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April 28, 2008

Letter to the Editor: Just because it's 'green' doesn't mean it's good

Despite the fact that I'm living in Los Angeles at the moment, I had a 30-year career in Seattle architecture firms (and went to the UW in the early 1970s, grew up in the Puget Sound region, etc.), so I feel as though I can still adequately comment on the state of Seattle and Northwest architecture.

I simply do not understand the ballyhooing of LEED buildings. From a design professional's perspective, there are “good” buildings and there are “bad” buildings, and the procuring of a LEED rating does not automatically turn a “bad” building into a “good” one.

In my professional experience, I have seen many many times when the “fact” that some product can help with a LEED rating trumps any experience with the product, any performance requirements or (whether) the product itself would perform well once installed. Many of us who have worked with the LEED system for a number of years, see it as a reductive “checklist” that never adequately addresses performance of the finished building, and by virtue of its inexhaustible paperwork, diverts dollars into administrative costs rather than actual building performance.

Yes, I know that most LEED construction no longer contributes much to the construction cost of the project — but it contributes a lot to the project cost. Contractors have typically said that it costs 3/4 of one full time person on the job, which is more or less about $75,000 that could be used for someone who actually knew something about construction.

As a full time specifier, I have been baffled by the lack of construction knowledge that most LEED “consultants” have. And even more so, most of them have little understanding about how documents are put together and how their work fits into the overall work of the project. Granted, time will sort out these folks, and I would hope that the least competent of them find some other line of work.

I cannot, in corporate email or polite company, repeat most of the comments about LEED I hear from the experienced, technical architects. The procuring of a LEED rating is considered “business as usual” by people in my experience bracket (over 30 years) but the staff training and explanations of why someone would — or would not — use a particular product is time consuming and futile. The issues with many green products are exactly the same as ANY NEW product. They are often untried, have no track record, bad product support, inefficient sales and distribution networks, and lack good technical information. This doesn't even mention the egregious “greenwashing” that we see in trade journals advertising “green” products.

Unlike the organic food example, where you could make a reasonable argument that an organic peach actually had more flavor and perhaps was more nutritious than a pesticide sprayed peach, there is no easy answer for “green” products versus “non-green” products. I have seen spectacular failures of green products, and I honestly don't know any example where the “green” item outperforms the “non-green” item. In most cases, the technology hasn't advanced enough yet for that to be the case. And in many cases, the “green” item requires more maintenance, and causes completely different issues that are problems.

An easy example of this is floor adhesives: The water-based adhesives are so susceptible to mold infestation that they started causing more infection control issues than their lack of fumes “solved.” I know of two health care agencies that have switched back to solvent-based adhesives, because the fumes are temporary, but mold sticks around forever.

The fact that the Daily Journal (and every other magazine out there ) sees some reason to congratulate “green design” as a separate thing from “real design” simply indicates that our expectations for green design are lower than we would tolerate for building design in general. I don't think that makes for good architecture.

Anne Whitacre

Los Angeles

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