The Real Deal New York

When LEED is misleading

Critics say popular environmental label may be about public relations

March 31, 2008
By C.J. Hughes

Call it New York’s “green rush.”

Since 2006, nearly 60 planned new apartment projects around the city have been shown to the U.S. Green Building Council, with promises to minimize their environmental impact.

To do so, these projects must earn 26 of 69 points on a scale created by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the country’s most popular green benchmark.

But the rush for that green imprimatur might have more to do with public relations than eco-friendliness, according to consultants, environmentalists and developers.

Critics say that when marketing materials claim a building is “trying for LEED,” developers can be making a misleading statement too early in the process, because what really counts is the certification, which can happen up to a year after the building is completed.

And these critics say some buildings are shooting for bare-minimum “certified” ratings — below silver, gold and platinum — which in many cases is just a half-step above basic building code requirements.

The USGBC has recently tightened standards, but the best way to thin the ranks and see which developers are truly
committed may be to concentrate instead on the building process instead of the finished product.

“Instead of starting with your end point and saying, ‘How can I get these credits?’ developers would have to focus more on how they actually build their walls,” said Auden Schendler, an LEED consultant and the environmental director at Colorado-based Aspen Skiing Company, which owns resorts.

Without that restructuring, critics say LEED’s scoring system is imbalanced because it equates siting a building a half-mile from a subway line — easy to pull off in Manhattan — with diverting 50 percent of demolition debris from landfills (both earn 1 point).

“If you’re a game-playing person, certification can mean very little,” said Derek Denckla, a principal of Dumbo-based Propeller Group. Denckla is nevertheless seeking gold certification for Greenbelt, a five-story condo in Williamsburg.

Greenbelt’s eight units, ranging from 750-square-foot one-bedrooms to 1,100-square-foot two-bedrooms, are priced from $599,000 to $815,000, and one has sold since February, said Denckla, who’s co-developing the project with architect Gregory Merryweather.

LEED’s administrative costs, which pay for an inspector and often for outside consultants, can add 5 percent to a project’s “soft costs,” or in Denckla’s case, $190,000. That can be onerous to small developers, he said.

Indeed, Susan Boyle, a principal with Brooklyn developer Big Sue, decided at the last minute to abandon plans to seek silver certification for the Nassau Brewery Ice House, a six-unit apartment she built in 2004 in Crown Heights.

Organizing the receipts proving that its contents were made of recycled materials into the thick packet that LEED boards require would have been too time-consuming, and getting someone else to do it would have cost “at least tens of thousands of dollars,” Boyle said.

“But we accomplished our goal of using sustainable methods,” she said, “though we don’t have a plaque to show it.”

Mark Rossolo, a director at Green Globes, a competing rating service based in Portland, Ore., said that LEED places too little emphasis on how far materials must travel before they reach the construction site.

“Making the system more about life cycle assessment” could make LEED less pliable, Rossolo said.

Creating a more useful rating system could be rendered moot if building codes adopt much of what’s espoused by LEED, Green Globes and others.

Seeking these hard-and-fast standards, as opposed to LEED’s voluntary guidelines, is a goal of the National Association of Home Builders, which this spring will unveil its National Green Building Standard. Four awards, bronze, silver, gold and emerald, will be given, said spokesperson Calli Schmidt.

Like LEED, the standards won’t be prescriptive but will evaluate buildings once they’re up and running, though Schmidt promised they won’t generate LEED’s high level of paperwork. And they will create universal standards, unlike various local building codes.

The USGBC, in an apparent response to the backlash, strengthened its guidelines last June; it’s now a requirement,
not an option, for buildings to be 14 percent more efficient than regular building codes dictate.

By November, the point system will reach “version 3.0,” which will expand LEED’s point scale from 69 to 100.

That will allow categories to be weighted more accurately, said Russell Unger, executive director of the USGBC’s New York chapter.

Future changes could also require building materials with more sustainable life cycles, he said.

“If you care about the environment and human health, you go for LEED. If you want to save money, you go for it. And if you care to sell buildings, you go for it,” Unger said. “At the end of the day, we’re building better buildings.”

Some builders agree that the system isn’t imperiled, said George Aridas, an executive vice president with the Albanese Development Corporation.

The company has built two of the only five certified residential New York buildings — Tribeca’s Verdesian and Solaire — with another, the Visionaire, now rising at the southern end of Battery Park at 70 Little West Street.

“Yes, there are some low-hanging fruits in urban areas,” Aridas said. “But LEED is not as manipulatible as some would have you believe.”

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