The New York Times recently published an interesting article on the energy tracking law that measures overall energy use in commercial buildings. Not surprisingly, one of the better performing buildings was the Empire State Building with a score of 80 (Higher scores = better energy performance).
That building recently underwent major energy retrofits including window, mechanical system and insulation improvements designed and overseen by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). This organization is one of the premier energy conservation and alternative energy research organizations in the country. It has been lead by Amory Lovins for many years.
The article also pointed out that the MetLife building, a gold LEED rated building had a score of 74. This means that it was just able to be rated as an Energy Star program under the U.S. EPA’s rating program for top performing buildings.
Why the dichotomy?
First, one has to look at the two buildings and the goals of the retrofits. The Empire State Building’s retrofit program focused almost exclusively on energy conservation. That means that most of the decisions were based on whether or not the improvements would save energy.
This is a good thing and of course such improvements have many concurrent and ancillary benefits. Energy efficient buildings can be more comfortable, usually have better lighting and generate less pollution. Even without listing all of the particulars of the Empire State Building’s improvements, I am confident that RMI made certain that air quality was not compromised or that worker health was compromised in any due to material selection.
However, the MetLife Building was designed in a holistic fashion that looked not just at energy, but also at many of the building’s attributes from carpet to paint to air quality and energy. It has been my experience that articles criticizing the LEED program’s energy results tend to ignore the broader aspects of the LEED Certification.
Remember that LEED is a program that requires energy improvements, but also allows the user to focus on other building aspects down to furniture selection. In other words, it is a program that, as I have said before, looks at the building in total, not just from an energy perspective. It allows building owners to set their priorities within the certification system. If energy conservation is not a primary goal, then the owner’s money will be spent on other aspects of the green building program.
This is not to say that LEED buildings are low performing buildings. Most often, they are high performing buildings meaning that they save their owner’s energy dollars in addition to improving the indoor environmental quality of the building and improving the overall building environment.
Is there room for improvement? Certainly. LEED can be made better. In fact it is a program that is constantly improving and making more demands on buildings to improve energy consumption. This is a good thing.
The point here is simple; don’t compare two different programs that have different overall goals. Holistic buildings include energy conservation; Energy Conservation programs are not necessarily holistic.
Both are useful. Both should be considered.