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.