Rating Systems

I have to admit that I am frustrated that rating systems have become the signature for whether or not a building is considered environmentally responsible. Rating systems like LEED, Living Building Challenge, The Well Building Standard, and Enterprise Green Communities are important for establishing goals for construction, for identifying the multitude of environmental issues in buildings, for introducing novices to the host of building related environmental issues, and for providing aspirational thinking for the built environment. My frustration stems from the fact that projects are varied and complex. The idea that a rating system could possibly predict the uniqueness of each project, client, climate-zone, and ecosystem in the country, and consider the issues of the rating system thoroughly in conjunction with the unique goals of each project, is just not realistic. 

The vast majority of projects have constraints. Balancing competing goals and establishing priorities is a necessity. We have seen a number of projects emerge that have pursued their ratings at any cost - the number one goal being the achievement of the ratings themselves. These projects do not represent the bulk of the work being done in the country. Quite often these projects have highly engineered systems that are not practically applied to typical projects. The design team can become so absorbed with the goal of achieving the points they can lose sight of the fact that the client will be left to use and maintain this project after the limelight has faded. In addition these projects cost more, usually a lot more. Much of that cost is spent on third party verification when it could be invested in the building itself. This results in a kind of "green buildings only for the stars" phenomena, good publicity but costly to maintain, and frequently altered post-construction to be more practical. This can quickly dissolve into an expression of ego rather than an inquiry into building design.

If you are chasing points you potentially have shifted the focus from the best solutions for the building, the project, and the environment, directly to the rating system itself. The problem is that we need to prioritize how we spend our money and spending our money wisely might not buy every item on the rating systems list. Isn’t climate change the number one issue facing us today? I have watched many owners who are tempted to “value engineer” extra insulation because they can’t see it….the fancy lights and bells and whistles have to stay, but not the insulation. Yet that insulation and air-sealing have more to do with user comfort and the cost of the operation of that building over its lifetime than many other decisions. 

And what about social justice? Sustainable communities are evaluated in terms of the health of all of their citizens.  The increased cost of implementing rating systems takes environmental issues off the table for many projects from the beginning. Projects with extremely modest budgets often abandon environmental criteria because their implementation is seen as too costly. Are we headed to a place where environmentally friendly projects are only available to the richly funded projects? 

Though I am a fan of the Passive House rating system for its focus, simplicity, and non-prescriptive nature, even the PH rating system has limitations. Perhaps you have a small 1,200 square foot building and you have wrapped it in a healthy layer of insulation and air-sealed it. You need more insulation to meet the Passive House Standard but in this example your building is small and the 4.75 kbtu per square foot is hard to meet because of your low number of square feet. A larger house would make hitting the PH targets easier with a wall assembly with less insulation. Every house has a certain number of fixed loads such as plug loads, appliance loads, and typical hot water useage. If you are trying to divide these loads over a small number of square feet you are penalized more in a small house rather than in a larger one, where those loads can be spread over greater square footage. Do you keep adding insulation just to meet the Passive House Standard (which adds very little environmental impact), make your house larger, or do you spend the extra money on a PV array to get the house to near Zero Energy use and forfeit the Passive House rating to get to Zero? Seems like a simple choice to me, but in many of these instances, if you want the points…you pay the price, whether it makes sense to or not. Too often the focus is shifted from making good decisions about best practice, to making decisions about point acquisition, despite the wisdom, relevance, or cost of that decision.

The architectural profession needs to move away from segregating green projects from the “traditional projects.” The AIA has separate documents for contractually completing projects that are using rating systems, a symbol of the division in many architect’s minds between executing a green project or not. Green projects, by definition in those documents, have third party verifiers and a host of consultants. However, many of the issues targeted in the rating systems represent “best practices” in architecture anyway. Good indoor air-quality, healthy and durable building materials, and energy and water conservation are items that are important to every owner whether they are stated goals or not. Isn’t it always the architect’s job to provide these? It is possible to integrate the affordable and important elements of rating systems into standard specifications as reflections of “best practice.” For example, specifying materials that meet South Coast Air Quality Management Standards is not difficult, nor is it costly, so integration of that language into the standard specification is a no-brainer.  Considering the location of where materials are sourced, or how daylight may supplement electric lighting, are not expensive and represent a “best practices” approach.

Healthy, energy and water conserving projects that integrate with their eco-systems need to become the goal for all projects….not just a few. The expectations that a project’s merit is attached to its certification is leading to a schism between the projects that do and the projects that don’t. Perhaps a process that strives for “best practices” and integration with the environment in all levels of decision making is a better path that will encourage conscientious decision making in more projects and will become more mainstream.