Vivian Loftness University Professor Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Age: 56 Education: B.S. and M.Arch., Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Vivian Loftness University Professor Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Age: 56 Education: B.S. and M.Arch., Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We may look back at 2008 as the year when America finally woke up to the reality of energy. Gasoline prices topped $4 per gallon in many locales around the nation, and something fundamental seemed to change. Americans drove less per month starting in November 2007—resulting in the greatest drop in miles driven since the Federal Highway Administration started keeping records in 1942 and the highest volume of public transit use in 50 years (see this ARCHITECT article). Suddenly, energy conservation isn't just the rallying cry of nonprofit organizations or the subject of an indie film hit featuring a former vice president—it's part of everybody's changing daily habits.

Some architects have seen it coming for a decade or more. William McDonough cast himself as the profession's John the Baptist figure early in the 1990s. In 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) opened its doors as a small organization with significant input from architects. Now, it's not unusual for design firms to have more LEED-accredited professionals than licensed architects.

The profession's part of the problem is directly tied to a startling set of numbers reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It's typical to find those involved in the building industry repeating them as a mantra: Buildings consume 12 percent of our water, account for 40 percent of our total yearly energy usage, and produce 48 percent of our total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Announced two years ago, the Architecture 2030 Challenge is rapidly gaining acceptance by building professionals. It stipulates reducing new building and renovation's GHG-emitting energy consumption 50 percent by 2010 and achieving carbon-neutral new buildings by 2030. Is this laudable goal even remotely possible? Have the steps we've taken during the past decade and a half given us the start that's required?

Therein lies our own inconvenient truth. From a marketing and political perspective, the green movement has won major battles. But the time has come for the profession to deliver the goods, and the science of sustainable building is still in its infancy.

LEED'S First Report Card

Despite its growing ubiquity, the USGBC's LEED program still touches on only a small percentage of buildings in the United States. As of September 2008, there were 1,705 LEED certified buildings, with 13,741 registered in the LEED certification process. (USGBC estimates that LEED represents 5 percent to 6 percent of all new commercial construction.) In March 2008, the nine year-old labeling system got its first report card. Titled "Energy Performance of LEED for New Construction Buildings," the report was commissioned by the USGBC and conducted by the New Buildings Institute (NBI). Its results raise questions about the profession's awareness of the building science issues that will be central to solving our side of the global warming equation.

"The study started from a discussion about how we make the rating system better if we don't know what's wrong with it now," says the USGBC's vice president for technical development, Brendan Owens. Mark Frankel, the NBI's technical director and a co-author of the report, notes that one of the most shocking results was not the data itself, but the meager quantity available. The NBI asked the owners and operators of 552 LEED-certified buildings (as many as existed when the study began) to participate. About half—250—were willing, but only 121 of that group could supply the data necessary.

Since one common complaint of the LEED process is the onerous paperwork required to achieve certification, it seems odd that the owners and operators of these lauded buildings would balk at providing the uncomplicated data requested—i.e., recent energy bills.

Carnegie Mellon professor and architect Vivian Loftness, an expert on building performance, characterizes the report's conclusions as, "Predominantly, we're doing pretty well." On average, the 121 buildings in the survey are showing better energy performance than a model code baseline building. Of course, an average is just that. In fact, a number of buildings are performing much better, while a similar number are faring worse. This disconnect—between actual building performance and design-phase energy modeling—offers the most important and challenging lesson for the USGBC, architects, engineers, owners, and other building professionals.

Frankel explains that more than a third of the included buildings had achieved LEED M&V credits, which require a measurement and verification plan that extends at least one year into building occupancy. "I thought we'd get a lot of M&V reports," says Frankel. "We got four." Three of those four were from a single firm that has a reputation for good follow-up. The fourth was a real cause for concern: The NBI's analysts crunched the numbers and assigned it an approximate Energy Star score—which was shockingly low. Convinced that the data were incorrect , the NBI contacted the owners, who verified the numbers.