Is LEED really green?

Pub date July 5, 2011

The archangel of sustainable development has arrived, promising much needed city housing that will add to the “social fabric of the waterfront community” with its glamorous green rooftops and unheard-of bay views. This is going to be the greenest building of them all, or so we’ve been told, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

A condominium development 25-plus years in the making, 8 Washington would transform the site of the Golden Gateway Tennis and Swim Club near Pier 39. The developer plans to renovate the recreation center with a larger fitness facility, provide two new waterfront parks with public access, and supply 30,000 feet of ground-floor retail stores and restaurants beneath its 165 new luxury apartments.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The problem with this $345 million project is that it’s being touted, with its “green building” LEED certification, as the most sustainable structure it can possibly be.

But there’s nothing sustainable about building high-end condos in San Francisco, a city with too many high-end condos and not enough affordable housing. And LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the most popular sustainable development certification system in the country, is a lie — at least as your friendly neighborhood building developer is marketing it.

LEED, the baby of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is a great marketing tool for developers in San Francisco, the city with the single most LEED certified buildings in the United States. San Francisco was just named the “greenest” city in North America at the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival, largely due to its extensive representation of green buildings — which normally means structures built with recycled materials, near a transportation hub, featuring some solar panels or other renewable energy sources.

“LEED is certainly a positive thing,” Planning Commission President Christina Olague told us. “There’s this whole push toward green sustainability.”

The project’s “platinum” LEED status is all a San Francisco developer could hope for to attract the green — and more important, the city’s approval.

“LEED certification is part and parcel to the vision for the project,” said PJ Johnston of PJ Johnston Communications, speaking for the developer. “The city, neighborhood, and waterfront deserve healthy, sustainable structures, living spaces, public spaces, and amenities. That’s exactly what 8 Washington will bring.”

LEED has become the final word in green building — if your building is LEED certified, you’re golden. But all this green they’ve been feeding us is really a misleading, incomplete rating system.

The first thing to consider is that sustainable development, even if it uses recycled materials and 10 percent sun-powered electricity, is still development. Any time a structure is torn down, “the energy and materials in that [original structure] are going to get sent to landfills somewhere. You gotta calculate all that,” said sustainable development activist Brad Paul, a former SF deputy mayor, who believes in considering the entire “life cycle of a building” in determining its sustainability.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency sometimes discounts essential considerations of sustainable building. When it sought a new SF office space in 2009, its intention was to find a home that was “a model of sustainable development,” the SF Biz Times reported. But its first choice was to build new development, at the site at 350 Bush Street — with its environmental costs of demolition, throwing out old materials, and starting from scratch.

Last month, the EPA decided to remain at 75-95 Hawthorne Street instead of moving to a new building, but not because it was the sustainable choice. No deal was reached for 350 Bush, and as Regional Public Affairs Officer Traci Madison said, “There was no other option to choose from.”

Although it’s a measure of a structure’s material sustainability, LEED does not consider a building’s life cycle, or even its use. Consider 8 Washington. The developer has boasted that it’s the most expensive housing project in San Francisco history, with a hefty price tag of $3 million to $10 million per apartment.

“Who can afford these luxury condos, and what do they use them for?” Paul asks. “These guys who work for hedge funds on Wall Street,” who use the condo as a second or third home and commute on their private jets to get there.

Johnston said 8 Washington will be marketed to a “mix of buyers, including young professionals, empty-nesters looking to move back to San Francisco, and families … The project has many two- and three-bedroom units, encouraging family living,” he said. But it’s unlikely that those who can afford a condo of this luxury will make it their only home.

“[Board President] David Chiu says he’s worried about SF becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley,” said Paul. “I’m more worried about this being a bedroom community for New York, Boston, L.A.”

Instead of providing the affordable housing that San Francisco so needs, projects like 8 Washington attract the wealthy, who aren’t using public transportation. Instead, Paul said, they burn tons of fossil fuels using their new condos as weekend getaways.



LEED certifies buildings as “sustainable developments” based on the following categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design and regional priority.

Earning points in each category brings a building closer to LEED certification, which requires at least 40 points. Above “silver” and “gold” status, a “platinum” LEED certification requires 80 points. But how builders get the points is what matters. For example, a developer might skimp on the insulation to install extra solar panels and get more points for a less efficient building.

Does LEED consider a building’s actual use? “The short answer is no,” said Jennifer Easton, a communications associate at the USGBC who added, “We want [LEED] to be used by every type of project.” But despite its billing, LEED tells an incomplete story.

“It’s just green drapery,” said SF attorney Sue Hestor, a slow growth advocate. “They’ve really had a PR machine. They keep touting all this greenness.”

LEED certification has value, Paul said, but it doesn’t turn multimillion dollar condos green. “There is absolutely no need for high-end luxury housing in the city right now,” he said.

Building luxury condos in place of affordable housing encourages the “Manhattanization” phenomenon, attracting wealthy out-of-towners to expend fuel on their private jets to get to their new crash pads.

“They aren’t gonna be living there all year,” Olague said of residents of luxury housing. “We hear a lot of, ‘We need more housing.’ If you keep building housing for the top 2 percent, how does it lessen the demand on your average workforce?”

But not everyone sees luxury condo-building as counterproductive. “Building that project actually allows for more affordable housing,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR (San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association). “It’ll provide housing for some people, and that can only be helpful to the housing market. If you don’t build new condos, then people just compete for the crumbs, and that means people who are rich push the rest of us out.”

In other words, if you give the rich housing, then they won’t take over your flat in the Mission — if they ever really wanted it in the first place. “I don’t think we can impose some kind of hipster elitism that they’re not our kind of people so they’re not allowed in,” Metcalf said of the wealthy out-of-towners.

LEED agrees. “We don’t want [LEED] to be for one specific group of people,” Easton said. “We have LEED-certified homeless shelters, but having a LEED certified luxury condo building is an advantage. We can’t control if someone is flying across the country in a jumbo jet every day — but we can control their energy efficiency in a building.”



For the typical working class San Franciscan, living modestly is a must and public transportation is essential. So there’s an inherent environmental advantage to attracting residents who don’t rely on polluting planes and cars.

“There’s a definite need for workforce housing, middle class housing in San Francisco,” Paul says. “I guarantee you none of those people get there by private jet. The less income people have, the more likely they’re going to be to use public transit.”

But 8 Washington and luxury developments like it don’t foster public transit. The more wealthy people who move in, the more low-income residents get displaced — to the East Bay or other areas with more affordable housing. It’s another strike against sustainability when these workers opt to drive back into the city for work instead paying for BART, says Paul, particularly when they drive older, less-efficient cars.

“LEED was a way to spell an environmentally friendly product, but you have to figure in the extra driving,” said Paul.

But 8 Washington gets LEED points for building on a site close to public transit in an attempt to discourage individual car pollution. But will wealthy condo owner actually take the infrequent F-line with all the tourists instead of parking their $150,000 car in the underground parking garage right below their feet?

“When you’re talking about sustainable practices and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and how it relates to land use planning, it makes you wonder if that’s supposed to [solely] relate to housing people near transit corridors,” said Olague. “It seems to me you have to look at equity.”

The garage at 8 Washington, to be built below sea level under the condos, will house 415-plus parking spaces. The developer says that 250 of the spaces will be offered as public parking for the busy Ferry Building down the street, but the 165 additional spaces guarantee one parking space for each residential unit.

“Given the larger size of the residential units and the fact that the majority of the units are two to three bedrooms, we believe that one parking space per dwelling is appropriate,” said Johnston. Appropriate, maybe, but not environmentally friendly.



Wealthy people and affordable housing aside, LEED doesn’t actually measure the energy used in a building, says New York City-based architectural associate Henry Gifford. He filed a $100 million class action lawsuit against LEED last October for gaining a monopoly on the sustainable development market by making false claims about buildings’ energy savings.

“They say that the building is required to be energy efficient. But the building doesn’t have to be energy efficient — it just has to earn points, to promise it’s going to be energy efficient,” Gifford said.

It’s up to the developer what computer software is used to predict a building’s energy efficiency, and Gifford says that computer diagrams can easily be manipulated and do not consider inconsistent factors, like weather.

“California is the promise land,” said Gifford. “All you’re required to do is provide a promise. The sad thing is that it removes all the integrity from the process — it encourages lying.”

Furthermore, once the building is built and has achieved LEED certification, the building’s actual energy use in its life cycle isn’t considered. The only way you can truly know if a building is energy efficient is by looking at the utility bills, says Gifford. But once it’s LEED-certified, who cares?

There is a voluntary program called Building Performance Partnership (BPP) that tracks a building’s energy and water use over time. “The idea is we want LEED to be a system where it enacts change in the actual building,” said Easton. But the problem is the building has already gained LEED certification before the first utility bill is even mailed.

“We publish baseball scores. With everything in life, people get scored,” said Gifford, who operates with transparency in developing energy efficient buildings in New York, hosting open houses after buildings are built with printouts of their recent utility bill history.

LEED was never intended to have the final say on sustainable building, to be a seal of green approval, according to a New York Times op-ed by Alec Appelbaum last year (“Don’t LEED us astray,” 5/19/10). “Rather it was to be a set of guidelines for architects, engineers, and others who want to make buildings less wasteful. However, developers quickly realized that its ratings — certified, silver, gold, or platinum — were great marketing tools, allowing them to charge a premium on rents.”

Therein lies the issue. Yes, 8 Washington will “allow for more ‘eyes on the street’ at all hours of the day” and provide two or three-bedroom units for families who can afford them, as it promises. But a sustainable structure is far different than the promise of a sustainable life cycle of a building. And a promise is just that. *

UPDATE: Jennifer Easton at LEED wrote to inform us that, although the 8 Washington website clearly states that the project will include LEED certified buidlings, “We would like to clarify that 8 Washington is not a LEED-certified project, nor a LEED-registered project.”



July 7: Community Vision for San Francisco’s Northeast Waterfront

July 14: City demographics and sustainability; the need for low-income housing; presentation of “jet fuel burn rate” argument.

July 21: 8 Washington’s EIR approval hearing

All hearings to be held at 12 p.m. in the Commission Chambers, Room 400, City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place.



Let’s assume that just five of the 165 condo buyers at 8 Washington (3 percent) are Wall Street hedge fund traders or venture capitalists using them as second or third homes. Let’s also assume they’ll use them 1.5 times a month and commute to SF aboard their business jet, a reasonable assumption for Wall Street execs making tens of millions in salary and bonuses. Why would they fly by private jet rather than take Southwest or Amtrak? Because they can. This must be factored into any environmental analysis of a project that explicitly markets to this demographic and include the following:

Mid to large size business jets used to fly cross country (Hawker 800XP, Gulfstream G2/ G3, Bombardier Global Express) on average burn 400 gallons of jet fuel/hour, take 6 hours to fly New York to SFO and 5 hours for return trip. Therefore, a single round trip burns:

11 hours X 400 gallons per hour = 4,400 gallons of jet fuel per trip. A typical family car uses 1,200 gallons of gas per year, so one flight from NYC to 8 Washington equals almost four years of driving a family car.

1.5 trips/mo. = 6,600 gallons X 12 months = 79,200 gallons of jet fuel/year or the equivalent of driving a family car for 66 YEARS each month.

Using our example of five residents, the numbers over one year and 20 years are:

5 X 79,200 gallons/per year = 396,000 GALLONS OF JET FUEL A YEAR or equal to driving a family car 330 years, A THIRD OF A MILLENNIUM, each year.

396,000 gal. X 20 yrs. = 7,920,000 gallons of jet fuel, equivalent of driving family car 6,600 years, OVER 6 MILLENNIUM, in 20 years.

Given this reality, the 8 Washington environmental impact report must analyze such questions as:

How many solar panels are needed compensate for burning 396,000 gallons of jet fuel/year? How many low flow toilets would make up for burning 396,000 gallons of jet fuel/year? Etc.