Is Leed ‘bogus’?

Orlando Crowcroft asks if famous architect Frank Gehry is right to turn his ire on Leed rankings.
Is Leed ‘bogus’?
By Orlando Crowcroft
Sat 12 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

Frank Gehry is not the first person to criticise the Leed ranking system, and he is unlikely to be the last.

But the Pritzker prize-winning architect's comments have caused quite a stir on the internet, with some leaping to the defense of the 81-year-old, who has penned designs for some of the world's most famous and recognisable buildings. However, plenty more are criticising him for undermining the grand mission of green design at a crucial time.

Both views, of course, rely on a misunderstanding of what Gehry said, a state of affairs not unusual in online debates. Yes, he did say that a lot of Leed rankings "are given for bogus stuff" and he did sarcastically dismiss the idea of designing a LEED-rated building - but, ask yourself, did he come out against sustainable design in the same way that all those wackos dismiss global warming? Of course not.

This was clarified later in an interview with Business Week which, naturally, got far less attention than his initial comments in Chicago. Gehry told the magazine that what he objected to was the "fetishization" of green design, and the fact that very little of what gets done serves any purpose other than to create a good vibe for publicity hungry companies.

Gehry is arguably right on both accounts. It has been well publicised that Leed affords credit to buildings for dubious environmental ‘initiatives' such as bicycle racks, and Leed rankings often allow developers to get bigger and bolder projects passed by planning councils.

Architecture critic Frank Bernstein, writing in defense of Gehry this month, cited Las Vegas City Center casino as one such example. The 18-million ft2 complex - which includes 5,000 hotel rooms, casinos, restaurants and retail outlets - achieved a Leed gold rating. "Is City Center a net gain to the environment?" Bernstein asked. "No, it represents a huge net loss to the environment. And yet Leed gave it the cover of sustainability."

This cover, Bernstein argues, is preventing a debate about the real environmental costs of buildings in the modern age. This debate should focus on whether buildings like City Center should have been built at all, not how many solar panels or bike racks it uses. Leed cannot stop wasteful projects from being built, nor does it attempt to.

It also remains true that for all the talk about saving the world, sustainability sells, and canny developers know how much a Leed rating is worth to the new generation of conscientious property investors. You cannot blame the skeptics out there for thinking public relations departments and the bottom line are the real winners when a Leed project is rolled out.

But what is crucial here is the recognition that green design, and its recent boom, is still young, and green ranking systems are not perfect. At this early stage green washing and off-the-peg ways to boost Leed ratings are inevitable, but as those who buy properties - as well as the governments that approve developments - learn more, these immediate and sometimes bogus benefits will fade.

You only have to look as far as Abu Dhabi for evidence of this. The emirate's Estidama guidelines go far further than Leed ever has, and a few bike racks and token PV solar panels are unlikely to wash with the Urban Planning Council (UPC). Meanwhile, projects such as the King Abdullah Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah show that Saudi Arabia too is raising the bar of sustainability in the region.

As for Gehry, far from criticising him for his challenges to Leed, the proponents of green design should be welcoming them. Constructive criticism from architects of his stature will only serve to hone the guidelines, and draw attention to their flaws. Blind acceptance, after all, has rarely been a positive way to move forward.

Orlando Crowcroft is the editor of Middle East Architect.

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