Friday, August 29, 2008

New LEED rating system in the works

The world's leading certification system for sustainable architecture is set to undergo its most sweeping changes in 2009. The proposed revisions encourage designs that would reduce a building's impact on global climate change.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, commonly known as LEED, has become the standard for green building design since the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a nongovernmental organization, crafted the rating system eight years ago. Architecture that voluntarily improves energy efficiency, water conservation, and indoor air quality has surged in popularity in the past two years, especially in Europe and major U.S. cities.

According to USGBC's August statistics, more than 2,400 commercial and residential buildings worldwide are LEED certified, and nearly 14,000 are under way. The green building movement has the potential to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, about 40 percent of all energy is used to heat, light, and cool residential and commercial buildings, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration.

Minimum LEED certification, however, does not necessarily guarantee environmental improvements. Developers who purchase environmentally related products off a LEED-supplied checklist may produce a LEED-certified building, but the building's future impact on energy and resource use is unknown. The proposed revisions are the beginning of a transition toward buildings that earn their green marks based on performance rather than eco-marketing.

The current LEED system allocates a maximum of 69 points for various environmental quality improvements. A building that receives 26 points is certified, and more points are necessary to receive the higher rankings of silver, gold, and platinum. While costly improvements such as solar panels are likely to boost a building's rankings, all categories are given equal weight, making some improvements less effective than others.

"LEED has been frequently criticized for not having a solid rationale for allocating credits," said Jerry Yudelson, a Tucson-based architect who teaches LEED-certification workshops. "The classic example is you get one point for putting in bicycle lockers and showers and one point for saving 7 percent of energy. Are those equivalent benefits?"

The new model emphasizes designs that the USGBC considers most beneficial for today's global environment. Improvements that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and burn fewer fossil fuels account for 34 of the 100 points. While a building requires only 40 points to receive certification, factors including access to transportation and energy efficiency can no longer be avoided, said Scot Horst, chair of the LEED steering committee. "We are saying climate change is the most important thing, so we put the most points to credits that deal with climate change," said Horst, president of the architecture consultancy 7Group. "If you want to get certified, you have to focus on those areas."

The new criteria place greater focus on the environmental impact of a building's entire life cycle. Contributions to eutrophication - the creation of oxygen-free dead zones in polluted water bodies - and "ecotoxicity" are now emphasized. Eventually, the USGBC envisions a system that assesses lifecycle impacts by measuring a building's pollutants, rather than being based solely on the attributes of building materials.

The 2009 LEED standards also plan to include more mandatory designs - most notably water efficiency. Building requirements, however, are not the same in all climates, and the stricter rules may further complicate efforts to streamline the process. Green developers in arid regions, for instance, struggle to balance air ventilation with energy conservation: if more hot air enters a building, more air conditioning is demanded.

To compensate for regional differences, the proposed standards grant local chapters "bonus points" that can be allocated toward design issues that would aid certification in that area. "This is the best way possible to give responsibility to chapters - they're the ones who know the local issues - without jeopardizing the consistency of LEED overall," Horst said.

But several architects still consider the system lacking. "There is a tension between having a national system... and yet still allowing a lot of regional differences," said Yudelson, who chairs the USGBC's annual conference committee. "[A solution] is for LEED 2012... We're not ready to make that big of a leap."

Regardless of the policy changes, some critics say a system like LEED does not do enough to improve the world's environmental woes. Architect Jonathan Ochshorn, an associate professor at Cornell University, said LEED-certified buildings are anecdotal examples of improvements that ultimately serve a corporation's profit, not the environment. "LEED in general is a way for institutions and corporations to collect points from a public relations standpoint," Ochshorn said. "The world isn't getting any better because of LEED."

The number of green buildings constructed remains relatively small - about 2 percent, according to a 2006 Green Building SmartMarket Report - due to higher building costs and the often stressful complexity of the certification system. To simplify the process, independent certifiers [PDF] have been hired to handle the growing number of certification requests. The costs are also beginning to fall as energy prices climb and green designs become mainstream.

"The changes in LEED are definite improvements, I think everyone is behind them, but we also need to improve the system," Yudelson said. "We need results, not just a certification on a building."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute.

Organic food is no middle class fad

From the Guardian,

By Helen Browning

The end of that "middle class fad" – organic food – will be the cry from pundits feeding on reports of a decline in sales. But are the buyers of organic produce really that fickle? I think not.

Firstly, it's worth remembering that we have had other recessions in the century-long history of the organic movement. Yet over this time, and especially in the past 20 years, there has been consistent growth, as people have come to see the flaws in the structure and practices of the global food industry.

Yes, there has been the occasional plateau in growth. There have also been years of explosive expansion at other times, when BSE reared its head, for example, and as genetic engineering hits the headlines. These are times when society queries hard the "advantages" of cheap food, and the "advantages" of global agri-business strengthening its armlock over food supplies and producers.

Despite this track record, could this economic downturn really be the end of the road for organic? As incomes tighten for a period, do people really revise their values and prioritise a new iPod, a pair of shoes, a smart car, over feeding their families better food? Very unlikely.

Has the ethical consumer disappeared overnight – the same consumer that got so much media limelight just months ago? What nonsense. The ethical shopping market is now estimated at £5.4bn, with 80% of us active in it, compared to just 20% a few years ago.

Ethical shoppers are not just middle-class faddists. The assumptions that those on lower incomes just don't care about better food anymore, or the health of farm animals, or our environment, are hideously patronising.

Organic food is such an easy target at times like this. It is often more expensive, in terms of the pound in your purse, in the industrialised world. But it is not so in developing nations, where organic-based techniques of soil care, crop rotation and natural fertility-building are often the most effective, safe, productive and resilient ways of producing nutritious food for the local population.

Here, cheap oil and gas is the basis of the fertiliser and the big machinery agri-business relies on. That's the key reason conventional food seems so inexpensive (we spend, on average, only 10%-12% of our disposable income on food, the stuff of life!).

The real cost is borne by the animals in their confinement, the environment in its degradation, and the population generally as the efficacy of antibiotics, for example, is potentially reduced due to their overuse to keep stressed animals healthy. Pretty expensive cheap food, you might think. And food that, while plentiful enough to keep most of us alive longer, appears to carry various other costs to our own health, such as obesity, malnutrition and heart disease.

You must also ask what happens if fossil fuels continue on their apparently inexorable rising cost curve? Organic food will start to look like a cost-effective option – it already uses 26% less energy on average. Even now the price gap between organic and conventional food is narrowing. Organic may even become a necessity, never mind a luxury. And there are plenty of options open to the organic shopper on a budget: direct from producers, seasonally bought, or using farmers markets, organic products can be cheaper already than conventional stuff bought in the main retailers.

As a farmer myself, I am nervous about the confusions in the market place at the moment. A dismal summer, rising feed costs (for my pigs and dairy cows), endless promotions on retailers' shelves – it all means erratic sales. But our own experience is that people still want great quality and real provenance. I also believe that the day-to-day pleasures of eating wonderful food are even more enjoyable during more difficult economic times.

We may see, and are seeing, some flattening of organic sales in the short term, but if as farmers we strive to achieve the highest standards in husbandry and quality and honesty, I believe that society will continue to buy into the fruits of our labour. Our customers are not as daft as some would make out.

· Helen Browning is food and farming director at the Soil Association and an organic farmer in north Wiltshire.

Saturday, August 16, 2008



Many of you might know me through Planet Organic, as well as Riva's Eco Store in Calgary. I also operate a green consulting company called Earthshine. We are now creating our very own blog, so you can help keep you up on all matters of green and sustainable living. Keep us bookmarked at

Shayne Korithoski