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.