Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NESEA versus USGBC - Round ?

There has been a fair amount of Twittering the past few days about the seemingly somewhat heated forum exchange between NESEA and USGBC at last week’s NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Design Association) conference in Boston. A fellow Twitter, Stephen Del Percio wrote a thoughtful blog post about the exchange. The post also links to an additional blog post, and a very insightful and somewhat scathing paper titled “Lies. Damn Lies.” by Henry Gifford, a well-respected NESEA member. I also had the opportunity by chance to speak to someone yesterday who was at the forum. He is a long-time member of NESEA as well, and his added insight was very interesting.

I was very glad to hear and read about this forum and exchange taking place. It’s needed, especially as LEED becomes even more mainstream than ever before. NESEA too, in my opinion, is ahead of USGBC’s efforts with respect to building solid, durable, energy-efficient buildings; NESEA focuses on hard building science and they’ve been at it for over 30 years. LEED is younger and still finding its footing in some respects, and there is little focus on how buildings actually work and perform. Certification after all, is given almost entirely on anticipated performance –per a model, versus actual.

Unfortunately, however, I don’t know that NESEA has done a good enough job at getting the word out about themselves as a whole, i.e.: the organization/members/research/energy-efficient building etc., whereas USGBC has. Honestly, you don’t hear much about NESEA day-to-day, whereas you sure hear a lot about USGBC and LEED. Why is this?

USGBC has done an amazing job at marketing, embracing and educating about green design -even if admittedly, it’s not perfect. But they have taken a crack at it at a much bigger level then NESEA has and are indeed, working towards changing the market place. Perhaps NESEA hasn’t been as dominant with marketing because the organization is more regional, being that it is the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association? I don’t know for sure, but I also don’t think that’s entirely the issue.

One point of contention at the forum exchange was Gifford’s paper. I read it when it first came out and was happy to see him take USGBC to task on its findings, those being that LEED buildings are 25-30 percent more efficient than the average. These findings were presented in 2007. It turns out however, that statistics were, well, tinkered with a bit, and involved a “leap of faith” as Brendan Owens, USGBC’s VP of Technical Development, said. In effect, the final report sounded a bit better than the actual truth. I don’t think USGBC did this maliciously by any stretch of the imagination but I was disheartened to learn that the findings had been tinkered with so that report said what they wanted it to say, rather than laying out the facts. After all, it is a bit crazy that LEED certification rewards a building based on a model rather than actual performance data based on two years of operation, as Gifford suggests. To boot, we keep building all these “green” buildings that look sexy but are not durable material wise/envelope system wise, nor are they energy-efficient, again starting with their building envelope. It pains me to see glass buildings with an R-value of about R-3 or R-4 being touted as sustainable. It’s an energy hog. Period.

At the same time however, I don’t agree with Chris Benedict’s statement -and she is an architect whom I have much respect for, that “[she] would like LEED to go away, and [she] would like the USGBC to disappear from the face of the earth.” Although she is correct in stating that anyone with LEED AP after their name is now seemingly seen as the expert, versus those who have been deep within energy-efficient design for years, it is not fair to cast LEED AP's or USGBC off as being incompetent, which is what I infer from this statement. The organization is not by any means, and is working each day against a lot of odds towards building a better built environment. Are they perfect? Again, no. I have problems with the rating system. But again, they are trying at a much broader level than I see NESEA doing.

Making Green Make Sense
The basic fact is, USGBC has a huge amount to learn from NESEA and NESEA has a huge amount to learn from USGBC. Put these two factions in a room together for a while and I have little doubt that the ensuing rating system developed would far exceed any we’ve seen thus far from USGBC. Yet from this exchange –what I know of it, I feel that NESEA acted more like a toddler having a temper tantrum than someone willing to come together. USGBC seemed able to stand up and admit some faults on the other hand. That doesn’t make the USGBC stupid/wrong nor does it make NESEA superior/right. Pointing fingers doesn’t get anyone anywhere, and right now, we have a gluttoness built environment to deal with and an Earth to save. We need everyone to play on the same team. Marc Rosenbaum, another NESEA member, said it best in his comment that there weren’t many solutions discussed, and that it was mostly a rant. Well, now that the ranting is over, let’s get to work. Together.