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Twenty years ago, the U.S. Green Building Council piloted its LEED certification, which has reshaped architecture and real estate. There are now some 94,000 commercial buildings alone granted or awaiting LEED certification in 167 countries. But, CityLab contributor Brian Barth questions how much does it really dent buildings’ energy use, especially in an era focused strongly on resilient building and climate change.

The debate over whether LEED standards are strict enough originates, at least in part, from differing expectations of what a green building should be. The term “green” may bring to mind a carpet of vegetation on the roof or bamboo floors. Bike racks, waterless urinals, and electric-vehicle charging stations also connote environmental friendliness, and they’re common in LEED-certified buildings.

Most people would also associate green buildings with energy efficiency. The building sector consumes nearly 40 percent of all energy produced in the United States and is responsible for a similar share of greenhouse-gas emissions. So energy-efficient and “net-zero” buildings (which offset their energy use by what they generate, via solar panels, for example) are seen as a crucial way to rein in carbon emissions and slow climate change.

USGBC has inarguably changed the course of the building industry for the better. It mobilized the masses around the idea of environmentally responsible construction. The “co-benefits” of many green buildings, like ample daylight and better indoor air quality, clearly improve people’s health and comfort. A Harvard studypublished in January found that LEED buildings yield substantial energy savings and “nearly equivalent” climate and health benefits.

What would “greener” standards for buildings look like? The Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge, a much more stringent program than LEED, certified its first building in 2010. “Living Buildings” must produce more energy than they consume (the excess is fed back into the grid), and are not granted certification until they’ve proved it for a period of 12 months. Net-positive water use and net-positive waste are also required.

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