Why I can’t trust LEED Certifications

May 7, 2012 at 11:33 pm

I’m a little upset lately by the gratuitous use of “green” or “environmentally-friendly” labeling of products lately (for an example just see this ad by British Petroleum purporting to be “green”). Deemed greenwashing, Wikipedia defines “greenwashing” as:

…a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Companies have been jumping on the “green” bandwagon for a while, with examples as subtle as a “green” bottle of…water. But a larger and less obvious example of greenwashing is the USGBC’s LEED certification and rating system.

I am a fan of any effort to lessen our carbon footprint, but I am also not a fool. I don’t think recycling is the best way to be green (we must use less, period). I don’t think hybrid or electric cars really do anything for pollution (especially if they still enable people to live far from their work, live in large energy-consumptive homes, or are powered by electricity generated by coal).

And I don’t think that certain buildings deserve LEED Gold certification when they operate 15 buses per hour (at peak) over a two-mile-long shuttle route.

Yet that’s precisely what the newest residence hall at my university has accomplished. Cambridge Commons is built at North Avenue and Cambridge Avenue in Milwaukee, a 1.9-mile drive from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s main campus. To move students from this residence hall to the campus, the university operates numerous shuttles ranging in size from small hybrid sedans to 66-passenger yellow school buses. At their peak, these shuttles operate every 4 minutes. You can imagine how empty these shuttles are at most times.

At the same time as these shuttles operate near-empty, they spew carbon emissions into the air during the entire 4.3-mile loop. Running at 4 minute intervals is not only unnecessary (I saw 3 of them on my 10-minute walk to work at 7:30 this morning), it weakens the argument that Cambridge Commons residence hall is a “green” building. The redundancy of the shuttle service is also apparent: A route that goes directly to and from UWM stops right by the dorms, and another county bus running between the airport and a popular suburban mall, stopping one block from UWM, is a three-minute walk from Cambridge Commons.

Of course, I champion the accomplishment that is the development, as it does mitigate the effects of stormwater (a problem Milwaukee has begun to solve with a deep tunnel), enables the cafeteria to use truly local food grown on the roof, and is built to LEED standards. But to ignore the grossly negative effects of air pollution is as insane as the practice of LEED-certified parking garages.

You may ask why the residence halls were not built closer to campus in order to avoid requiring shuttles; the answer is not simple enough for this post, but it involves local politics and lots of quality-of-life complaints from residents around the existing on-campus dorms (which have existed in their current state since 1971). Perhaps I will refer to this sort of university neighborhood politics in a later post.

Until then, remember that LEED-certified buildings are primarily just a (very expensive) way to market a development. And bottled water with leaves on it will never be green.