A few months ago I called attention the Washington Examiner article by Richard Pollock and Luke Rosiak. On first read it provided more evidence confirming a trend I have seen in several data sets — that LEED-certified buildings, on average, are not saving primary energy — in this particular case, as measured by ENERGY STAR scores.
But 24 hours later I pulled my original post. I am not convinced that this cursory study is sufficiently rigorous to stand up to scrutiny. There are two key reasons for my skepticism. The first is that over the last year I have leaned that the EPA’s ENERGY STAR building rating system is built on a “house of cards.” It may encourage building energy efficiency, but it is not founded on good science and there is little reason to believe that a higher ENERGY SCORE means a more energy efficient building.
The second reason is more complicated. Comparing the energy use of one group of buildings with another is actually difficult to do correctly. Several of my papers have concluded that other researchers have gotten it wrong in the past. It is certainly not an activity to be left to people who begin the study with a stake in the outcome — either those promoting LEED or those “dug in against it.” And, despite the publicity surrounding Thomas Frank’s study in USA Today, it is an activity best left to building professionals and researchers — not reporters.
In this particular case it appears to me that many of the buildings identified by Pollock and Rosiak as “LEED buildings” are not actually LEED-certified at all — they are mostly LEED registered projects. Anyone can “register” a LEED project — simply stating intentions and requiring a modest fee. But only minority of those projects that register actually see the process to completion and become LEED-certified. As critical as I have been of the USGBC’s past claims about energy savings — I cannot hold the USGBC responsible for energy consumption of buildings that have never completed LEED certification. Maybe the registered LEED buildings in this article will soon complete certification. If and when that occurs then we should look at their subsequent performance.
Washington DC has just released benchmarking data for all its large commercial buildings. One of my students is in the process of parsing this list to identify LEED and ENERGY STAR certified buildings. The goal will then be to compare the performance of LEED certified buildings with other buildings. Only then can we draw any conclusions.