Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Will Congress Ban LEED Gold and Platinum Certification for the Department of Defense?

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, otherwise known as House Bill 1540, is a thousand page window into the manner in which military activities, personnel, construction, and operations will be funded in 2012.  And buried deep within that mess, on page 788, is Section 2831: “Report on Energy-Efficiency Standards and Prohibition on Use of Funds for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold or Platinum Certification.” 

Section 2831 is a proverbial double-edged sword.  On the one hand, if included in the final Department of Defense appropriations bill, the DOD would be required to analyze and report on the costs and benefits of adopting ASHRAE Standard 189.1: Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings versus adopting ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings for the sustainable design, development, construction, and renovation of DOD buildings and structures.  The report must include details of the energy-efficiency improvements achieved and long term payback (whatever that means) resulting from the adoption of ASHRAE Standard 189.1, and a cost benefit-analysis and return on investment for energy-efficiency attributes and sustainable design achieved through LEED gold or platinum certification.

On the other hand, Section 2831 clearly and unequivocally prohibits the use of DOD funds “for achieving any LEED gold or platinum certification.”  This does not mean that DOD buildings cannot be certified LEED gold or platinum certification, but it does mean the cost of obtaining gold or platinum certification cannot exceed the cost of obtaining LEED Silver or Certified certification.

From an empirical viewpoint, this is a sound framework for evaluating the expenditures associated with LEED-certification: audit existing certified buildings and identify any causal connections between certification and energy efficiency before devoting further funding to certification.

There is also a paucity of independent study in the actual effects and benefits of LEED certification.  As the now infamous Gifford v. USGBC lawsuit illustrates, there is a genuine debate as to whether LEED-certification results in buildings that are more energy efficient.  The DOD has a decent stock of certified buildings.  An empirical study of these buildings will help to bridge this information gap.

But the funding ban also appears somewhat arbitrary.  True, there is undoubtedly some additional cost associated with Gold or Platinum LEED certification over and above Silver or Certified certification, but, in the bigger picture, does this incremental savings really justify an outright ban?  And, at the risk of engaging in some proverbial nose-cutting for the sake of face spiting, what is the basis for drawing the line at Silver and Certified certification?  After, all, if the funding decision turns on whether LEED certification results in more energy efficient buildings, why study buildings at all levels of certification?

The ban also ignores that LEED certification serves purposes beyond achieving energy efficiency.  Per the USGBC, the LEED certification program is intended to provide a benchmark for evaluating whole buildings and to be a "definitive standard for what constitutes a green building in design, construction, and operation."  In the bigger picture, this implicates the triple bottom line of social, economic, and environmental responsibility, and that means far more than just energy efficiency.  The certification process also means that the government gets third-party confirmation that the "green" building it ordered is the "green" building that was delivered.
The effect of this ban on Arkansas remains to be seen.  There are DOD projects and properties in Arkansas, and some are well known for sustainable initiative (the Air Force Base in Jacksonville, Arkansas, comes to mind).  There is always the possibility that local municipalities will follow the federal example, and that would have widespread effects in cities like Little Rock, where all new municipal buildings must be LEED certified.

In the end, the folks at ASHRE report that the Senate is in the process of drafting its own funding bill.  This bill will undoubtedly be different from the House bill.  Whether there is agreement on the DOD LEED funding ban (or anything else, for that matter), remains to be seen. 

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