Green building can claim a number of successes, such as raising the general consciousness about building efficiency and use of healthy materials. There’s also a proliferation of standards intended to improve several facets of the built environment. With that acknowledgement, has green building genuinely made a difference?

BREEAM, LEED, Green Star, and others have brought attention to the necessity of creating more sustainable structures. The UK’s BREEAM standard counts more than 541,000 BREEAM-certified developments, and more than two million buildings registered for assessment. LEED standards have been applied to more than 83,000 registered and certified projects. Australia’s Green Star has now certified more than 1,000 projects.

On the other hand, LEED and Green Star are criticised for their “checklist” approach, which might reward a suburban building with six stars even though the only way to get there is by car. That’s a fair criticism. From the micro viewpoint, that building is green. From the macro viewpoint, not so much.

Nonetheless, green building certification has improved the building stock, and called attention to myriad elements of how structures affect people, how people get around, and energy use. According to Lloyd Alter, however, how our cities are planned and served by transportation is more important than green building, and “all the green building in the world isn't going to make that much difference” if we don’t make walkable and bikeable cities with efficient transit.

Not only am I suggesting that density doesn't matter, I am beginning to reach the conclusion that in the larger scheme of things, green building doesn't matter all that much,” Alter said.


Bicycle commuters in Copenhagen

This viewpoint is valid, as the macro approach can yield greater results even if it isn't 100 per cent efficient than a micro approach that achieves greater efficiency.

That notion could be reinforced by Jerry Yudelson, the “Godfather of Green,” who notes that only 0.05 per cent of commercial buildings in the US have been certified. That equates to five of every 10,000 structures. In addition, those are mostly the “easy” projects, the low-hanging fruit. In residential construction, it’s even fewer certifications. Plus, the growth has stagnated since 2011. And, we don’t know how the great majority of those certified buildings actually perform, as most are never commissioned.

Thus, it might seem clear that green building has had a minimal impact, and that, as Alter wrote, it doesn’t matter all that much. That view, however, ignores a couple crucial trends:

  • Green building certifications are materially influencing building codes. While green building standards can be seen to have a micro effect so far, their influence on building codes is macro, raising the bar for all projects.
  • Green building certifications have brought the concept of healthy buildings to the table. No requirements about green building are more important than their effects on human health. Global climate change is a huge issue, of course, but occupant health is equally important.

Green building will realise its most substantial impact when building codes require all buildings to be built to a high level green certification. When that happens, best practices for healthy buildings will become the code minimum, and a substantial number of structures will be tested to confirm that best practices are, in fact, effective.

  • Hi Steve. The statistic attributed to me should read that less than 0.7% of US commercial buildings (representing about 3.7% of total nonresidential building area) have been certified by any LEED system at any level as of the end of 2015. On an annual basis, LEED is now certifying about 0.01% of existing commercial buildings (500-600 out of 5.5 million). On the residential level, all certification programs to date have certified about 0.2% of total residential units (250,000 out of about 133 million). These numbers are way too small to make any substantial difference in reducing US carbon emisisons.

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