• Building Energy Management
  • LEED
  • Federal Government
  • Sustainability

Efforts Needed beyond LEED Certification for Federal Sustainable Buildings

Apr 29, 2021

Office lights

The highly regarded National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently released a provocative report titled Does LEED Certification Save Energy? Evidence from Federal Buildings. The short answer is no. The longer answer from the report authors is that they “find no effect of LEED certification on average energy consumption” for federal buildings.

The authors compared energy usage before and after Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and found no significant difference in consumption among the 60 federal buildings they studied. “If energy efficiency is the primary policy goal, LEED certification may not be the most effective means to reach that goal,” the authors conclude. This finding is significant, as LEED certification from the US Green Buildings Council (USGBC) is one of the most recognized brands associated with sustainable buildings.

In May 2019, the USGBC published on its website an article titled "New GSA Report Finds LEED Matches Federal Goals." The General Services Administration (GSA) is the federal government’s largest civilian landlord, and it intones on its website that the “GSA uses the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system as a tool for evaluating and measuring achievements in sustainable design.”

Making Sustainability Measure Up

So what should taxpayers make of the GSA touting a certification that does not seem to affect energy consumption for the 8,600 federal buildings it manages? The answer is complicated. The GSA is simultaneously pursuing multiple initiatives that can be beneficial but in different ways. The GSA supports a smart buildings program, which uses technology to meet a range of goals such as energy conservation, efficient operations, and occupant well-being, along with initiatives such as the High-Performance Building Certification. In addition, multiple executive orders call for making all federal buildings zero net energy, aiming to turn them into highly energy efficient facilities that locally generate all energy needs from renewable sources.

Are LEED Metrics Important?

The charitable way to interpret the situation is to acknowledge what the GSA recognizes—that pursuing any individual sustainability certification at all buildings simultaneously is fiscally and operationally impractical. By supporting various options, the individual building managers can select one of the initiatives and pursue the most achievable certification.

In the case of the NBER report, the authors point out that although there was no statistical impact on energy among the 60 LEED Gold-certified buildings, there were positive improvements in other areas. The authors note in particular that many of the buildings achieved their Gold certification by improving water usage, often a forgotten aspect of operating an efficient building. The following chart shows the metrics that make up LEED certification.

Relative Importance of LEED Metrics

(Source: Guidehouse Insights, US Green Buildings Council, National Bureau of Economic Research)

Although energy performance is the largest category, progress in the other areas such as water usage and waste reduction is beneficial and should be commended. As these initiatives are largely aligned, the GSA should continue to work on its 8,600 buildings until they earn all the certifications. Although the NBER report makes an excellent point that the prestigious LEED Gold certification does not necessarily guarantee energy savings, all these initiatives support sustainability.