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Nau Examines the Pros and Cons of LEED


Nau is a budding clothing products company that is committed to sustainability and social awareness in various facets of its business.  They build very cool stores (pictured above) and build them green.  I noticed their website has some info on LEED certification, and just had to use their conversation as a partial vehicle to continue to discuss the green building certification system.  Here's what they said: 

We are committed to constructing more sustainable store options, and providing healthy spaces for our employees and our customers.  We choose to pursue LEED certification when the circumstances make sense (our Boulder store has received LEED Gold certification).  Why don't we pursue it in all instances?  Like many things, LEED certification is not a magic bullet, and it has some drawbacks.  While we believe in its goals and positive elements, it's not perfect. 

I applaud Nau for thinking about the LEED program and what it means for their business.  Nau also listed the pros and cons of LEED certification

Pros of LEED Certification:

  • It's quantifiable and measurable.
  • It's a broadly accepted standard, providing agreed-upon measurements, which means there's substance behind the claims.
  • There's a third-party certification process, further ensuring substance behind the claims.
  • It provides very specific direction (and parity) for people and companies desiring to decrease their buildings' impacts, essentially making green building accessible to a much broader audience than would otherwise be the case.

Cons of LEED Certification:

  • It's incredibly detailed and time-consuming, and therefore expensive.
  • Not all points are created equally, although they're often measured equally.  For example, the presence of bicycle storage and changing rooms earn a similar number of credits toward LEED certification as the installation of solar panels.  While both are important, they do not necessarily each equal the same decrease in environmental impact or upfront and operational costs. 
  • There are many junctures along the way where companies incur added cost, time, certification fees, etc. - where the same end result could theoretically be achieved without certification.
  • A project can receive LEED certification even if it is located in environmentally inappropriate areas, such as a sensitive watershed, wetland, forest, or prime farmland. This is green sprawl.
    It only goes so far. 
  • There are some processes, materials, and approaches that now go beyond the current LEED certification categories.  Therefore, marketing LEED as "the answer" may be limiting companies' efforts to make further strides in the area of sustainable building. 

So Nau continues to evaluate whether to pursue LEED certification with its green stores on a case-by-case basis based on the pros of LEED certification.

But, I have this itch to usurp their conversation a little bit and discuss the program that's becoming our de facto standard for green buildings.  I like criticism and analysis of LEED, but I want to make sure it's being done right.  So, with respect to of the above cons: (1) bike racks and (2) too green for LEED -- is the criticism well placed?

Thoughts on Too Green for LEED:
I understand some of the issues with LEED, and I'm certainly not drinking the Koolaid.  I avoid bureaucracy, councils, and regulations just as much as the next free market American.  But that said, I think we're seeing a lot of phony green claims out there and LEED helps me gauge the level of authenticity. 

I also agree that a building can go beyond LEED and do some incredible things in terms of legitimate sustainability.  I mean, with some LEED projects we're at the "less bad" stage, whereas with others we're at the "Wow! You can do that with a building" stage.  That's cool.  Those that experiment with the former will be convinced and seek after the latter.  But still, I don't think LEED is mutually exclusive with super green structures that are legitimately sustainable, net carbon neutral, and/or positive energy buildings.  On a building's path to greatness, the road can be paved with LEED certification.  I do believe. 

The Bike Rack Argument:
This argument is so jaded that I can't understand why it continues to be regurgitated all over the web.  So many complaints about the bike rack.  Let's just think about the argument, here's how it works:  you get one point for bike rack/ changing rooms/ lockers and you get one point for PV solar (nevermind the fact that not everyone buys the expensive on-site renewables).  PV solar is way more expensive than the bike rack, but each gets one point.  But that can't be right!  As Nau says, the environmental impact, first costs, and operations costs are not the same, but they still get an equal point.  So LEED must be messed up, right? 

Wrong.  None of the LEED points are created equal, but it doesn't matter because you can't buy 26 bike racks and earn certification.  You need the aggregation of a certain minimum number of green elements to achieve certification.  For example, reused materials might be cheaper than recycled materials, and both will be cheaper than solar PV.  LED lights are probably more expensive than setting up a recycling program.  The recycling is required.  LEED requires expensive commissioning, which is more expensive than some of the energy and atmosphere points you can get.  We could go on and on and on. 

But who cares if points are unequal?  You still need a certain minimum level of points to achieve certification.  With new construction, there are seven (7) prerequisites and you need 26 points to earn certification.  Are you telling me you can monger the cheapest nineteen points, apply the prerequisites, and end up with a building that is not very green?  If so, which points?


Like all certification systems, LEED bridges the gap between producer and consumer, assuring the uninvolved consumer that certain mutually respected terms have been met. When the consumer and producer can look into each other's eyes and share the same values, certification loses its importance; this is also true if the consumer is the developer, as in the case of NAU - they don't need someone else to assure they are "doing the right thing".

A similar discussion is happening in the food sector - is certified organic better than locally grown produce? If I know my local farmer and trust s/he farms in a manner I respect, I don't need an independent certifier, but if that food comes half way around the world, I may want that assurance - though I have to live with the transportation impacts.

@Harald - some good thoughts ... let me think on that.

i think 3rd party certifications might eventually prove to be a proxy for market or design failure, as with local versus certified organic food, or "sustainable" buildings versus "LEED certified" buildings.

I'd say that EVERY LEED project is at the "less bad stage", except perhaps the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, which utilized a natural standard as its central basis, and certified under LEED.

I might differ in opinion, too Preston, on your argument regarding the authenticity and/or benefit of different points. It's a classic law school red herring, I'd argue, to advocate that since no LEED points are created equal, and since minimum combination is required, the aggregate somehow adds up to "sustainable". And your argument seems to devolve into a relative financial comparison.

Which leads to your point about LEED providing a standard to assess the green measures of a project, relative to other projects. That's true, but it's a relative standard, sometimes not even accurate when comparing apples to apples, i.e., LEED buildings to LEED buildings. It is the fact that most points lack any connection or founding on an objective standard (I'd argue scientific standard) from which to assess a building's performance is what makes LEED somewhat arbitrary and subjective.

LEED 3.0, from what little I've read, reconciles much of this by tying itself to a bioregional and life cycle assessment approach.

For one valid (I believe) criticism, check out (PDF):

@Josh - thanks for the thoughtful response. Couple things I should clarify on my thoughts above:

(1) you have a point about the "less bad" comment. I would agree that most buildings are at the less bad stage, but I'm thinking that everyone has a different opinion on what the purpose of LEED is. Is it to build sustainable structures? Or is it to certify structures as being a certain level of green? (with green not necessarily meaning sustainable or regenerative or anything like that.) I think we all want LEED to be about going beyond sustainable, positive energy, and net carbon neutral projects.

(2) I do delve into a financial analysis with the points commentary, but if you compare environmental or carbon impact, none of the points are equal either. Also, I'm not necessarily saying the aggregation or sum of points leads to sustainable, but I am saying the sum of points gets you to some level of green that ratchets up as you move up the levels in the ratings system process. It's nice to gauge that ...

(3) I think your scientific point dovetails with the dovetail report and I'm going to read and digest the thoughts in there soon. Thanks for the link!!

Preston...I appreciate your thoughtful comments, insights and perspective, as always. I like your direct and straightforward arguments. There's not enough of that out there now.

I completely agree with your reply, and I guess, see LEED as a distraction and possible diversion from its "true" goal, setting an objective definition of "sustainability."

Another worry I and others have is in LEED accreditation. It is becoming a signal to the market and public, allegedly of one's green knowledge, a sort of proxy or substitute for actual, practical experience and that point where knowledge meets practice, a sort of knowhow or professional wisdom. LEED AP only proves you know the rating system, not how to actually design or build even to its standards, and absolutely not any indicator of one's experience or knowledge about "green building."

I guess I rest my argument on the basis of an objective, repeatable, testable standard, that of science, particularly ecology, biology and other natural sciences. The single-attribute element of LEED is a good example, in how LEED treats wood differently than bamboo or cork. A natural standard, say Biomimicry, employs Nature as Mentor, Measure and Model.

Right now, LEED is more consensus of a relatively small group of industry professionals, targeting the top 25% of the "market." But if you believe Paul Hawken and others like Amory Lovins (disclaimer...I do), it's immediately clear that our market system is broken. It excels at setting a price between willing sellers and buyers, but fails almost completely to capture and internalize costs. I think LEED is fairly subject to that same criticism.

Until LEED ties itself to an objective system and some absolute definition of "sustainability", it's value is somewhat limited, since it's relativistic, as you argue well -- it gets you to "some level of green", but under LEED, what does "green" really mean?

I think most of the criticism of LEED, at least mine, is based on the claims made by the USGBC and its supporters that LEED = Green, and LEED AP's = professionals and a high level of knowledge. There's a tremendous risk now, that the market internalizes LEED = Green. We do that, and we're in huge trouble.

Thanks again for the honest and direct discussion. That seems to be a disappearing thing out there these days, especially as LEED grows in popularity.

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