces they were legislated.

    Here’s a thought. If 20% of our population smokes how many people is that? Who are they? Well it’s approximately 60 million people. But they aren’t children or the elderly. They are comprised almost completely of people of drinking age. Yet laws are being passed across the nation outlawing smoking in bars.

  15. Matt says:

    So contact your representative and let them know you oppose the bans, and get other people to call them, and be politically active. Seems like an obvious solution. And if you’re in the minority sometimes, well, that’s one of the prices you pay for Democracy.

  16. StupendousMan says:

    “And if you’re in the minority sometimes, well, that’s one of the prices you pay for Democracy.”

    We’re a Constitutional Republic. One of the purposes of this type of government is to place checks on majority rule. Laws, passed by a majority, that infringe on an individuals rights- as in bar owners for example- are counter to the spirit of the constitution and the founding fathers’ intent. Individuals have the option and power to choose where they frequent. In a reasonable world they would have a choice between smoking and non-smoking bars. Under the bans there is no choice. Bar owners’ can’t decide how to run their personal business and customers are stuck with one option.

  17. Jacob Grier says:

    Jeff, that’s not the point. I’m fine with there being a market for smokefree buildings. What I object to is using a popular standard that certifies green practices to effectively ban outdoor smoking, especially when most people probably don’t realize that the standard requires it. I’d rather the standard be saved for the kinds of green features it was intended for and that consumers would have a hard time verifying independently; smoking policies are easily ascertained for those who care, or sometimes even advertised.

    I say this as a guy who likes voluntary certification, too. It’s not my usual anti-government criticism, just a criticism of a standard I’d like to see succeed and remain true to its environmental goals.

  18. Matt says:

    StupendousMan -

    Although we are a Constitutional Republic we have structured our government such that the checks on majority rule are far from absolute. In fact, they’re pretty minimal with respect to anything other than fundamental rights. We’ve struck the balance in such a way that more often than not we’re able to rule pursuant to the will of the majority. Unless you’re able to find a judge who embraces a Constitutional right to smoke in a bar you’re gonna have to get involved in the legislative process.

  19. StupendousMan says:

    Matt,

    I hear you. I guess I was just venting.

  20. Jacob Grier says:

    Actually, I would like to see constitutional challenges to smoking bans. I don’t think to succeed, but the stricter bans could certainly be seen as a violation of the freedom of association. Cigar Aficionado, for example, had to cancel a convention in Chicago, because they couldn’t find an indoor venue to host their perfectly legal activity.

    If the Supreme Court still respected freedom of contract, a person who wants to work in an environment that allows smoking would have an interesting case as well.

  21. Jacob Grier says:

    On another note, regardless of the constitutional issues I take issue with the idea that people ought to be forced into struggling against democratic majorities to pursue totally consensual activities. A society in which we have to constantly defend ourselves against the coercive moralizing of others is not one in which I’d like to live, and it’s repugnant to tell people whose liberties are infringed that they should suck it up and attend their next town hall meeting.

  22. Matt says:

    I see it exactly opposite; it’s a beautiful opportunity for you to be able to argue your case. Compare that to just about any other kind of government that’s ever existed. We’re talking about participation in the governmental/social process. If you’ve got an argument to be made, then make it. There’s nothing repugnant about giving people a chance to make their case.

  23. Jacob, thanks for the article – this sounds quite scary. In Europe, as far as I know, you can still do whatever you want when you’re at home – there are some hotels that are smoking-free, but that’s all.
    Let’s hope LEED will not come to us :)

  24. Jake says:

    I live in Ptown and I am going to hate the new ban on smoking. I use to work at Kell’s irish pub and I loved going down to the basement area,lighting up a cigar while drinking fine whiskey.

  25. Alli says:

    I understand that it is difficult to sympathize, let alone empathize, with someone who wishes you to stop something you enjoy. But in this case you are seriously and severely misguided and need to awaken with a bit of sympathy. Regarding the statement: “Walking by a smoker on the way into the lobby is not going to kill anyone. ” – that statement can be, in fact, patently false!! I have smoke-triggered asthma and can, in fact, DIE from exposure – stopping breathing does, in fact, CAUSE DEATH!!.. I am not exaggerating. Realize that some of us are so completely and absolutely thrilled to LIFE that there are some regulations somewhere the free us from the death-dealing blows of others habits. You’ll probably think, as does every smoker I attempt to talk to about this, that I’m exaggerating. But absolutely I am not. The same as just a drop of shellfish oil or only a slight bee sting can kill those persons allergic to those items, cigarette smoke CAN KILL – and does. Please, understand, I don’t really care of you smoke – just be like PigPen and keep it within your own personal space and stop griping because approx. 1% of all apartment communities in the US are smoke-free. I NEED IT. Please, allow me freedom to live without complaining about my choice. Because even if I wasn’t allergic I would CHOOSE to live smoke-free.

  26. PuddenTane says:

    Fuck you. Your rights end where mine begin.

  27. Eek says:

    The myth that they can catch you smoking in ANY building is just that, a myth.

    I live in a LEED certified building in Las Vegas, and smoke all I want. No one has ever questioned me on it and I am somewhat careful about the smell. I am also a clean freak so you never smell it in my place (and that has been verified by all my non smoking friends)

    You can smoke in any place, just need to be sneaky. Its almost fun to see where you can get away with it. In bars? Its off to the bathrooms. No one has ever questioned me there either.

    LEED means nothing to me, I pay my payments every month, and laugh at the nanny staters. Catch me if you can!

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