Re March 25 Article LEEDing The Way – Yukon’s Most Energy Efficient Home:
I’d like to congratulate Forest Pearson and Josh Kerr for following through on their convictions, and building a duplex they believe to be the most energy efficient home in the Yukon.
They claim that they’ve thrown down the gauntlet and shown what’s possible.
But is that gauntlet chain mail or cotton?
What follows isn’t personal, fellows.
Much of the current ‘green religion’ doesn’t stand up under, or appreciate, a critical review. Yet researched and thoughtful criticism is healthy, encourages debate and is how we learn.
Since energy strategies are in a state of flux, some bumps in the road are expected, and dialogue should be used to explore different paths.
Where it becomes problematic for me is when agencies like the Canada Green Building Council, licence holder for LEED in Canada, tells us that if we just buy into their particular dogma, we’ll be “green.”
They have the formula, and there shall be no debate.
You have to understand that the green building council is one of a number of competing rating companies in a race to see who can win the most converts and become the preeminent godfather of green. While these are generally billed as not-for-profit organizations - and despite the name council, the green building council is a corporation - that only holds if you don’t count the explosive growth in well paying jobs as trainers, evaluators, facilitators and the like that have been created. This isn’t saving starving children in the Third World; this is flying yuppies around the country to tell us how to save us from ourselves, if we pay them enough.
I sometimes liken LEED to a pyramid marketing scheme, to the chagrin of the self proclaimed socially conscious. But consider the facts.
LEED is organized in a pyramid, from the broad building category of “Green Up”, ascending through various levels of “LEED”, to the pinnacle “Living Building Challenge.” As an individual, you can be a Green Associate, a LEED Accredited Professional with Specialty (buy all five flavours), or if you’re really special, a LEED Fellow.
All of these credentials or certifications have one thing in common, they cost money.
That might be fine if they meant something. However, the green building council version of “professional credentials” involves a 100 multiple-choice question exam, typically after a one-day workshop course.
Let’s be clear what that gets you. Paraphrasing the green building council, you will be qualified to understand the LEED rating system and facilitate applications and certification. That’s all.
You don’t get information on technical issues, building science, construction techniques or the like. Nope, you can just manipulate the system to get points so you can be seen as a LEEDer.
LEED would have you believe that’s all you need, and if you apply the cookbook criteria, the building will automatically be energy efficient. The trouble is, a substantial number of LEED buildings are coming out half-baked.
There is also a silent implication that if you don’t buy into their system, your building just isn’t a socially conscious conserver. That’s untrue. Getting LEED certification is greenie points, nothing more. A LEED building may save energy - and this is mostly about energy - but the uncertified building next door may do just as well or better.
LEED does address other conserving aspects, and Pearson and Kerr have fallen prey to, and then passed on, some of the typical scare tactics.
Demean other brands, such as saying that a conventional dwelling will become a liability in 10 years, thus increasing the apparent value of what you’ve done. Imply that other buildings will fail in an earthquake, despite the fact that Canadian buildings, and the duplex in question, comply with the National Building Code. It’s easy to raise the bar when you imply that “those other bars” are very low.
There’s a further complication for us practical types. LEED isn’t based on facts; it’s based on simulated predictions. If Mark Twain were alive today, the quote might be “Lies, damn lies, statistics, and computer modeling.”
Modeling can be a valuable tool, but is an indication, not a guaranty. That makes it a bit disingenuous to make claims about the “most energy efficient house.”
Pearson says that LEED is a way to certify that the builder’s claims have been met. The true answer is a maybe.
LEED has been in use long enough that some genuine scientists, such as at the National Research Council and ASHRAE in the US decided to ask “are these buildings living up to expectations?” NRCC-51142 is an interesting summary of the findings.
Of note, the National Research Council stated that their findings might be skewed in favour of LEED, as building owners getting disappointing results may not have responded to the surveys.
The findings aren’t stellar in any case. On average, LEED buildings used between 18 and 39 per cent less energy per floor area than a conventional building in some regions.
The conventional comparison is a very low spec building, and the study noted that in a region with good building stock (such as the Yukon), the energy improvement dropped to around 10 per cent. More telling is the fact that 28 to 35 per cent of LEED buildings used more energy than a conventional building. Would you be happy if your car only started two times out of three, after paying a premium for it?
Worse yet, the measured energy performance of LEED buildings did not correspond to the certification level of the building or the number of energy credits gained. While other criteria enter into the Certified to Platinum grades, energy is the main factor, so you’d expect a hierarchy going up the scale. Energy enthusiasts - that includes me - have a concern that this is going to tarnish the “green brand.”
For the techies in the audience, this weak correlation extended to commissioning, measurement and verification LEED credits. The National Research Council summarized the process of planning towards green/conservation can save energy, but the specific LEED measures don’t necessarily produce results. LEED was also supposed to provide a superior real estate value due to improved energy performance, but “if this assumption proves false for a given building, it is likely that the real estate benefits will diminish.” Ouch.
This is a dirty little secret LEED doesn’t acknowledge, or says that the ‘new version’ will fix. Maybe. If some science, rather than more marketing, is applied to the problem. At present, it looks like there is potential for some vague and unpredictable energy savings with LEED, but little more than a well built non-certified conventional building.
Don’t spend your money on applying for LEED, put it into the building, is what I tell my clients.
Let’s bring that home. The predicted heating cost of the Pearson/Kerr house is $0.50 per square foot. My 17-year-old garage/home/office (yes, I’m one of the Yukoner’s still in my garage) had actual heating costs this winter of about $0.74 per square foot, and that’s for 24/7 occupancy, as I’m here all the time. Considering my place is nothing special in terms of construction versus the R100 roof and R60 walls on the Pearson/Kerr duplex, the difference is marginal. If the added measures of the duplex cost $24,000, that’s a simple payback of 100 years.
ASHRAE was a little blunter. They said, “the LEED buildings did not conclusively save energy compared to typical buildings built at the same time. This is not good.” This author noted that awards should come with removable screws, for when actual utility bills were available. Nasty, but honest.
An example of how insubstantial and self-important the ‘state of green’ is, can be demonstrated by the fact that the builders of a single, unproven dwelling now call themselves “Sustainable Building Designers” on the web. That takes more than buying into a system that only produces mild results in two out of three cases.
Who am I to be critical, even if it’s a healthy thing?
Well, an independent thinker for one, and someone who has degrees in both architecture and physics. Physics is four years of thermodynamics and the science behind green buildings that you’re not going to get in a one-day workshop or on the web. I’ve also taken the time to keep up with research, not just the promotion put out by the green building council. I’ve even taken LEED workshops! If you’re interested in building green, don’t blindly accept a heavily marketed scheme as the new gospel. Look at both sides of the debate, make up your own mind, and choose what works for you.