Portland has more LEED certified buildings than any other city in the US and, as long-time readers know, I’m not a fan of this. Lately there’s been some backlash from other quarters as well. Architect Frank Gehry commented this week that the certification is awarded for “bogus stuff” and is primarily political. Progressive blogger Matthew Yglesias also linked recently to a post about a new book from New Yorker writer David Owen that slams LEED certification as a form of greenwashing:
It’s a little known fact that most architects, particularly the ones who take sustainability seriously, all hate LEED. With its prescriptions and brownie points for bike racks and proximity to alternative fueling stations, LEED is — in Owen’s estimation — both too difficult and too easy. Too difficult because the process is stupifyingly bureaucratic, requiring even LEED accredited designers to hire expensive LEED accredited consultants to manage the paperwork. And too easy because even after much refinement, many designers and developers still game the system with a few cosmetic changes to achieve LEED certification with a minimum of effort, expense, or innovation.
My own objection to LEED certification stems from its politically correct hatred of smoking, even when conducted outside the building:
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.
It is technically possible to allow smoking in or around LEED certified buildings, but in practice certification is often used as a reason to ban it. The demand for LEED certified residences has made it harder for smokers to find accommodation in cities like Portland and DC. This could be an acceptable trade-off if the program led to demonstrably greener construction, but if its benefits are merely cosmetic we shouldn’t place much value on it.