DJC Green Building Blog

$100 million class action lawsuit filed against LEED, USGBC

Posted on October 19, 2010

According to Environmental Building News, Henry Gifford, owner of Gifford Fuel Saving, has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Green Building Council and its founders.

"The suit argues the USGBC is fraudulently misleading consumers and fraudulently misrepresenting energy performance of buildings certified under its LEED rating systems, and that LEED is harming hte environment by leading consumers away from using proven energy-saving strategies," the article says.

The lawsuit looks like it is based at least in part on research by Washington's very own New Buildings Institute.

I don't know the details so I will refer you to those that do: first, read the excellent Environmental Building News Article. For a more opinionated article, check out this Treehugger piece. For a lawyer's take, go to Green Building Law here. If you read the articles, don't forget the comments. There's some pretty interesting opinions.

This blog has covered green building problems before. For our related archives, click the tag 'problems' below.

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Water infrastructure: the problem no one wants to (openly) talk about

Posted on June 9, 2010

This week, the DJC published my story on the Bullitt Foundation's desire to go off the water grid and the underlying politics of the decision. I've written about this topic before in this March 17 post "Bullitt wants to go off the water grid: realistically will it be able to?" Basically, the problem centers around the idea that Bullitt wants to capture and treat all its own water. That means it wants to do the impossible: drink the water that falls on its site and treat the toilet waste the occupants produce. I say impossible because the barriers seem endless. (Clarification: I do not actually think it is impossible. As a journalist I don't take sides and have no opinion on the topic. But if you were to look at the issue before Bullitt started talking with agencies, it was an impossibility. That's the point of the Living Building Challenge... to break down barriers).

The barrier I discussed in the story is King County's capacity fee. According to an internal county

Here is a current rendering of Bullitt's project
document, a different project (part of Amazon's new headquarters in South Lake Union) wanted to go partially off the water grid and requested a waiver of the capacity fee. The waiver would have resulted in a loss of over $700,000 for the county in 2008, the document says. Because the building would still be hooking into King County's water system for some services, the county declined the waiver. Even though a building may be water independent, it still needs to be connected to the county system in case of emergency. This means it needs to be able to function at any given moment.

Developers and green enthusiasts say the fee should be waived because it encourages innovation, and developers won't pursue these projects otherwise. The county says it's a social equity issue: by waiving the fee, other less fortunate individuals will end up paying for infrastructure and the county has already counted on new development to support that work. Specifically, the county is in the middle of building the $1.8 billion Brightwater Treatment Plant.

I'm really interested in this dilemma, especially the validity of the social justice claim. I had a brief conversation via Twitter this week with @bruteforceblog (whose very interesting blog is here: http://bruteforcecollaborative.wordpress.com/). Bruteforce said if this were a rural site he'd be all for cutting the capacity fee but in a city, the less affluent will be burdened by the cost. He suggested priority permitting as an incentive. However the city already provides priority permitting for super green projects and in this economy, the quickened pace doesn't equal the amount of savings it once did. I asked him what other ideas he might suggest. Bruteforce said perhaps a FAR or height incentive could be the answer, adding that no matter the incentive, developers will always argue it isn't enough. However, a commenter on our DJC story, Kent Andersson had another opinion: "It's not about punishing the poor. It's about everyone paying the true costs of the services they use. We should allow the exemption to spur the future, however if they need to discharge, then they should pay a higher rate."

Regarding the capacity fee, the county is currently considering three pretty black and white options, again, according to the internal county documents: waive the fee for projects that go off the water grid, partially waive it or do nothing and keep the structure as it is.

But there's another option. Why not let innovative projects go off the grid and then charge them crazy insane fees if and when they do use the system? Just a thought.

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think the county is right on with its social justice reasoning or is that an excuse? What incentives do you think should be offered to developers, if any should be offered at all to get them moving in this direction? Or maybe we all should pay the "true costs" of water and agree to much higher water rates? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Don't feel like commenting? Answer our new poll at right!

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Frank Gehry apparently not the biggest fan of LEED

Posted on April 15, 2010

There's an interesting article in last week's BusinessWeek Apparently, Thomas Pritzker asked Frank Gehry what he would think if a client said he wanted a LEED certified building.

From BusinessWeek:

“Oh, great,” Gehry answered in a high, mock-excited voice, as the audience laughed. Then, back in his regular voice, he dismissed environmental concerns as largely political concerns. “A lot of LEEDs are given

Our very own Gehry work of art - EMP
for bogus stuff. A lot of the things they do really don’t save energy.”

He also said the expense of building to LEED standards often outweighs the benefits. On smaller projects, he said, “the costs of incorporating those kind of things don’t pay back in your lifetime.”

What does Gehry, one of the U.S.'s most respected architects, opinion say about LEED buildings? Is the 81-year-old stuck in a different period of time in his reaction towards LEED (he did, after all, apparently call it LEEDs) or is he right on?

I've discussed Gehry's general idea - on the value of LEED versus its cost - before. To address his concerns, first LEED has a number of subtopics, not all of which directly relate to energy. So it makes sense that not everything in a LEED checklist works towards that goal. Second, from what I understand, LEED can be done for the similar cost of a non-LEED building in many situations, if you start working on it right from the beginning.

What interests me about this exchange is that Gehry is saying it. Living in Seattle, I rarely, rarely, rarely hear this view espoused openly by architects. Am I just living in a green bubble? Is this still a common view?

After writing the above post, I noticed a second article Michael Arndt of BusinessWeek wrote about the above post. Turns out Gehry called Arndt to clarify his above comments. This from the second article:

“I’m not against LEEDs at all,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful. I think we’ve got to do this.” But then Gehry, who acknowledged that he is something of a cranky old man, got back on a soapbox to decry today’s automatic embrace of LEED certification. “It’s become ‘fetishized’ in my profession. It’s like if you wear the American flag on your lapel, you’re an American. That’s what I was trying to say. You get people who are holier than thou. I think architects can do a lot, but some of what gets done is marketing and doesn’t really serve to the extent that the PR says it does.”

What do you think about all this readers?

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Bullitt wants to go off the water grid: realistically, will it be able to?

Posted on March 17, 2010

I have a story in today's paper on The Bullitt Foundation's proposed living building on Capitol Hill. The project is fascinating: it aims to create all its own energy, produce and treat all its own water and re-energize the neighboring park among other points.

The project has a lot of interesting aspects. However the one I'm most interested in is the water angle. The building hopes to break the mold by capturing all its rainwater off the roof, which will be held in an underground cistern, according to Colleen Mitchell, project manager with 2020 Engineering. Then, some of the water will be treated by UV filters, pumped to faucets throughout the building and used as potable (or drinking) water. Some of the water will be sent to toilets, which will use one pint per flush. All waste from the toilets will be sent to a composting container in the basement, where it will slowly compost and be used for the building's greenhouse. The greenhouse will run up the south side of the building with plants on each level. Urine from the toilets will go to four tanks in the basement where it will stabilize and be sterilized over a three-month time period. After three months, one part urine will be mixed with eight parts greywater (or the water that goes down faucets). That mix will be sent to the greenhouse where it will be evapotranspired by plants with nutrients from urine being used for fertilization.

I've got a rendering of what the system will look like here:

This is what the water system will look like. Click on image to enlarge.

Image courtesy 2020 Engineering

The system is incredibly cutting edge and will set an amazing precedent if permitted. And the 'if,' dear readers, is a big 'if.'

Unfortunately, the precedent is one of the things that probably has permitting agencies worried. Last June, I attended a forum on water attended by a number of speakers. One of them was Steve Deem of the state health department. Going off the water grid is great in theory, he said, but architects, developers and engineers don't generally understand that if a project provides water, it is responsible for the building's water forever. That raises a lot of health and safety issues.

Secondly, there's the issue of charges and rates. King County is in the process of building Brightwater, its massive, multi-million-dollar water treatment plant outside Woodinville. Brightwater gets paid for in part by capacity charges, fees and rates from users. From what I've heard from multiple sources, projects are welcome to go off the water grid, as long as they pay those hook up fees and charges. For most developers, this is a turnoff because they are paying twice - once for the water system and once for the hook up. Bullitt has yet to finalize these details with the county. Chris Rogers of development partner Point32 said, "There will be conversations with the county and other players to understand what sort of levies there will be for something that we don't use."

At that same June meeting, Christie True, director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, said it's a social justice issue. If developers don't pay for wastewater infrastructure, people with fewer resources will end up paying more.

Last April, Ray Hoffman, acting director of Seattle Public Utilities, said on-site water treatment is not moving forward in the Puget Sound area because of bureaucracy. "There are institutional barriers on both the public and private side that prevent things that are readily available from getting off the shelf and into the ground."

These are some of the issues Bullitt faces in trying to go off the water grid. I don't envy them the process but it will be an amazing achievement if they succeed.

When I asked him about the difficult code issues he was about to face, Denis Hayes of Bullitt said all agencies are on the same page in wanting to see innovative projects happen. "We’ll take that robust optimism until somebody in authority says we shouldn't have it."

What do you think, readers? Just how important is this project and what kind of a precedent will it set? Will it succeed in getting off the water grid and are the health and social justice issues valid concerns? I'd love to hear from you on this topic.

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Washington Policy Center: green buildings get mixed results

Posted on October 22, 2009

The Washington Policy Center, a conservative think-tank whose mission is to "improve lives through market solutions," has issued a report on green buildings in the state that has less than stellar results.

However, the center is not totally a nonpartial organization. And the study, which is not even a full four

You should know better!
pages long, seems shaky to me in that references cited include articles that are not cited, single emails, and only a small handful of case studies that really don't provide the reader with much information with which to make an informed decision. It also is very narrow in scope and only looks at a few types of projects.

Nevertheless, the points brought up in the study are of interest. The gist is that performance-based contracting in Washington State and schools that use the Washington State High Performance Schools Protocol have mixed results. Some save energy, some don't and many have long pay back times. Additionally, the study says there is often not enough information available to track how much energy is actually being saved.

These are important issues that need to be studied on the local level. But I'd like to see them investigated in a more thorough and scientific manner.

The study also proposes three solutions to the problem: rigorous audits of green projects, local control and flexibility as state mandated "cookie-cutter" approaches don't always work, and accountability in holding agencies and contractors responsible for project results. The study says "if there are no costs for the agency or contractor for failing to achieve energy savings targets, there is unlikely to be strict enforcement or effective auditing. Without those elements, savings are not likely to materialize."

In general, these suggestions do make sense. Green projects should be audited and if something is wrong with the design, that information needs to circulate back to the architect so they can learn from their mistakes. Flexibility often has beneficial results (though I don't know I'd go so far as to change state policy on that front). And there should be some level of accountability for projects or team members that don't meet their goals.

Now, how do you think we should do this? I've heard that rough times (ie the past year, anyone?) are the best times to make sweeping changes to the way we work. But I find it hard to imagine legislators moving on requiring audits or some level of accountability in green building at any point in the near future.

Ignoring the study's flakiness, is the Washington Policy Center right with their three suggestions? In a perfect world, what would you want to see? What is the best way to ensure that green buildings are living up to their planned predictions?

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Ashworth Cottages: how much of a premium will people pay for green?

Posted on October 16, 2009

In case you missed it, I wrote a story in yesterday's DJC about how Intracorp Marketing & Sales had been hired by Bank of America to finish and sell the remaining 17 properties at Ashworth Cottages. Ashworth Cottages, Seattle's first LEED platinum housing project, went into foreclosure in August.

Last May, I wrote a post about what went wrong at Ashworth here and it has been one of my most popular

Image courtesy Intracorp
posts ever since. Most commenters said the prime problem was houses were simply priced too high. Judging by how they're being snapped up now, you were right.

When the homes came on the market, they were priced between $739,000 and $950,000. Today, they are priced between $399,000 and $649,000. Of the original 20 homes, 17 went into foreclosure. Since those 17 homes went on the market in a soft opening last week, eight of them have received purchase and sale agreements as of Wednesday, according to Jeff Smallwood of Intracorp.

In the article, I reference a few of your comments that said the price point was too high, even if they were LEED platinum. I wish I could have referenced more comments; they were so varied and insightful.

Today, Smallwood said the homes are probably selling at a little below market value and that the LEED features are mentioned by every buyer so far. But what does this say about green, expensive projects? While Ashworth is the prime example because it has had such a public story told, it's not the only one. A number of super green expensive projects - haven't sold. Or are being used for different purposes by the developer.

In my original Ashworth post, Anne Whitacre had a great comment that developers may expect green buyers to pay more because their utility bills will be lower over the life of a building. But if people don't expect to stay in a building for years, then they can't really take that value into account. This is why institutions, schools and nonprofits are often more likely than private developers to jump on the green bandwagon.

A few other commenters said they had been excited and interested in Ashworth but the price tag was just too much. How much of a premium would you pay for a super green house? Five percent? Ten percent? Nothing?

Similarly, if my price range is $950,000 I have a lot of options.  I could buy a great, old house with a lot of character for $650,000 (especially in today's market) and then spend $300,000 rehabbing it with super green features. For that much money, I could make a lot of green improvements that were functional and tailored to what I wanted AND I would be saving and improving an old structure, rather than sending whatever originally existed to the dump. Even if you recycle the majority of your construction waste, some of it still ends up being tossed.

A number of green builders believe that the market is ready to pay more for green projects and a number of studies support this to different variations. (There's this study on local green certified homes, this study on national commercial buildings and this one on four local examples).

But in today's economy, where is the line drawn? How much more are people willing to pay if they're willing to pay more at all? And would this be a different situation in a better economy?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, your response to Ashworth's situation and anything you know about other high priced green projects that haven't sold or have been in a similar situation.

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What’s greener: high-rises or LEED buildings?

Posted on October 13, 2009

Last week, I attended a Town Hall lecture by David Owen, a columnist at the New Yorker and author of the book 'Green Metropolis.'

Owen spoke about his own experience of living in both Manhattan and in the countryside, and about which is greener (cities because people have everything they need at their fingertips).

But he also said something striking: that big, tall buildings in cities are actually the greenest projects we

Inherently green?
have, not projects that are LEED certified. High-rises get lots of people working in one space. That gets lots of people living nearby and walking between the two. The effects of this and the concentration of people, he said, is far, far greener than a LEED certified project in the middle of nowhere (though he didn't mention if it were greener than a LEED certified high-rise in the city). The premise touches on one of the main problems of LEED: that it only looks at pieces instead of the whole.

For example, Owen discussed Sprint's (now Sprint Nextel) headquarters outside of Kansas City, Mo. The corporate campus, he said, consists of 15,000 employees spread among a 50 building low-rise campus. The space also has 15 parking lots and an underground parking garage, providing one parking space per worker because everyone has to drive to the headquarters in the middle of nowhere. Though the campus was planned before LEED came out, one of the buildings at the site ended up receiving LEED certification. The space also preserves 200 acres of property as open space.  How is this a greener situation, he asked, then simply letting the farmland be that had previously existed?

He argued that setting up a business in a location that requires car travel is not green, even if the buildings are certified as such.

Should buildings in the middle of nowhere receive LEED certification? And should organizations that are about sustainability - like the Rocky Mountain Institute and its headquarters in Snowmass, Colo. - be held to a higher level of accountability and locate in a dense area? Or is there value to having great environmentally friendly buildings in the wilderness?

I suppose it comes down to what you prioritize and what you think the future of cities and urban planning is.

In this economy as well, it's worth noting that cities across the nation have vacant high-rise buildings that currently are not at capacity, and are likely wasting large amounts of energy.

What do you think? Is Owen right on or way off base? If Owen is right - and the greenest project is in a city be it LEED certified or not is a high-rise - than should LEED reflect this in its rating system and how so?

Incidentally, his book also argues that New York City is the greenest city in the world. That seemed to touch an interesting nerve at Portland's The Environmental Blog here.

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LEED: should your building be retested each year to keep its certification?

Posted on August 31, 2009

Yesterday's New York Times has a great overview on the the elephant in LEED's room. The story, "Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label," by Mireya Navarro, discusses how many buildings aren't as efficient as they were planned to be, or should be.

It's a good overview for those who don't already live the problems and issues discussed in it. Though the article discusses a very valid question, I don't know that it's really fair, considering the

Should your building get retested?

Should your building get retested?

USGBC did not even require a LEED building be more energy efficient than a standard building until June of 2007. Plus, both the main building cited in the article and the study of 121 buildings mentioned in it looked at buildings certified through 2006. (Doing a similar study looking at buildings designed and built since then would be fascinating but I digress.)

Anyhow, what I find most interesting is the last line of the story where Scot Horst of the USGBC says LEED may eventually move towards the EPA's Energy Star Model where buildings must attain the label each year in order to keep it. "Ultimately, where we want to be is, once you're performing at a certain level, you continue to be recertified," he said.

This raises two main questions in my mind. First, if that's where the USGBC wants to be, why isn't it there now? LEED 2009 has some major changes in it, but it will be another couple years until the next version is released. I understand that LEED is still a growing tool (and money-maker) but if this is really the way it will be in the end, why not just bite the bullet and figure out a way to incorporate the goal now? The Living Building Challenge had some pretty audacious goals as a part of its first incarnation. Why can't LEED make these changes now?

Which brings me to my other main question. Is the idea of making LEED something that can be rescinded even realistic? While there is no denying that it would be valuable to require LEED buildings be tested every year to retain their certification, LEED is an investment and an expensive one at that. Would it become a less attractive investment from a business perspective if your pretty little plaque could disappear due to let's say a crummy building manager?... or to a changing system? What if further versions of LEED required changes that you simply couldn't add on to a building. Would you be penalized and lose your certification because you, or the person you bought a building from, didn't make a significantly different decision in design?

Maybe commissioning should become a required part of LEED. But that also adds costs to a project.

What do you think?

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What gets ignored in green building?

Posted on January 6, 2009

This week, I wrote a story in the DJC about the Sustainable Sites Initiative. The initiative has been in the works since 2002 and is geared to be a comprehensive certification similar to LEED but focused on landscape, rather than efficiency.

I spoke to Deb Guenther of Mithun about the initiative, as she's been working on it

What do green certifications ignore?
since the beginning. When I asked her whether site treatment was just touched on or ignored in green building certifications, she said "a little bit of both."

The idea that green building certifications ignore critical development considerations is a constant complaint. Here are some of the most cited aspects of what people say green building ignores:

  • The historic value of a site or building
  • The value of keeping a building - and recognizing its embodied energy, rather than demolishing a structure to build a new one
  • Accurately measuring how well the building works
  • Indoor air quality
  • Beauty and aesthetic value

(For more information on what your colleagues think is most ignored, check out my poll at right.)

But a green building certification cannot be all things to all people. And LEED has a great track record of appealing to different projects in different regions, states, climates and cities. How then, should new certifications that deal with in depth, important topics only touched on by LEED - like the Sustainable Sites Initiative - be dealt with? The initiative, by the way, will be considered in future versions of LEED, though it is unclear how it will be incorporated.

Should this initiative - and future ones like it - become a part of LEED or be developed as separate certifications?

A single certificaiton might be easier, but would force those who don't care about things like sites or historic value to consider those aspects, and would also likely raise the certification's cost. 

But if new certification's aren't incorporated into LEED, they might never get off the ground or gain market value.  And would developers really want to go get multiple certifications for multiple things, just to prove they have a green project?

What do you think?

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The economy: will green building take a hit?

Posted on October 13, 2008

READERS, if you like this post, subscribe to a free reader to make sure you are alerted whenever there's a new post to the Green Building Blog. Just click on the 'Subscribe in a Reader' link at right!

Green building has many elephants in the room and thanks to the current state of the economy, this is a big one: will green building suffer because of the current state of the economy?

The problem with trying to answer this question is that it all comes down to

The road to market-wide green buildings?
definitions: what do you consider to be a green building? Does it need to be certified by a third party operation? Are you talking about all markets - commercial, homes, mixed use etc.?

Assuming you can answer the definition question, another one immediately presents itself: how do we measure how green buildings are doing? Is there any way to realistically measure the buildings that are putting off plans, and then how green building is a factor in that?

I cannot answer these questions without doing a lot of research with time I frankly don't have. But in the end, it seems like there are two groups out there:

1. The group that thinks yes, green buildings will take a hit because they're more expensive.

and

2. The group that thinks green buildings are actually more valuable because they cut down on energy use and electricity bills, and will hold their value better in future markets.

Which group do you belong to? Comment on my new poll at right, or tell me more below, to let me know!

P.S. For great coverage about how the market is affecting the Puget Sound region, check out the DJC. On Oct. 13, we ran a story from local contractor's perspectives. On Oct. 14, we run a story on local architecture and engineering firm's perspectives. Don't miss them!

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