A Week of Epiphanies: I Don't Mean to Diminish This But. . .

In continuing our week of epiphanies, here’s another one that struck us here at Green Building Law Update:  should governments consider getting out of the green building certification process? 

Yes, I realize this epiphany is out there and that practically every state has implemented some sort of green building regulation.  Over the past few months, we have profiled green building regulations in D.C., Virginia, Indiana and Maryland, to name a few.  But the more I think about these regulations, the more I become concerned that governments should not mandate certification, particularly of public projects.

Apparently, I am not the only one with these concerns.  For example, this article cites an Evanston, Illinois official that is concerned with certification cost:

At the meeting, Evanston residents spoke about the Green Building Ordinance, which was drafted by the Evanston Environment Board. . . .  Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) cited the need to look closer at the cost of the ordinance.

"It's difficult in this current economic climate for anyone to build," he said. "We need to look more into the cost, and have greater discussion at the committee level." 

And here is another example, this time a LaCrosse, Wisconsin official voicing concern over the costs for green building certification:

“When I think about all this discussion about certification and not certification, I think we’re going to do all this good stuff so let’s just declare it a green building and go home,” Supervisor John Medinger said during the Law Enforcement Center Construction Committee meeting this week. “We say it’s a green building. Who says it isn’t? I don’t mean to diminish this, but I’m trying to see what we’re going to get with this $161,000.”

With the state facing a $3 billion shortfall, Medinger said the county will take a hit and can’t afford to spend money that brings no return.

These officials represent a minority view that government’s should not mandate green building certification due to the associated costs.  But Mr. Medinger drives home the point:  what are governments getting out of certification? 

Green building certification is primarily a marketing tool used to sell a building.  Green building strategies can most definitely be incorporated without obtaining certification and the results can still be confirmed through commissioning.  What benefits are cities and states getting when their public buildings are deemed certified?

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Green Building Law Update - November 17, 2008 11:15 AM
As you may know, this week is the United States Green Building Council’s national event, GreenBuild, in Boston: USGBC's Greenbuild conference and expo is an unparalleled opportunity to connect with other green building peers, industry experts, an...
Comments (9) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Tom Kimmerer - October 29, 2008 10:04 AM

I agree, Chris. LEED certification is important when you need to impress someone - donors, investors. But now that green building standards are becoming the norm (albeit slowly), certification seems less important than actually doing the work.

At Berea College, a sustainability leader, 28 buildings have been renovated to green building standards, but only two are certified. The first, the Lincoln Building, was built in 1887 and renovated in 1998 to LEED Silver. As the first LEED building in the state, it was important to certify it. The Boone Tavern renovation will be certified because it will be the first green hotel in Kentucky. The other 26 renovations were done to the same standards but without the extra expense of certification. I think this was a smart thing to do.

I will have a picture gallery with comments on Berea's building renovations in about 2 weeks at http://www.sustainky.com.

StrongWall Group - October 29, 2008 11:27 AM

I think the only issue is LEED Certification and the associated costs - if certification is required by the municipality that is not good.

From an outsider view, LEED is a somewhat radical and arbitrary set of standards that has a different purpose than a building code. I think there can be green building standards in a code, just not LEED standards.

Chris Cheatham - October 30, 2008 9:11 AM


Thanks for the insight. My general point was that if a government is going to continue to own a building, why is certification necessary? This logic also seems to extend to other project owners that continue to own the project after construction is completed. Of course, the public relations component of getting certification is more important for non-governmental entities. We will explore this issue in more depth in a future issue.

I'm looking forward to pictures of your renovation project. Please keep us updated.


Chris Cheatham - October 30, 2008 9:14 AM

StrongWall Group,

You raise another very important issue: green building codes. To me, incorporation of the most important green building strategies into municipal and state building codes seems to make a lot of sense. We will definitely be writing about this very soon.

Thanks for your continued great comments!


Jason Kasparek - October 30, 2008 10:17 AM

I also have concerns about government mandates of certification, particularly when it comes to mandates for the private sector, but I will try and throw out some answers about what the taxpayer recieves from tax dollar's spent on certification of public projects:

One: Third-party verification that green building practices were followed and achieved. I barely trust the government to process my parking tickets correctly, let alone trust that they've built a building to green standards because they say so. The third party certification process is a critical aspect of government transparency in facility design. The taxpayer recieves as a benefit complete verification from a non-government source that a building was built to environmental standards and is not simply being passed off on them as such.

Two: since all of the initial documentation as well as the future performance of public buildings are all part of the public record, these buildings provide terrific data samples for tracking performance and design. This data must be tracked and analyzed for us to continue to improve buildings, and we must have valid control subjects (i.e. certified buildings) in order to do this correctly.

So, citizen's tax dollars spent on certification ensure public buildings are transparently built to accepted environmental standards and contribute to providing quality, non-proprietary performance data that are vital parts of the research, analayis, and innovation that can continue to improve environmental performance of buildings, both public and private alike. Considering I've seen single change orders larger than the entire cost of LEED documentation and certification, I'd say that's a pretty good return on investment.

Rich Cartlidge - November 8, 2008 12:20 AM

I spent some time thinking about this today. While I tend to agree that states requiring certification is not the proper way to go, and could raise some interesting challenges from a constitutional standpoint I also do not have much faith that building codes would be the best method either. I question the appropriateness of building codes due to the problems that would arise from an enforcement standpoint. It seems that building inspectors often are unable to understand all the intricacies of new technologies, not that they don't do their best with the limited resources they have. It seems that requiring building inspectors to be the parties responsible for making sure that buildings are complying with "green codes" would lead to endless delays as contractors and accredited professionals are forced to intervene and explain the technology or its proper installation to inspectors that are used to more traditional building strategies.

Chris Cheatham - November 8, 2008 9:22 AM


Thanks for the great points. Requiring certification through a third party does in fact create transparency. I will have to think about your ideas some more. Thanks for contributing and providing the other side of the argument.


Chris Cheatham - November 8, 2008 9:29 AM


Thanks for checking out my blog. You raise a great point: green building codes will create enforcement problems. For example, I have heard about a city official that stopped signing off on certificates of occupancy if the building included a water free urinal. Governments are going to have to train their officials in green building strategies.

Thanks for the comment!


Jeffrey Howell - November 11, 2008 1:32 AM

Although I would like to trust that government could implement green design strategies without third party intervention, I also believe that transparency is needed. However, I am conscious that LEED certification does not come without its own problems.

I also see the public relations benefit to governments intending to create an atmosphere of change towards sustainable building in general; where government is taking a leadership role. However, I agree that certification may not make sense in all situations as noted in the Berea College example.

I believe that the key here is creating value from LEED certification. If technologies are successfully integrated and maintenance and operation techniques are properly employed and documented, then the energy and environmental cost savings should justify the cost of certification. This should be the goal at least.

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