The Environmental Impact of Green Buildings

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by: Joel Makower

There’s no question that green buildings represent one of the genuine success stories of green business. Thanks in large part to the LEED green building standard — which established a solid set of benchmarks for answering the question "How good is ‘good enough’?" with regard to the built environment — a vast constellation of architects, designers, developers, landlords, planners, product purveyors, and policy makers have, individually and collectively, created a vibrant market.

Today, LEED is a multi-billion-dollar annual business in the U.S. alone. New standards have been introduced for residential construction and for entire new developments, suggesting that green building is posed to continue its aggressive growth for some time to come.

But how is all this impacting the environment? Is LEED leading the construction industry toward a lower footprint in terms of buildings’ affect on air pollution, water consumption and pollution, materials use, land use, employee commuting, and the myriad of other things it was intended to improve? And what about buildings’ contribution to climate change? What, exactly, is LEED’s impact?

Simple, basic questions, heretofore unanswered. Until now. My colleague Rob Watson, has addressed them in a landmark report, released today: the Green Building Impact Report 2008.

Watson, frequently referred to as the "father of LEED," due to his work as LEED’s National Steering Committee chairman between 1994 and 2005, also serves as executive editor of, one of the websites run by my company, Greener World Media. focuses on the greening of commercial real estate, the same part of the green building market that has been covered by LEED for the past eight years.

The Green Building Impact Report looks at the impact of LEED in the U.S. Watson (along with green building expert Elizabeth Balkan, who assisted in the research and writing), found that:

  • Nearly 400 million vehicle miles traveled have been avoided by the occupants of LEED buildings, thanks to efficient locations and the myriad of alternative transportation options supported by LEED. This will grow to more than 4 billion vehicle miles by 2020.
  • Expected water savings from LEED commercial buildings will grow to more than 7% of all non-residential water use by 2020. The equivalent of 2008 LEED water savings would fill enough 32-ounce bottles to circle the Earth 300 times.
  • LEED buildings consume approximately 25% less energy on average than comparable commercial buildings. By 2020, these energy savings will amount to more than 1.3 million tons of coal equivalent each year, representing approximately 78 million tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions.
  • LEED has helped spur an entire industry in green building materials. Certified projects to date have specified a total of more than $10 billion of green materials, which could grow to a cumulative amount exceeding $100 billion by 2020.
  • Companies with employees working in LEED buildings realized annual productivity gains exceeding $170 million resulting from improved indoor environmental quality, a number that will grow to nearly $2 billion of annual productivity improvements by 2020.

The question, of course, is how to put this into context — whether, say, reducing energy by 25% is sufficient to address climate change. That’s where the good news is tempered. Green buildings represent only about 6% of new commercial construction — though, as Watson notes, "There has been an astronomical ramp-up in the past year of new project registrations, with new construction sector penetrations approaching a whopping 40%."

But even this is insufficient to meet the scientific consensus goal of reaching 80% greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2050. That will require all new buildings to achieve the LEED standards — a 100% market penetration. Says Watson:

Realistically, LEED cannot do it all by itself. LEED is a vital part of the market transformation process that combines market pull with regulatory push. LEED was designed to lead by improving the performance of the top 25% of buildings and by any measure it has succeeded. Indeed, LEED will need to increase its rate of improvement, but additional measures are needed to support these improvements, as well as support and accelerate the uptake of LEED-like measures in the mass market.

The new report’s aim was to ferret this information out — to put the growing cacophony of headlines and announcements into context. (This is also the goal of our annual State of Green Business report, which answers these questions for the larger green business arena.) It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of green building without fully understanding whether it’s actually effecting change.

That’s particularly true at this week’s Greenbuild conference in Boston, from where this is being written (and from where the Green Building Impact Report is being released, at a press conference hosted by Johnson Controls, one of the report’s sponsors). The 30,000 or so souls filling the cavernous exhibition space and adjoining meeting rooms are here to celebrate green building’s success. (Oh, yes, and to sell, sell, sell their wares.) And with the congregation of mega-companies exhibiting here — GE, United Technologies, Steelcase, Herman Miller, Dow, Dupont, Office Depot, Sherwin Williams, and on and on — there’s no question that green building has hit the big time. Even in a time of economic uncertainty and borderline calamity, people here seem to be optimistic.

And, as Rob Watson has shown, all this is having an environmental impact. But it’s small, relatively speaking. And that’s important to keep in mind. It’s always critical that we stop and celebrate our success, but also take stock. And then quickly get back to work, recognizing that, even on a good day, we’re merely scratching the surface.

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