LEED Certified Construction Management: Worth the Price?

Despite a flagging construction market, opportunities in green building have expanded rapidly, with many attributing the expansion to the U.S. Green Building Council’s successful Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program. Legislators have been quick to adopt LEED standards for building projects. In Washington DC, for instance, all new public buildings are required by law to meet LEED certification requirements. Yet, while the LEED program has been influential in popularizing sustainable building and retrofitting, many critics still argue that the alleged environmental and economic benefits still don’t justify the costs.

The stated goal of LEED is to provide building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design standards, construction operations and maintenance solutions. In recent years, the economic effect of energy inefficiency has received a great deal of attention. A report on energy efficiency from the consulting firm McKinsey found that the U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020 by investing $520 billion in energy efficiency improvements. Yet, while LEED has quickly become a leader energy efficient building, many have asserted that LEED methods only make surface modifications without truly affecting energy usage.

New York apartment building owner and energy efficiency expert Henry Gifford argues that the program is one of LEED’s most vocal critics. Gifford has gained notoriety after challenging a study funded by the USGBC concluding that LEED buildings save energy. He believes the methodology used in the study produced inaccurate results and that the numbers really show that many LEED buildings actually use more energy than those without the certification. “It’s impossible to go out and buy a building with a guarantee for how much energy it won’t use,” says Gifford. “And the LEED system, by basing everything on energy predictions, continues that. This is one of the reasons why it’s so popular – because it’s painless,” says Gifford.

Further criticism has been spurred by a lawsuit in New York City in 2011, which charged the USGBC with false advertising, claiming LEED offers no meaningful, verifiable criteria for energy efficiency, among other claims. Jennifer Kaplan of Ecoprenuerist asserts that under LEED, developers and building owners can pick and choose from a list of efficiency strategies to reach a green building design in order to reach minimum standards for certification. In this way, LEED certification can actually be achieved without making significant strides toward efficiency.

To its credit, the USGBC has attempted to satisfy its critics by recently debuting revised LEED standards for “existing buildings,” requiring all new LEED buildings to update USGBC on their building’s energy efficiency levels for at least five years. The suit against USGBC was also dismissed, as it was determined LEED has been clear on all counts listed. Even Kaplan, a long-time skeptic of popular green building methods admits that despite some room for improvement, she believes that “LEED promotes sustainable building practices and is not about promoting exaggerated environmental achievements.”

“I think LEED has educated those of us in the design and construction industry, including owners, as to what sustainable design is really about,”reported Lisa Fay Matthiessen of cost-management firm Davis Langdon to Metropolis magazine, “(LEED’s value comes from) the fact that LEED tries to measure something that can be very difficult to measure: It breaks sustainable design down into discernible categories.” Whether or not the LEED system is fulfilling all of its goals and promises, the program’s influence has had a marked effect on the entire construction industry, with many builders using LEED specifications for reference even if they don’t intend to apply for certification.


Noelle Hirsch is a writer and researcher for ConstructionManagement.net. Feel free to check out more of her writing!


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