Judging by its energy usage, the School Without Walls in the District of Columbia may actually have no walls: It scores a 16 out of 100 on the EnergyStar scale, which ranks buildings by energy efficiency against others of the same type. The score indicates that only 16 percent of schools nationally are worse when it comes to energy efficiency.
That ought to be a wake-up call for the District that it should look for ways to make improvements. But if the city, like many others, has bought into the marketing and hype, there is no need to do anything but rest on its laurels: According to the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program, the school is a green success, boasting a “gold” certification.
Many buildings certified with LEED's highest seals of approval, administered by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, are actually some of the worst-performing buildings in the country in terms of energy efficiency, according to a Washington Examiner analysis of data provided by the District of Columbia on city-owned buildings.
In fact, government buildings with EnergyStar scores such as 3 on the scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is the highest, received LEED certifications, raising questions about whether LEED says anything at all about a building's efficiency -- and therefore, why builders pay handsomely for the certifications.
The General Services Administration, the federal government's landlord, even took the highly unusual step of requiring that every time a new federal building is erected or renovated, taxpayers must pay the private Washington-based nonprofit for a certification.
In addition to some particularly atrocious energy hogs curiously receiving high LEED ratings, in general, government buildings built to LEED specifications in D.C. do not perform any better than non-LEED structures.
The median EnergyStar score among the first group was 28, insignificantly higher than the median non-LEED score of 26.5. The bottom quarter of LEED buildings actually performed worse than the bottom quarter of non-LEED ones.
To advertise with the government-backed EnergyStar seal, a building must score a 75 or higher. EnergyStar scores are based on power bills documenting actual energy consumption.
The Green Building Council does not publish the basic energy-use metrics of its buildings, but D.C. releases that information for its government buildings. The analysis confirms similar findings by the Examiner in New York City.
In fact, USGBC has not even looked at actual energy use of properties it certifies for much of the nonprofit's life -- seemingly a significant omission for a group dedicated to environmental conservation.
Taryn Holowka, its vice president of communications, said in an email that "it would not be reasonable to expect a new building to have actual energy use data because you would need to at least have 12 months of data for it to be meaningful."
She said that "LEED for new construction addresses energy use of the building based on modeling and commissioning."
Holowka said that since 2009, buildings must agree to turn over future energy data after they become certified. "The requirements were not in place before, projects were not required to turn anything over to USGBC but as LEED is an evolutionary program, we are continuously improving the program."
But USGBC won't revoke certification for lack of compliance or low scores, so any feedback it provides is little more than helpful advice.
She said old buildings that want to become LEED-certified now have to provide 12 months of past energy-use data and that a high EnergyStar score can get it as many as 18 points.
LEED applicants are scored from 0 to 100 based on 110 possible points, a little less than one-fifth of which have to do with energy use. Forty points is enough to be certified, while 80 gets the highest rating, "platinum," so buildings can get the top accreditation even with no energy points.
She also said that existing buildings must have EnergyStar scores of 69 to be certified. But the New York and especially the D.C. datasets show numerous LEED buildings with lower scores.
For private developers, LEED is a marketing tool that building owners brag about, but for government, it seems to be one more expense that is doled out with barely any awareness.
District officials originally claimed the city had 30 LEED buildings, but when the Examiner found 77, they confirmed the larger figure.
Only 29 of the buildings are plotted in the accompanying chart because energy use information was not available for the others. City officials could not say how much was paid to the Green Building Council in registration and certification fees.
But project registration fees are $1,200 each, or $900 for members like the District. Then certification costs $.055 per square foot, or $.045 per square foot for members, for new construction, or 4 cents and 3 cents for existing buildings. For large new buildings, the cost is $22,500, or $15,000 for old ones.
Based on that scale, the Examiner conservatively estimates that D.C. is on the hook for more than $300,000 in registration and certification fees.
Those figures don't include the cost of producing documentation for USGBC, which can be significant, or the cost of the process of planning to LEED specifications, known as commissioning, which costs between 50 cents and a dollar per square foot for new construction, to say nothing of the actual building costs.
The District of Columbia has nearly 7 million square feet of LEED space.
D.C. Department of General Services spokesman Kenneth Diggs said it could take weeks for it to figure out how much the city has paid USGBC, and did not respond to questions about the low EnergyStar scores in the city-provided data and apparent lack of correlation between LEED registration and energy use.
"The Department of General Services' construction efforts are subject to the DC Green Building Act of 2006 and the Healthy Schools Act of 2010. Both legislations set the requirements for measurable green-building certification, be it LEED or equivalent rating system, filed as an exemption and approved by the Mayor's Green Building Advisory Council," he said in an email.
This article has been updated to emphasize the distinction between LEED-certified buildings and LEED-registered ones. Registered buildings have not yet been awarded certification by USGBC, though District of Columbia law requires that they be built to LEED specs and attain certification.
Six of the 29 buildings in the accompanying chart have been officially LEED-certified, with EnergyStar scores of 1, 3, 13, 16, 40 and 70. Applications for the other 23 are still pending and in most cases have been since 2009. The graphic has always indicated, which properties fall into each category, but the text did not make it sufficiently clear.