Is LEED really green?

How developers use a popular environmental certification program to sell projects and mislead the public

The proposed 8 Washington project (center) is being marketed as a green project to wealthy buyers

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.

Also from this author

  • Parking on the park

    Rec-Park proposes facilities for more food trucks in Dolores Park

  • Alerts

  • Replacing the Concourse

    Huge project in Showplace Square begins new residential push in the eastern neighborhoods