University questions LEED rankings

Late last night, the nearly vacant Malone Engineering Center was fully lit.

Not surprising, perhaps, for many buildings, except that the Malone Center received a gold certification, the second-highest rating, from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Green Building Rating System .

The Malone Center received a gold certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Green Building Rating System, even though many of the building’s lights are left on at night.
Calgary Leveen
The Malone Center received a gold certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Green Building Rating System, even though many of the building’s lights are left on at night.

An apparent discrepancy between environmental efficiency and the popular environmental rating system’s allocation of points has generated lively debate among architects and sustainability experts around the country, and now Yale officials say they are evaluating the value of seeking LEED certification on University building projects. The LEED ratings originated in the mid-1990s as a way to evaluate the environmental impact of buildings based on energy-use materials used during construction.

Speaking at the University of Copenhagen last month, Yale President Richard Levin trumpeted Yale’s advances in designing environmentally sustainable buildings. But Levin noted that Yale’s commitment to achieving at least the standards of LEED silver certification does not outweigh its broader commitment to minimizing its negative impact on the environment.

“We are currently exploring, along with several sister institutions, an alternative standard for new construction that focuses more directly than LEED on greenhouse-gas reduction,” he said during the address.

Currently, three of Yale’s recently constructed buildings have received LEED certification: the class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building and Malone on Science Hill and the new Sculpture Building on Edgewood Avenue, which received silver, gold and platinum ratings, respectively. No buildings on campus have received LEED’s lowest ranking of simply “certified.”

For now, at least, certification still seems to be a University priority. Officials are seeking certification for four buildings currently under construction — including the Kroon Forestry Building, which is looking to achieve the highest available ranking, platinum — and three projects are being designed to meet LEED standards, Associate Vice President for Construction and Renovation Jerry Warren said.

But University Planner Laura Cruickshank emphasized that Yale’s current building guidelines only require that projects aim for a silver rating, not that they actually receive one.

“The points are not equal to saving the planet,” Cruickshank said.

Cruickshank is not the only one questioning the importance of the certifications.

The Malone Center, according to Bob Ferretti, the Sustainability Office’s manager of education and outreach, exposes some of LEED’s flaws: The building made the cut for gold, but perhaps not for green.

“Malone’s a great example of a LEED-certified building with great materials, but it’s not a very energy-efficient building,” Ferretti said.

At the first installment of the nine-part Professor Steven Kellert Lecture Series at the School of Forestry and Environmental Science on Thursday night, an audience member raised what some see as an inconsistency in the logic of LEED: While the wood for Kroon Hall is harvested from Yale’s forests, it has to be trucked to Vermont and back to be inspected and prepared by a certified mill in order to gain points toward a LEED platinum rating.

By all accounts, Kroon Hall will be one of the most sustainable buildings ever built at Yale, incorporating solar panels for electricity and a geothermal heating system. But in order to gain recognition for this efficiency, Yale faces a cost-benefit analysis.

Financial considerations make LEED certification tricky. Throughout the construction process, the point system requires builders to bring in consultants and maintain documents about the source of materials and other processes — all of which comes at a cost.

But Daniel Brook ’00, who in December wrote a piece on some of the quicks of the LEED system for Slate, said an institution like Yale can afford to seek certification.

“I see no reason why an institution with an endowment the size of Yale’s should scrimp on seeking LEED certification,” Brook said.

The benefits for Yale, and the thousands of other builders on the LEED track, are largely related to what Kellert likened to a standardized test that rates every project on the same scale.

“LEED puts sustainability on a standardized basis,” Kellert said. “Do we like SAT or GRE exams? No. But it communicates, and to that extent, it has its values and has many good intrinsic elements.”

It is precisely this standardization that makes the ratings effective, said Robert Kobet, chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Schools Committee. The system is important not just for its easily understood ratings, but also for its consistent and verifiable approach, he added.

For Yale, there are no clear answers. Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, emphasized the importance of a system that holds everyone accountable through standardized measurements.

“You can’t just say you’re saving energy. How does anybody know?” Stern said.

Kellert added that the nature of universities, which are long-term landowners, changes the way in which LEED should be viewed. Over time, building usage changes, he said, and so does the relative sustainability of projects.

“A lot of LEED-certified buildings five or 10 years out of construction aren’t performing at all in the way they were intended to be,” Kellert said.

And on Yale’s campus, where buildings are decades and even centuries past construction, these questions are even more complicated. Yale does not seek certification on its renovation projects because the system would require major changes to building facades, Warren said.

But even so, the University is making progress by adding insulation, thermally efficient windows and improved lighting and heating systems to existing buildings, Warren said.

Even on its own, Yale seems able to build sustainably. The question, then, is whether it will forge its own path or let LEED lead the way.

Comments

  • Jeff Lockwood

    Another problematic aspect of LEED is that it does not prohibit, or take points off for, any environmentally-destructive materials that are used. I'm thinking about tropical hardwoods as an example. While using destructively-harvested woods like old-growth mahogany would not earn any LEED points, neither would it prevent obtaining a high LEED rating. Thus we are seeing LEED certified buildings around the country that include tropical hardwoods in flooring, cabinets, or other features. That's not acceptable, and the U.S. Green Building Council needs to address this issue.

  • anon

    "Yale does not seek certification on its renovation projects"

    That's not really true; there were several major LEED-certified (Gold level) laboratories recently renovated at the Yale Medical School.