LEED and the Tyranny of Statistics

Since I started this blog, not too long ago, I've been a rather compulsive checker of my page views, referring links, and other relevant numbers neatly displayed under the "stats" toolbar.  Blogger, as an interface, integrates the stats rather well, although this is a recent phenomenon.  Before the advent of Google Analytics, and, to some extent, Facebook, you would just put up a webpage and sail blindly across the seas of cyberspace without really knowing who was looking at your site unless someone actually reached out and emailed you.  Now, the internet is broken down, codifying exactly who is looking after you. 

I maintain a broad spectrum web presence:  I have an Etsy site, a Flickr page, a Facebook account, a personal website, an Instructables setup, a Ponoko storefront, an eBay account, and this very blog.  These are just my personal sites that are publicly consumable; this list doesn't take into account my private accounts at my bank, Amazon, iTunes, and so forth.  Every single one of these sites spits stats back at me in some form.  All of them track page views, as a basic metric of traffic.  Some, like Facebook and Etsy, track likes of some sort, where someone has to actively make a decision to publicly declare their affection for something.  Storefronts, like Etsy, eBay, and Ponoko, measure sales, which is a different, and perhaps weightier, form of like.  Google Analytics adds many other layers of information, like referring sites, country of origin, and time spent on the site.  Statistics like these extend far beyond the web.  Historically, people have always been keeping track of their money -- only now a statement arrives in the mail every month detailing the flow in and out, listing the purchases, and doing the math for you.  Phone bills, first landlines and now mobiles, tell you how much time you spent in conversation, which is inherently strange and immeasurable.  

The questions raised by this murky swamp of data are many, and hard to answer.  On some level, all of these accumulated likes and page views are a form of validation for ourselves, a way to reach out to the world and feel like someone is reaching back.  However, burying your head in this stream of numbers can distract you from real life, the analog things happening out in the world while you're obsessively checking page views.  The majority of the statistics don't say anything meaningful, and it gets difficult to sort out important trends from the things that merely occurred.  

A rather interesting clash of the statistic and the analog in the design world is the rapid and ridiculous rise of LEED, the green building standard rating system.  First published in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED attempts to codify sustainability by reducing it to a checklist of statistics.  While the USGBC is a non-profit, it is not a government agency and has no control over building codes or standards.  Many municipalities across the country have started to write LEED into their local codes to try and legislate green building in the absence of national leadership on the issue.  

However, despite the lofty goals, the problems with LEED are legion, and, the more they've expanded, the more they've become a parody of themselves.  

1.  They are non-profit, but, as such, are dependent on revenue streams such as certification and test fees.  All of these costs call into question the motives of the organization, as it starts to seem a lot like naked profit-grabbing.  If a LEED-type standard was merely instituted as part of the building code, as it is in Europe, there would be no profit motive and the costs would drop dramatically.  Also, in Europe, certification is dependent on energy use over several years, which discourages a checklist mentality.  

2.  LEED has become a greenwashing marketing tool, allowing developers and real estate agents to trumpet "sustainable" features without fundamentally addressing issues inherent to building in America, like the size of buildings, zoning issues, and energy sources.

3.  LEED certified buildings perform only marginally better than conventional buildings because many of the points on the checklist don't impact energy performance.  The USGBC was also called out for manipulating a study on the energy performance of their buildings in an attempt to make them sound better than they really are.  

4.  The sustainable materials points are also fundamentally flawed: when I worked making cabinets in Baltimore, our most popular cabinets were made from bamboo plywood, imported from China.  They were good for a LEED point because they were a "rapidly renewable resource", forgetting for a minute that they were transported thousands of miles with oil-powered machines.

5.  Since architecture licenses are hard to obtain, the LEED AP designation has become a steppingstone credential for emerging professionals.  However, again, this teaches young folks to be checklist monkeys instead of engaging in deep, systems thinking that can truly attack sustainability issues.  This mentality is influencing a whole generation of architects, chasing one certification after another instead of having the time and energy to focus on their craft.

All of this nonsense is predicated on statistics:  if a building can be reduced to x, y, and z numbers, it must be successful, right?  If we kill x number of insurgents per month, we must be winning the war, right?  If Tom Brady throws y number of touchdowns per game, the Patriots must be the best football team, right?  If ten thousand people read my blog every day, I must be a wise man, right?

People have been building sustainably for thousands of years.  How devolved have we become, as a culture, that we need a checklist to make our buildings respond to the environment?  I understand the instinct behind LEED -- that, in this information age of ours, we ought to be able to analyze and objectively measure performance standards to create a better class of building.  However, again and again, our headlong pursuit of statistics has resulted in a complete evacuation of common sense.  

That said, I think LEED could be fixed by being absorbed into the building code, which, for all its flaws, is a well-established, impartial arm of the government that has done a pretty good job of keeping our buildings safe over the years.  Instead of competing for a what amounts to a marketing stamp of approval, green strategies should simply be required.  No developer trumpets the fact that his building won't fall down, or that it has electrical outlets in every room.  These things are just assumed to be incorporated into every structure.

I keep it simple: cheap, light, and recycled.  Write it down, take it home, and check it off.  


  1. It's easy to critique- but until the policy makers demand the efficiency and "sustainability" ...the market has to demand it. LEED has simply changed the marketplace.

    Also, "cheap" is not necessarily a good descriptive word for architecture- maybe for your products, when you are talking about price- but certainly not a good word to describe quality in the built environment.

    Just prodding you a bit- like first year studio.

  2. I'm not sure I agree with you Shannon that LEED truly has changed the demand of the market. I would like to hope the market would ask for better, more affordable and overall sustainable buildings and urban environments, but when the "free market" is governed by resale value, maximum rent revenue for minimum material/construction cost etc, little consideration is usually going into the issues behind the eco-bling of green building certification.

    LEED has proven to be a fairly good marketing tool for developers (and architects for that matter), I'll give it that, but I tend to question the true impact on sustainable building.

    It all comes back to the old (but oh so current) question of weak vs strong sustainability. Is this not just shifting focus from the "real" systematic issues such as the ones Will mention, to a false sense of sustainable solutions, putting a green band-aid on symptoms rather than working with the roots of the problems and challenges facing the built environment. Do we fiddle with system parameters or attempt a paradigm change? I'd like to say we need both, in parallel, just as long as the first doesn't overshadow the second and god forbid we end up with a self-congratulatory industry, slapping each others backs for a greenwashing well done.

  3. Thanks for the comments, folks.

    Shannon, I should clarify -- you're right in that cheap isn't the best word. I should have said inexpensive. Cheap has negative connotations.

    That said, an oft-overlooked component of sustainability is cost. People tend to look at LEED and other "green" solutions through the metric of cost, when, in fact, many sustainable solutions don't affect cost at all -- siting, building small, and simple passive features, things LEED generally fails to reward.

    I also disagree that the marketplace needs to force the change. If businesses regulated themselves and the "market" led change, we'd all still be driving in cars with no seat belts and using lead paint. Government needs to do something -- we're getting our ass whupped by Europe, with China coming up behind with cheap solar cells and fast rail (despite a host of other environmental problems . . . ). They're positioning themselves for a future that we have failed to anticipate.

  4. wholman, I need to thank you. I'm itching at this moment to go run some errands while the sun is shining - delivering left-over Halloween candy to a charity ... but I was obsessing over my blog stats, and I saw that for the second day in a row, someone visited my site from yours. I began hunting and pecking on your text to check the links to see if or how you had linked to my blog..... and I found it:

    "On some level, all of these accumulated likes and page views are a form of validation for ourselves, a way to reach out to the world and feel like someone is reaching back. However, burying your head in this stream of numbers can distract you from real life, the analog things happening out in the world while you're obsessively checking page views."

    (Throat clearing) .... On that note, I'm going to go live in the world. Thanks for the link AND the reminder to go be human.