When Sustainability is not Sustainable

After my post the other day on how new award-winning supposedly environmentally sustainable parks are far more resource intensive than the old parks they were replacing, I have gotten a lot of feedback -- this is obviously a topic that strikes a chord with folks.  In particular, a reader (I always forget to ask if I can use their names) sent me this article on the new LEED Platinum-certified building in New York

When the Bank of America Tower opened in 2010, the press praised it as one of the world’s “most environmentally responsible high-rise office building[s].” It wasn’t just the waterless urinals, daylight dimming controls, and rainwater harvesting. And it wasn’t only the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification—the first ever for a skyscraper—and the $947,583 in incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. It also had as a tenant the environmental movement’s biggest celebrity. The Bank of America Tower had Al Gore.

The former vice president wanted an office for his company, Generation Investment Management, that “represents the kind of innovation the firm is trying to advance,” his real-estate agent said at the time. The Bank of America Tower, a billion-dollar, 55-story crystal skyscraper on the northwest corner of Manhattan’s Bryant Park, seemed to fit the bill. It would be “the most sustainable in the country,” according to its developer Douglas Durst. At the Tower’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Gore powwowed with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and praised the building as a model for fighting climate change. “I applaud the leadership of the mayor and all of those who helped make this possible,” he said.

Gore’s applause, however, was premature. According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan. It uses more than twice as much energy per square foot as the 80-year-old Empire State Building. It also performs worse than the Goldman Sachs headquarters, maybe the most similar building in New York—and one with a lower LEED rating. It’s not just an embarrassment; it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change...

“What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want—namely, green publicity, not energy savings,” John Scofield, a professor of physics at Oberlin, testified before the House last year.

I will go out and get a picture today of our local Bank of America branch.  It is LEED certified at some level, proudly displaying the certificate in the lobby.  Out front it has two parking spaces near the door for electric cars - it does not have a charger for them, just reserved preferred parking.  I am sure they got their LEED points this way.

Postscript:  I am not religious but am fascinated by the comparisons at times between religion and environmentalism.  Here is the LEED process applied to religion:

  • 1 point:  Buy indulgence for $25
  • 1 point:  Say 10 Our Fathers
  • 1 point:  Light candle in church
  • 3 points:  Behave well all the time, act charitably, never lie, etc.

It takes 3 points to get to heaven.  Which path do you chose?


  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Sustainability" has never been about sustainability. It has always been about what most of the rest of the "Green" movement is really about, controlling people.

  2. ErikTheRed:

    Just whatever you do, don't write shit about them on the sidewalk with washable chalk. Bank of America goes all gangsta over that.

  3. chris:

    it is anti-humanity.

  4. hartez:

    It sounds like the problem is with *which* certification they chose. The article is a little confusing about it (maybe there's a sentence missing?), but it sounds like BoA is gaming the system a little by getting a Core and Shell certification (which ignores tenant build-out and activities). I don't see anything wrong with the *existence* of a Core and Shell version of the certification, but it does seem pretty disingenuous of BoA to go after the version of the certification where they could achieve Platinum (and to bask in the PR afterward). (I'm assuming they knew beforehand what they'd be using the building for.)

    I'm not sure if this fits with the previous examples of (non)sustainability, though. Are the efforts at sustainability in the BoA building actively making things worse (like the "grass on the roof" example from a couple of days ago)? I'm sure we'd have to take each "improvement" individually, but to use waterless urinals as an example - is this something that sounds nice but really adds so much extra maintenance as to offset the benefits? Or do waterless urinals really help?

    I don't have any experience in facilities construction or maintenance, so I'm genuinely curious.

  5. MingoV:

    I notice that almost all media people talk about fighting "climate change." Not one will admit that anthropogenic global warming was the biggest scientific fraud in history. This LEED nonsense adds support to the idiotic idea that reducing CO2 output will fight climate change, a phrase that no one can define.

    I partly agree with Matthew. Some of the "Green" movement is about controlling others. And some is about technophobia and the desire to live in a simpler time. (They obviously don't understand what daily life was like in the Middle Ages.) The technophobic greenie-wienies fight new technologies, including those that would reduce CO2 output or pollution.

  6. Sam L.:

    Regardless, I'm pretty sure it's BS all the way down.

  7. Gil:

    Then again having health & safety regulations as well anti-pollution regulation, anti-child labour regulations, etc., makes the West a poor place to do business so shouldn't we start scrap such regulations?

  8. Gil:

    Or you can't stand anything that dares to get in the way of doing business? I'm sure Conservative/Libertarians would love to live in the simpler timer when business had little to no regulations while government officials had little to no power and have most people living on a pittance while having the freedom to dump waste wherever they like.

  9. JW:

    Sounds great. When do we start?

  10. Xenophon Fenderson:

    I think you're attacking a straw man, but for the sake of argument, let's say that there were a whole host of compulsory child labor regulations that made people feel like children were protected but didn't actually reduce bad (read: exceedingly dangerous) kinds of child labor in any meaningful way. Like, let's say that these laws mandated SCBA for children under twelve who work in coal mines. Wouldn't you agree that such laws are useless, since children shouldn't be working in coal mines at all? Wouldn't you agree that advocating against such useless regulations while advocating for meaningful restrictions on child labor is logically consistent?

    Or, to extend the comparison of LEED certification to indulgences, is it better to actually live right or to pay into a church's coffers?

  11. norse:

    Not an entirely novel problem - the same idea (buying consultancy credits with real money) applies to carbon trading. "Some folks in an office building signed a document saying that this was good and we ought to trust them". It puzzles me that this type of BS is so readily accepted, when it followed that other demonstration that bought-and-paid-for ratings are essentially useless so closely. And I am of course talking about the housing bubble and its CDOs.

  12. randian:

    Reminds me of a current smart growth thread on city data. Smart growth is going rid us of all the world's ills. If only opponents would stop saying false things like "smart growth is all about controlling citizens". Smart growth is actually about liberating and uplifting citizens!

  13. irandom419:

    If I remember right, LEED's buildings use more energy due to more windows to cut down on daytime lighting costs. I think a local talk show host said it is like spending $100 to save $1. There is another standard called Passive House which is mildly interesting, but they do the opposite and have hardly any windows to save energy. I suspect the feel good types haven't embraced it since it doesn't have a sustainability standard, just good old fashion boring energy savings.


  14. bigmaq1980:

    LEED is one of the many "certifications" in our credential crazy culture. They are the manifestation of how we all flock to the "experts" to solve our problem.

    Recall some 10+ years ago when Six Sigma, ISO2000, etc. were all the rage? How many companies followed those certifications to a "T", but ended up bankrupt anyway.

    Be leery of these certifications, as they will end up being the marriage certificates between the environmentalists and the coercive power of government.

    And, be leery of people with an alphabet soup of "credentials" behind their name.

  15. bigmaq1980:

    Politicians and bureaucrats use the term "smart growth" to mean any number of things, as it is "sufficiently vague", in keeping with most political rhetoric.

    For most citizens, they will understand it correctly if they assume it means "the process of cramming more people into less and less space", no matter the big words others would use to describe it.

  16. Building physicist:

    Generally speaking the buildings that are built with simple technology without extreme deviations in any directions are the best for the environment. They last long, require moderate heating/cooling, don't require lots of maintenance, and takes less resources to build. Sum it up and proven solutions are most often the best from an environmental (and budgetary) perspective. The only exemption is ventilation which preferably should have double the capacity to normal standards.

  17. alanstorm:

    Typical liberal binary thought - it's all or nothing.

    For the slow among us, i.e. you, it's not regulation per se that's the issue. It' the fact that there is too much of it. Have you ever heard the phrase "Too much of anything is not a good thing"?

    On the plus side, you kicked the crap out of that strawman!

  18. MikeNC:

    And money.