The LEED certification process for buildings has long held a solid reputation for energy efficiency performance, but news that more than 800 LEED-certified buildings in the United States are at serious flooding risk has raised doubts about the rating system’s climate credentials.
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has affixed its coveted point-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification to 830 new buildings in the past decade that have as much as a 50% chance of flooding every year, reports Politico, citing analysis by E&E News and New York-based non-profit First Street Foundation.
This revelation is bad news for climate resiliency in the U.S., where LEED certification is “a big deal,” subsidized or required by more than 350 local and state governments, plus the General Services Administration that manages the federal building stock, the news story states.
LEED-certified government buildings that have faced significant flood impacts include a library in Kentucky, the headquarters for Vermont’s Department of Public Safety, and the North Carolina History Center, which was inundated by Hurricane Florence’s 13.5-foot storm surge in 2017.
Laser-focused on setting a high bar for climate-friendly energy efficiency and water conservation, the LEED standard “largely overlooks the growing impacts of climate change, despite increasingly frequent and severe climate-related disasters as well as years of warnings from former Green Building Council officials,” writes Politico.
“Resilience hasn’t really been a significant part of the LEED program since its inception,” former USGBC board member Alex Wilson said. “I pushed the council pretty hard to much more actively address resilience,” and “I’ve been disappointed that that hasn’t happened yet.”
Politico explains the implications: analysis suggests tens of millions of tax dollars have been directed toward new projects that may need to be repeatedly repaired or even abandoned before the end of their expected life span, raising questions about whether some green buildings are truly sustainable.
The lost opportunity to use LEED to leverage climate resilience makes matters worse. “The LEED process and the tax breaks involved could be a crucial tool for preparing man-made structures for climate-related disasters—one that is being squandered today,” Politico writes. The certification process offers new building projects just four points out of a possible 110 for taking steps to protect projects from flooding. “And three of these are offered only as ‘pilot credits,’ meaning most LEED experts aren’t familiar with them.”
While the Joe Biden administration and the USGBC—together with the International Code Council—are working to integrate resilience into their rubrics and codes, the council says any changes to LEED “won’t happen until 2025 at the earliest.”
That means dozens or even hundreds more buildings could be LEED-certified despite being constructed or located in ways or places “that are destined to flood or burn,” said Alice Hill, former resilience policy chief at the White House’s National Security Council.
In Canada, a recent study projects Vancouver will be among the first cities to suffer serious inundation from sea level rise within the next 80 years, with several iconic buildings at risk. The list includes Canada Place, home to the LEED-platinum certified Vancouver Convention Centre. The Canada Green Building Council had not responded to a request for comment by the time this story went to virtual press.