“LEED vs. Energy Star?”

leed-vs        –

 “LEED vs. Energy Star?” It is not unusual to find this question used as the title of a presentation at green building conferences or in blogs and webinars sponsored by the latest generation of green building expert. People have been asking this question since the late 1990s, which is when LEED and Energy Star both came to the market.

It may be an unfortunate indicator of the quality of the discourse on sustainability that the question of competition between the two was ever asked. More importantly, it’s unfortunate that the question persists.

LEED and Energy Star are not two separate choices, nor are they two certification programs that are in competition with each other. Energy Star provides LEED, and other multi-criteria green building certification programs, an integrated path to energy efficiency that extends from building design to energy simulation, and then all the way to occupancy and operations. LEED addresses many issues. Energy Star focuses on a single issue. Benefits accrue to the real estate industry when the two programs are understood as parts of a pair.

As the Intel chip is to the laptop, Energy Star is to LEED: “It’s all inside.”

LEED’s insides

There is not one single LEED certification. There are various LEED certifications for commercial and residential buildings, new construction and existing buildings, neighborhoods, and commercial interiors. LEED was developed by and is owned and managed by an industry association called the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the association’s platinum asset.

Based in Washington, D.C., the USGBC’s members are, not surprisingly, vendors and providers of a wide range of products and services—including energy-efficient products and services—that contribute to a tally of points required for a building to earn a LEED certification.

Although early versions of LEED certification for new construction and existing buildings included energy efficiency in their criteria, the definition of efficient was far from rigorous, and the methodology was flawed.

Early on, LEED’s measure of “efficiency” was the energy code according to which a property was designed. Unrelated to the USGBC, codes are not an effective predictor of the energy usage in a building, not to mention leadership in energy efficiency. Codes define a minimum legal requirement and are theoretical targets of a building’s energy consumption, absent occupants.

The Energy Star rating provides a bridge from the too-often naïve assumptions of the design industry and an over-reliance on building codes to the realities of building occupancy, operations and management.

The Energy Star score of a building is based on a comparison of its energy consumption to the energy consumption histories of a population of existing buildings of a given property type, where consideration given for climate and other variables, not the least of which is occupancy.

The USGBC integrated Energy Star’s rating system into their LEED criteria as part of its strategy to overcome the shortcomings being demonstrated by a reliance solely on building energy codes.

In the Energy Star 1-to-100 scale, 50 indicates that a building’s energy efficiency is average compared to its peer set. When the USGBC first referenced Energy Star, a LEED certification required a minimum the Energy Star score of 65.

Admittedly, the 65 minimum was not ambitious for a program with leadership in its name. At a score of 65, a building’s performance, or intended performance, is better than 64 percent of its peer group—and its performance is not as good as 24 percent of its peer group. The dubious value of the achievement of 65 could be questioned further upon recognition that the term “peer group,” as defined by Energy Star, was the existing national stock of buildings of the same property type, regardless of age, size or design intent.

In the years following its first foray into referencing Energy Star, the USGBC amped up LEED’s energy-efficiency requirements in three meaningful ways. First, to earn the lowest-tier LEED certification, a property must earn an Energy Star target score of at least 75. At this score, only 24 percent of a property’s existing peer group regardless of age is more efficient than the prospective property. Second, and very impressively, LEED’s top-tier designation requires a minimum Energy Star score of 90.

Third—and undoubtedly one of the all-time-best-ever improvements to the LEED certification program for new construction—a building will only obtain its LEED certification if, upon completion, its mechanical systems are commissioned.

This requirement is an emphatic acknowledgement of the “Achilles heel” of the building design and construction industry’s talk about energy efficiency.

While a building’s energy efficiency can be related to the intended efficiency of equipment, the essential ingredient in an efficient building is good property management. Good property management starts with delivery of a building whose systems have been commissioned. Otherwise, errors in the sizing, installation, and interoperability of all the high-priced components and systems in a new building can be for naught, or close to it.

The Energy Star intersection

The USGBC references Energy Star in an effort to improve LEED’s effectiveness in energy efficiency. As with many green building certification programs, the USGBC promotes many benefits associated with green. The most tangible of these benefits is lower energy costs achieved through the efficient operation of a building.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which administers Energy Star’s commercial building program, without the appropriate metrics and tool—such as those from Energy Star—the owners of even the latest generation of advanced buildings could see two times and three times the rates of energy consumption compared to their technologically less sophisticated peers, and never know it.

Energy efficiency’s contribution to asset value is not limited to lower energy operating costs. When a building is operating efficiently, systems and components have fewer on/off cycles and therefore less wear and tear. For the long-term property owner, energy efficiency’s greater value-add is in the extension of the use life of this capital-intensive equipment, which can represent 30 percent of a property’s original hard costs. Fewer on/off cycles are also indicators of a stable air temperatures, minimal drafts, and high occupant comfort.

Across the government agencies that administer Energy Star, there is a constant theme: through energy efficiency, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions create financial value. In this sense, Energy Star is specific in its benefits and claims. When integrated into broader green building certification programs, Energy Star’s tools measure and evaluate energy performance on a common, unbiased, and national platform in an easy-to-interpret numerical scale. As a result, energy efficiency is the most tangible contributions to superior value in a green building. In this way, LEED leverages—rather than competes with—Energy Star.

Stuart Brodsky launched the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program for commercial properties in 1999 and led it until 2008. He is currently the director of New York University’s Center for the Sustainable Built Environment, a clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and the co-chair of the Sustainable Building Council of the Urban Land Institute New York. He is also a member of NREI‘s Sustainability Board of Advisors.


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