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Tesco Goes LEED, But Is LEED Sustainable?

Tesco’s Fresh & Easy has always worked to present a “sustainable” face as it has introduced itself to Americans.

It started out by building what it claims to be America’s largest rooftop solar installation and made a fetish of putting pictures of polar bears in every store — although we questioned the science behind that here.

Now Fresh & Easy has received a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) for a store in Cathedral City.

This was considered such an important matter than no less a figure than Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, came over from the United Kingdom to receive the award and we understand Tesco is working with the USGBC to develop a model that will make it easier for retailers to get LEED certification. As it stands now, application must be done on a store-by-store basis; this new initiative, called the Volume Certification Program, would allow chain retailers to get a “model store” approved and rated and thus avoid the expensive and time-consuming store-by-store approval process.

Of course, there is increasingly a question about whether the whole LEED certification process does anything useful at all. We’ve written a great deal on sustainability and LEED is gospel there, but a recent article written by Mireya Navarro for The New York Times raised many questions. The article was titled, Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label:

The Federal Building in downtown Youngstown, Ohio, features an extensive use of natural light to illuminate offices and a white roof to reflect heat.

It has LEED certification, the country’s most recognized seal of approval for green buildings.

But the building is hardly a model of energy efficiency. According to an environmental assessment last year, it did not score high enough to qualify for the Energy Star label granted by the Environmental Protection Agency, which ranks buildings after looking at a year’s worth of utility bills.

The building’s cooling system, a major gas guzzler, was one culprit. Another was its design: to get its LEED label, it racked up points for things like native landscaping rather than structural energy-saving features, according to a study by the General Services Administration, which owns the building.

Builders covet LEED certification — it stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — as a way to gain tax credits, attract tenants, charge premium rents and project an image of environmental responsibility. But the gap between design and construction, which LEED certifies, and how some buildings actually perform led the program last week to announce that it would begin collecting information about energy use from all the buildings it certifies.

The problem seems to be two-fold:

First, as the article mentions LEED gives lots of points for things that don’t contribute to the actual building’s energy efficiency, and the effects of which are never measured. So, for example, one can gain points for putting showers in the building. Why? Because having shower facilities makes it more plausible for people to ride a bike to work. However, there is no follow-up and the LEED certification is not contingent upon anyone actually bicycling to work.

Second, many of these buildings get LEED certification based on efficiency standards at which manufacturers say the equipment can perform. But actual achievement of these efficiency levels requires optimum maintenance regimes, which many building owners or occupants don’t follow. Indeed, if you are trying to earn a LEED certification on an existing building, a big portion of that is making sure all systems are operating at their peak efficiency. So it is only logical that brand new buildings will slip if not properly maintained.

The New York Times article quotes a consultant with a quip:

“The plaque should be installed with removable screws,” said Henry Gifford, an energy consultant in New York City. “Once the plaque is glued on, there’s no incentive to do better.”

Mr. Gifford is actually pointing to a general problem — applicable in food safety, sustainability, traceability and other areas — with what are called “conformance systems.” These programs require a participant to do X to gets its certification; anything beyond that gets no extra credit.

Although this makes sense as a minimum standard, in most cases we are better off looking at “continuous improvement” models. In an area like energy efficiency for buildings, if we offer a LEED-like certification for buildings that every year would improve their performance by 5%, we could get much broader participation, and over the years we would have a much bigger impact than by setting a conformance standard that most can’t meet and that often isn’t maintained.

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