The Question of LEED Why the Country's Leading Green Building Certification May Be Inherently Flawed

A dust-up between the nonprofit that certifies “green” buildings and a nonprofit focused on human health led to a blunt, though mostly collegial, exchange and meeting at Yale University. A report in May from Connecticut-based Environment & Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) called “LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health” raised concerns about indoor air quality in LEED-certified buildings. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a certification bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC). The report comes as green buildings are becoming more mainstream. Even with the real estate market in a slump, green building represents one-third of new construction in the U.S.

But the report on LEED takes issue with the fact that being declared “green” may bypass some critical health factors. The LEED certification process offers a total of 110 points in seven categories, including energy and atmosphere, sustainable sites (minimizing impacts on ecosystems), indoor environmental quality, materials and resources, water efficiency, innovation in design and bonus credits. The points are heavily weighted toward energy efficiency and clean energy, accounting for just under a third of total points. And it’s possible to get the top rating—platinum—without winning any of the 15 points in the indoor air quality category.

The report also raises questions about water quality and the presence of pesticides, stating, “There is no legal requirement to inform occupants about the chemicals that have been applied, their potential health effects or their rate of dissipation.” Another concern the report cites is that until recently, the board of the USGBC included not a single health expert.

The board needs health experts, the report concludes; and builders should be required to earn a minimum number of points in each category before receiving the coveted LEED certification. Scot Horst, vice president of the USGBC, says EHHI’s objections seem based more on theory than practice. “In practice,” he says, “it’s very hard to earn a platinum rating without addressing indoor air quality. In order to even get to the point where you could achieve points, you have to meet the prerequisites, and there are prerequisites in the Indoor Environmental Quality section.”

LEED questionBut the report notes that the very process of making buildings better insulated and more energy efficient increases the danger of trapping pollutants inside. Lead author John Wargo is a professor of risk analysis and environmental policy at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In an e-mail, he addressed two examples of what he called inadequate prerequisites for winning certification. The first covers ventilation rates.

“The solution to pollution is not dilution, as the ventilation standards suggest,” Wargo writes. “The true solution is to avoid bringing the hazardous chemicals into the built environment in the first place. Ventilation, natural or forced, often is inadequate to meet the chemical challenges posed by building materials, cleaning materials and furnishings.”

The second permits smoking in “designated smoking areas,” an anomaly in a green building, Wargo writes, noting that “Anyone who grew up in a household of smokers understands that it is impossible to eliminate the secondary smoke from clothing, furnishings, walls, drapery and other porous surfaces such as wood.”

New Haven, Connecticut, has 12 LEED-certified buildings, three of which are the highest-rated platinum. One of them is 360 State, an upscale apartment building with ground-level retail on the edge of downtown. The building’s developer, Bruce Becker, says maintaining indoor air quality was definitely an issue. “The [EHHI] report is right on target.” Becker says he spent an additional $100,000 on wood cabinets and doors that had not been treated with the preservative formaldehyde. “Formaldehyde off-gases and that’s a problem,” he says. “A green building tends not to breathe as much as traditional buildings; if you have a tight building that doesn’t allow any air movement, it’s poisonous.”

Horst and two other USGBC officials met in July with three members of EHHI in one of New Haven’s architectural jewels: the platinum-LEED-certified Kroon Hall, the new home of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Afterward, Chris Pyke, vice president for research at USGBC, was upbeat. “I think both parties learned a lot,” he reported. “What we came away with is that there’s not a big difference of opinion—that buildings should have a role in human well-being for example, in disclosure of components of building materials.”

He added that some of EHHI’s concerns—like those regarding the quality of drinking water—are government functions. “In the U.S. we have the Safe Drinking Water Act, which we rely on to determine that drinking water is safe,” Pyke says. “The issue is the adequacy of public regulation.” He said any member of USGBC is invited to make suggestions for improvement, and urged EHHI to join the 16,000 other member organizations in order to participate in debate and bring their concerns to a wider audience.

Dr. Carrie Redlich is head of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, and one of the EHHI members who attended the meeting. Afterward, she said there were no breakthroughs. “I get the sense they have their own agenda,” Redlich says of the USGBC attendees. “I think they were more interested in trying to convince us.” But she says the connection between green buildings and poor health is real. “We see patients who go out of their way to make their house green, and the greener it is, the more likely we are to see them [in the hospital],” Redlich says.