Cutting the fuel appetites of vehicles down to Prius-size portions or better is a good idea. But what about buildings? They consume two-thirds of electricity and account for a third of greenhouse gases. Can they go on energy diets?
In 2000, a consortium of corporations, builders, architects, government agencies, and nonprofits created a system called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to measure just how "green" a building would be. The LEED standard, which awards points for use of various kinds of "green" building techniques, can be applied to commercial, public, or private projects. Depending on how many points are earned, a building can win a "certified," "silver," "gold," or "platinum" rating.
While the LEED program for houses is in its infancy, more than 1,000 other projects have already earned some level of certification. They include libraries, schools, and corporate headquarters. The city of Greensburg, Kan., flattened by a tornado last May, has pledged to rebuild its public buildings to LEED platinum standards, the highest rating. The buildings that make up New York City's new World Trade Center complex are designed to meet LEED standards, too.
Builders can use a variety of techniques to earn LEED points. The Washington headquarters of the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the nonprofit that created LEED, earned a platinum rating by using environmentally friendly materials such as bamboo and cork for their floors. It also contains reclaimed timbers and is illuminated by efficient lighting.
A new Bank of America branch in Adelanto, Calif., also a platinum project, features rooftop solar panels that provide 60 percent of electricity needs. Some 20 percent of its construction materials are recycled (its insulation is made from recycled bluejeans and its counters from wheat byproducts – kernels and chaff). By employing drip irrigation, low-water landscaping, and low-flush toilets, the building uses 40 percent less water than a traditional bank building of similar size.
LEED has critics, who say the system encourages building up points while neglecting other good ideas that receive fewer or no points.
Like teachers who "teach to the test" while ignoring other content, architects can be tempted by focusing on LEED to build simply for certification without using a host of other energy-efficient ideas.
The USGBC has responded by awarding points for environmental innovations that don't fall into any of its conventional categories. And it's reviewing its entire points system to try to close loopholes.
A trial LEED program also acknowledges that broader community planning is part of any truly green lifestyle.
Buildings close to public transit and services, for example, cut vehicle use. Perhaps surprisingly, dense developments are often the most ecofriendly: New York City boasts 2.7 percent of the US population but generates only 1 percent of US greenhouse gases, according to the city's estimates.
Businesses are finding twofold benefits in LEED certification. Not only do they save money on energy costs over the long run, they also win the goodwill of customers and potential employees, both important business objectives.
LEED isn't perfect, nor is it the entire answer to greening the nation's buildings. But it can lead in the right direction.