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Understanding Green Building, LEED Certification… And Their Risks



  1. Introduction to Green Building Projects

  2. LEED Certification

  3. Building Systems, Techniques & Strategies

  4. Costs

  5. Risks

  6. Claims & Litigation Case Studies

  7. Deep Thoughts

  8. Codes & Standards

  9. Research & Links

1. Introduction to Green Building Projects

This is a brief introduction to the design, construction, maintenance, and management of Green Building projects, which are sometimes also referred to as “sustainable”, “high-performance”, or “passive.”

“Green Building (also known as green construction or sustainable building) refers to both a structure and the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle: from planning to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition.” (Wikipedia)

The intention of Green Building is to reduce the environmental impact of building projects by:

  • Lowering energy and water use;

  • Using environmentally preferable materials;

  • Increasing durability, which allows buildings to last longer before requiring rehabilitation or replacement, which saves resources over the building lifecycle;

  • Reducing waste during construction and operation & maintenance;

  • Reducing toxins;

  • Improving the indoor environment for occupants, including air quality (IAQ); and

  • Creating neighborhoods designed to lower environmental impact and improve human health.

The point is that buildings consume something like 40% of the energy we use, and making buildings more resource-consumption-efficient in every way, including during constructing, using, repurposing, and even decommissioning, is a good thing.

Green Building is about more than design and construction. Maintenance and management of Green Building projects is, arguably, more important than the design and construction process since the total cost of ownership (TCO) of building projects and facilities over time is always many times the cost of design and construction. The Green Building movement recognizes that facility and property managers require extensive training in making the investments in Green Building design and construction worth any additional expense on the front end.

There are many available Green, Sustainable, High-Performance, or passive building certifications. The most popular in the U.S. is from U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, commonly referred to as LEED.

2. LEED Certification

“Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of Green Buildings which was Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council." (Wikipedia)

The LEED rating system is owned by U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which began in 1993 and is now an organization with more than $60 million in annual revenue, 200,000 LEED certified individuals, 92,000 total projects, 39,000 certified projects, 1.6 million registered or certified homes, 6,000 certified schools, 2,900 certified local government buildings, and 1,000 certified state government buildings. A division of USGBC is Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which administers LEED, performing third-party technical reviews and verification of LEED-registered projects including technical reviews to ensure the building certification process meets the highest levels of quality and integrity.

LEED Professional Accreditations

  • LEED Green Associate requires the candidate to study and take a test.

  • LEED AP (Accredited Professional) requires the candidate to study and take a harder test.

  • LEED Fellow requires the candidate to show at least 10 years of exemplary impact with LEED, be nominated by a LEED professional, and have a team of endorsers who will write about the candidate’s contributions.

LEED Certification Levels for Building Projects

  1. Certified: 40-49 points.

  2. Silver: 50-59 points.

  3. Gold: 60-79 points.

  4. Platinum: 80-110

3. Building Systems, Techniques & Strategies

LEED Certification Prerequisites

  1. Sustainable Sites: Construction Activity Pollution Prevention

  2. Water Efficiency

    1. Outdoor Water Use Reduction

    2. Indoor Water Use Reduction

    3. Building-Level Water Metering

  3. Energy and Atmosphere

    1. Fundamental Commissioning and Verification: USGBC and the LEED certification materials use the term “Commissioning” (Cx) to describe a quality assurance (QA) process, to ensure the plan for mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and renewable energy systems and assemblies that is submitted to USGBC for certification is executed in the field.

    2. Minimum Energy Performance: There are multiple paths to ensuring the energy performance designs will meet current standards from ASHRAE and other specified standards.

    3. Building-Level Energy Metering

    4. Fundamental Refrigerant Management: Don’t use chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-based refrigerants… Phase-out existing use.

  4. Materials and Resources

    1. Storage and Collection of Recyclables

    2. Construction and Demolition Waste Management Planning

  5. Indoor Environmental Quality

    1. Minimum Indoor Air Quality Performance: Meet minimum requirements for ventilation and monitoring.

    2. Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control: Prohibit smoking in or within 25 feet of the building.

LEED Certification Points for Building Projects (110 points total)

The outline here is from the LEED v4 Checklist

  1. Integrative Process (1 point) Think hard and analyze the energy and water-related systems from the earliest phase of design, including to inform the owner’s project requirements (OPR) and basis of design (BOD).

  2. Location and Transportation / Neighborhood Development (16 points) “To avoid development on inappropriate sites. To reduce vehicle distance traveled. To enhance livability and improve human health by encouraging daily physical activity.” Points are given for promoting aspects of the objective.

  3. Sustainable Sites (10 points) Assess the site before the design using a structured process and consider strategies including: Protect or Restore Habitat, Open Space, Rainwater Management, Heat Island Reduction (i.e. avoid giant, uncovered asphalt parking lots), and Light Pollution Reduction.

  4. Water Efficiency (11 points) While indoor and outdoor water use reduction and metering are prerequisites, points can be earned for low or zero irrigation designs, calculated savings of indoor water use from 25-50%, and management of cooling tower (HVAC system) water use.

  5. Energy and Atmosphere (33 points)

    1. In addition to having the longest list of prerequisites (see above), this category has the most point-value. The section mixes both energy savings with quality control (“Commissioning”); surely due to haw closely connected the two are.

    2. “Enhanced Commissioning”, a more complete and intensive QA / QC process, must be performed by a third party Commissioning Authority (CxA), and to receive maximum points the building envelope must be part of the commissioning plan and process, in addition to the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and renewable energy systems and assemblies required in the prerequisites.

    3. Energy related points can be earned for Optimizing Energy Performance even further than the minimum standards, Advanced Energy Metering, Demand Response through load shedding or shifting, Renewable Energy Production (like solar), Enhanced Refrigerant Management and Green Power and Carbon Offsets where 50-100% of energy use comes from a green source.

  6. Materials and Resources (13 points) In addition to the prerequisites, consideration should be given to Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction (reuse of existing buildings or materials), Building Product Disclosure and Optimization - Environmental Product Declarations including the Sourcing of Raw Materials and Material Ingredients, and Construction and Demolition Waste Management.

  7. Indoor Environmental Quality (16 points) In addition to the prerequisites, design consideration should be given to Enhanced Indoor Air Quality Strategies (like enhanced ventilation and contamination prevention), Low-Emitting Materials, composition and execution of a Construction Indoor Air Quality Management Plan, Indoor Air Quality Assessment, Thermal Comfort considerations, Interior Lighting strategies to promote comfort and well being by offering controls throughout, Daylight, Quality Views, and Acoustic Performance to limit noise.

  8. Innovation (6 points) Points can be earned for Innovation using a strategy not addressed in the LEED system or exemplary measurable performance in a addressed area. There is also one credit available for having at least one LEED Accredited Professional on the team.

  9. Regional Priority (4 points) Specific credit can be earned for issues important to the project’s region as identified by the USGBC regional councils and chapters and articulated in database of Regional Priority credits and their geographic applicability.

4. Costs

So the “accounting” on the costs of LEED Certification are either very high level or fuzzy. And as I mention in the Deep Thoughts section below, the costs are commonly downplayed and the calculable benefits are sometimes exaggerated. The science here appears to remain very soft. And few of the studies I have found appear to be by disinterested professionals with expertise in building economics.

Sources claim a range of additional costs for LEED Certification between 0-30%. The claim of zero additional cost seems, at first blush entirely absurd; the cost of registration and compliance alone is well above zero. The more common figures suggest a range between 2.5-8.5%, depending on the level of certification. I remain skeptical. In one of my case studies, the “additional cost” of the project over a reasonable square foot cost made the project 80% more expensive than a more common facility of identical size. And if you include the cost to make the repairs, then the project cost was 155% above the cost of a common facility (not +55%, +155%!). Granted, this was also a more beautiful building project than a more common facility; and much of the cost for a building that looked the same, would have been incurred even if the Green Building design & construction techniques and requirements were removed.

I acknowledge that the rigorous process that LEED Certification imposes, to think the project through at a painstaking level of detail, can lead to innovative design that could contribute to a net savings. I look forward to additional research into the economics of Green Building. Check back for more in the months and years to come.

5. Risks


Energy efficiency is great! But it has its risks. The tighter building envelopes required by Green Building standards remind me of the "Sauna Exercise Suit" I remember my grandmother wearing around the house when I was a small child. She would vacuum and dust and sweat like crazy, thinking it was helping her to get more fit. She lived a long happy life, so it appears to have done her no harm, but buildings constructed of moisture sensitive materials, like engineered wood (including oriented strand board or OSB) often don't fare as well. 

The risks of building problems increases for Green Construction projects due to:

  • More complex building envelope

  • Use of new material technologies

  • High performance and more complex mechanical systems

  • Additional warranty requirements

  • Increased performance targets

Problems That Could Be Caused by LEED Certification

  • LEED standards can end up forcing a dramatic increase in building system complexity.

  • These standards are being built as we go along and they are changing the built environment faster than our understanding.

  • In some cases these requirements are adding costs, which causes stress to the economic viability of projects.

  • These LEED Certification requirements do not address the costs compared to the potential benefits.

From a Zurich document outlining the risks of Green Building, 5 categories of risk include…

  1. Financial risks: The additional costs of Green Buildings may affect completing projects on time and on budget, but must be weighed against the cost of not going green.

  2. Standard of Care/Legal: Mandates regarding LEED certification bring an increased risk of legal liability for Green Building design and construction professionals.

  3. Performance: Project owners/developers are starting to require additional contract provisions and warranties regarding the energy efficiency of Green Buildings, causing increased exposure to potential liability for breach of contract or warranty.

  4. Consultants/Subconsultants and Subcontractors: Lack of experience by these parties in green construction can lead to problems obtaining LEED certification, delays and improper material specifications.

  5. Regulatory: New building codes and mandates associated with green construction can mean an increased liability to everyone involved in the green construction process.

The Construction Defect Litigation Business Model

It seems to me that “the construction defect litigation business model” came about because (1.) construction is complex, (2.) no construction project is perfect, (3.) most construction contracts have indemnity agreements, (4.) common commercial general liability (CGL) insurance policies have a duty to defend the insured when sued, and (5.) plaintiff attorneys are very clever and assertive. So considering this, I have said things similar to the following, many times, related to new advances in technology: If I were unscrupulous and did not love the construction industry, I would put together a team of plaintiff-oriented attorneys and experts, I would comb through the LEED Certification Database, I would plan and execute a marketing campaign to find every project that had even the most mildly disgruntled LEED project Owners, and I would encourage them to get involved in construction defect litigation using our team. It seems to me that the LEED certification database is the best marketing list possible for sophisticated plaintiff construction defect lawyers. 

Also see The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in the Deep Thoughts section below.

6. Claims & Litigation Case Studies

PFCS Projects

  1. A “Net Zero” Educational Facility Gets A Big Repair: Defects introduced during construction, plus operational problems lead to repairs totaling more than 40% of construction cost.

  2. Leak Investigation Involving Solar Panel Installation: A national solar system manufacturer / installer litigated with a homeowner who had multiple leak sources.

  3. A Hygrothermal Study Leads to Pre-Litigation Resolution: An elegant solution to a divisive and expensive issue, allegedly related to condensation, is resolved using building science, which then leads to resolution of all remaining construction defect allegations, prior to filing of a lawsuit.

Litigation From Around the Country

  1. Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Inc. et al. v. Weyerhaeuser Company:

  2. Southern Builders v. Shaw Development:

  3. Gidumal v. Site 16/17 Development LLC:

  4. Flincto Pacific Inc. v. City of Palo Alto (2014)

  5. Burchick Construction Company, Inc. v. Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

  6. Hampton Technologies, Inc. v. Department of General Services (2011)

7. Deep Thoughts

My experience and research lead me to the following conclusions.

The Good

  • 1. The hard-thinking that is forced by Green Building principles generally, and LEED certification specifically, during the design phase, is wonderful in many ways: Environmental protection, lower energy use, human health and well-being, and on and on.

  • 2. The potential for the process to transform the built environment through the integrative approach, rather than the more traditional focus primarily on esthetics and economics or return-on-investment (ROI), is exciting.

  • 3. The requirement for “Fundamental Commissioning” is something that every building owner should require as a minimum quality control function.

  • 4. Enhanced Commissioning should be a model for a superior level of quality control throughout the building industry.

The Bad

  • 5. LEED certification can cause an explosion of building system complexity during design & construction as well as operation & maintenance.

  • 6. Increased complexity in building systems increases costs.

  • 7. Increased complexity in building systems increases risk of building system failure.

  • 8. There is no built-in cost-benefit analysis mechanism, and surely no requirement therefore, built into most of the Green Building standards, including LEED.

The Ugly

  • 9. The costs of Green Building and LEED are commonly down-played.

  • 10. The quantifiable benefits of Green Building and LEED are commonly exaggerated.

  • 11. Case studies of Green Building project failures are limited.

  • 12. Costs for operation & maintenance (O&M) for the more complex mechanical systems appear to not have been closely studied.

  • 13. Ultimately, additional costs of Green Building and LEED Certification are being passed to the people who can least afford it (low-income individuals and families).

8. Codes & Standards

  1. IBC International Building Code

  2. IgBC International Green Building Code

  3. CBC California Building Code


  5. ASHRAE Guideline 0–2005

  6. ASHRAE Guideline 1.1–2007

  7. CA 2008 Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan

  8. CA 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards

  9. CA Green Building Code: 2013 edition went into effect 1/1/2014. 2016 edition went into effect 1/1/2017. PDF Copy of CA Green Building Code 2013 edition.

  10. U.S. Department of Energy

9. Research & Links

We have a not-so-scientific research method that generally yields some amazing results. It's called PFCS Proving The Obvious Using Google Method. I began by searching "Green Building Summary" and received these results

Search Results "Green Building Summary"

  1. Green Building From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  2. Summary of Green Building Programs by National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Research Center, Inc

  3. EPA's Web Archive on Green Building

  4. Energy-Efficiency Standards and Green Building Certification Systems Used by the Department of Defense for Military Construction and Major Renovations (2013)

  5. A Green Building Overview by HGTV

  6. ASSESSING GREEN BUILDINGS FOR SUSTAINABLE CITIES from The 2005 World Sustainable Building Conference, Tokyo, 2005

  7. What is a Green Building? by Sunpower


  9. LEED Cost Analysis Summary by Green Building Solutions

  10. WHAT IS A “GREEN” BUILDING ACCORDING TO DIFFERENT ASSESSMENT TOOLS? from Department of Technology and Built Environment, University of Gävle, Sweden

Search Results "Costs of LEED Certification"

Coming Soon


  • PFCS Case Study: Plumbing Leaks in High-Rise Condo. Complex investigations require development and testing of hypotheses. This is an example.

  • Green Building: What are the Risks? 2011 document by Zurich Insurance

  • California Becomes First State to Order Solar on New Homes (Bloomberg): In May 2018 the California Energy Commission decided that most new homes and and multifamily units under 4-stories built after 2019 will be required to include solar systems. They estimated the systems and complying with energy-efficiency measures will add $9,500 to the cost of a new home, which would be offset by $19,000 in energy and maintenance savings over 30 years. California is already the nation’s largest solar market and Governor Jerry Brown’s has an effort underway to slash carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. This will exacerbate the issue of high housing costs, seen as a drag on the economy and contributes to rising social tensions. The state only adds about 80,000 new homes a year, and the state issued permits for fewer than 480,000 new residential units in the last 5 years, yet California’s economy added 2.3 million jobs over the same period, which is about one home for every five additional workers.

  • Hidden Risks of Green Buildings from RCI's Interface Magazine