Harvard Group publishes flawed estimate of the environmental benefits of green buildings

Late last year a group from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health published a paper entitled, “Energy savings, emission reductions, and health co-benefits of the green building movement” in Nature’s Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.  In their paper MacNaughton, Cao, Buonocore, Cedeno-Laurent, Spengler, Bernstein, and Allen consider the cumulative energy savings of some 20,000 commercial buildings, world-wide, that have been certified under the U. S. Green Building Counci’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) since the program’s inception.  Their focus is to calculate environmental co-benefits associated with this (assumed) energy savings.  Unfortunately their entire thesis is predicated on assumptions that are not supported by facts.  Their paper, masquerading as a peer-reviewed journal article, is little more than a marketing brochure for the USGBC and is devoid of credibility.

MacNaughton et al. make the naive assumption that LEED-certified buildings demonstrate, year after year, the energy savings their design teams predicted during the certification process.  This was essentially the same assumption that underpinned the now-discredited Kats report from 2003.  Numerous studies have shown that buildings in general, and green buildings in particular, use significantly more energy than predicted by their design teams.  This so-called “building performance energy gap” is pervasive and well-documented.  The Harvard paper is entirely based on the results of the 2008 NBI study which has long been discredited.

Frankly these energy-performance assumptions are sophomoric.  The authors cite only three references to support their assumptions — all published a decade ago — and they misrepresent the results of one of these papers — I know, because I wrote it!  They apparently are unaware of upwards of 12 studies published in the last decade that look  at energy performance of LEED buildings.

The Harvard paper should have been rejected in the review process.  If I were at liberty to do so I would publish the reviews of my critique as they affirm essentially all the claims I have made.  One of the Harvard authors served on the Board of the USGBC which should have raised a red flag.  The paper was received by the Journal on October 12, 2017 and accepted for publication five days later.  This accelerated time frame raises questions about the substance of the peer-review process.  And finally, the authors make several factual claims about LEED buildings in their paper that are simply incorrect.

To their credit the editors of this Nature journal allowed me to submit and publish a critique of this Harvard paper.  My paper is entitled, “A critical look at ‘Energy savings, emissions reductions, and health co-benefits of the green building movement.'”  Interested readers should read my critique of the Harvard paper which contains numerous references and relevant facts.


3 thoughts on “Harvard Group publishes flawed estimate of the environmental benefits of green buildings

  1. Hi John,

    Nicely done! Clearly the “building performance energy gap” can only be closed by rigorous study of predicted (design) values pre-occupancy vs. validate values during occupancy. The gap is even wider when predicted values of heath and risk consequences are analyzed and compared to actual conditions. I am sending you a 30 year old paper in which I tried to address this issue. Even then (i.e., post-energy shortages but before USGBC) we were beginning to find that 20-30% of investigated building were problematic. It is curious that predicted vs actual data are so difficult to find in the literature after the “green” and “well” buildings became popularized. I now have two sets of data (from the before and after the start of the green movement) in which I hope to show the magnitude of the gap. I am hoping to acquire another set, since the “zero energy” efforts that will further exemplify this gap. With real measurement, we should be able to close this gap.


  2. Thanks, John.

    It would be interesting to see the data for tropical climate buildings, since they are usually all-electric, so not affected by the fuel-switching problem.

    Keep up the great work!


    Robert C Allender Managing Director



    Energy-use Strategy Advisors

    2/F, 19 Hennessy Road, Hong Kong

    http://www.EnergyuseStrategyAdvisors.com tel +852 2834 4701 mob +852 6479 0677

    Energy-use strategy formulation

    Energy-use strategy assessment

    Energy-use strategy improvement

    The consequences of an inadequate energy-use strategy

    are not trivial. ESA has the tools to get that fixed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s