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Are LEED’s best days now behind it?

John Bleasby
Are LEED’s best days now behind it?

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and its various certification levels have served the advancement of “green” building design and construction in Canada for the past two decades.

However, as more cities around the world are declaring climate emergencies and their citizens take to the streets demanding immediate action, it begs the question, “Does LEED provide sufficient guidance to meet today’s higher expectations for energy efficiency and GHG reduction?”

By its own definition, LEED certification is focussed on, “strategies aimed at achieving high performance in key areas of human and environmental health: location and transportation, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.”

That’s a wide-ranging list that doesn’t even mention GHGs, and leaves energy efficiency as only one of several objectives.

Leading-edge designers like Deborah Byrne, COO of Toronto architecture firm Kearns Mancini, feel the answer is to look specifically at building envelopes themselves.

“LEED brought in a lot of good initiatives and made people aware. However, we need to get beyond the idea of bringing in cool, sustainable strategies like bicycle racks. It’s time to focus on where the carbon is, and the carbon in buildings is in the heating and cooling,” she says.

In fact, some critics argue as an energy-efficiency/GHG-reduction model, LEED comes up short. A 2013 study examining 21 LEED-certified buildings in New York City found that, “with regard to energy consumption and GHG emission, the LEED-certified buildings collectively showed no savings as compared with non-LEED buildings.” Digging deeper, the study found that although LEED Gold buildings delivered energy savings of 20 per cent, “similar savings are not seen for buildings at the Certified or Silver levels of LEED certification. These buildings actually consume relatively more source energy and have relatively higher GHG emission than do other NYC office buildings.”

While meaningful improvements are possible right now, many experts are concerned about the bottleneck to progress — current building codes. “Codes tend to reflect what we used to do. They can inhibit the delivery of high-performance buildings in all kinds of ways,” says Robert Bernhardt, CEO of Passive House Canada.

Byrne experiences this bottleneck regularly in her company’s architectural practice, as buildings are conceived, designed and constructed. “The struggle for us is that we are trying to be part of the building transformation process. We also know that the results achieved in our building designs are the answer to us reaching our targets,” she says.

Another frustration for designers is that the regulatory framework for meaningful change in the National Building Code has a pre-determined target date of 2030. “Somebody decided that 2030 would be the year. But the science says that climate change is already happening. We need to make changes now,” says Byrne.

Meanwhile, Bernhardt is more circumspect.

“We’re seeing that governments across the country are really quite happy to engage in discussions to see that the issues are identified. It will be an ongoing process — but we’ll keep stubbing our toes on things for years,” he says.

Byrne also believes the multitude of energy-efficiency labelling programs doesn’t help.

“We have lots of buildings with labels, but are they actually performing? And why would consumers or building clients know otherwise?,” she says.

People get overwhelmed by all the targets and labels, adds Byrne. “Even if they know that Passive House, for example, is the right way to go and what they want, they don’t know how to ask the right questions. The issue with government is that they don’t understand the targets and don’t know how to get there,” she says.

She would like to see the education and information gap bridged at all levels.

If Canada is to play a meaningful role in the global battle to reduce GHGs, things must change, believes Bernhardt.

“We cannot get to where we need to be by doing what we used to do,” he says. “This suggests that looking beyond LEED would be a good starting point.”

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