‘A contradiction’: U.S. subsidizes ‘sustainable’ buildings, but leaves them vulnerable to floods

The findings come as the Biden administration, the Green Building Council and other groups are working to make U.S. buildings more resilient.

The White House last year launched an initiative that aims to help state and local governments adopt the latest building codes. Forty states and U.S. territories haven’t updated their building codes since 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported in April.

Meanwhile, the Green Building Council and the International Code Council, an influential nonprofit group that creates model building codes for local governments to use, say they are both working to integrate resiliency features into their offerings.

But LEED standards aren’t likely to be updated until 2025, at the soonest. The code council didn’t give a clear timeline for its next overhaul.

“If these voluntary organizations establish clear guidance and standards for resiliency, it could reduce loss to the United States. There’s no question about it,” said Hill, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a centrist think tank. “It’s a missed opportunity because we don’t have those standards and guidance in place. And so then we construct buildings that are destined to flood or burn.”

The LEED rating system began as a pilot project in 1998, five years after the Green Building Council was formed by an environmental lawyer, a real estate developer and a marketing executive at the air conditioning company Carrier. They worked with a scientist at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council to develop the ratings system.

The system is based on a scorecard of actions that architects, builders and developers can take to earn points toward certification and hopefully increase the environmental sustainability of their projects. The scorecards and points available vary slightly depending on whether the project is to, for instance, build a hospital, renovate an office or plan a new city.

But nearly all of the new construction scorecards promote actions like sourcing renewable energy from the grid and minimizing water use, as well as including bicycle facilities and creating “quality views” from throughout the building. Some actions, such as the storage and collection of recyclables, are required.

LEED certifications are awarded to projects at four point-based levels: At the top is the Green Building Council’s platinum seal, followed by gold and silver. The entry level is simply certified.

It took until 2004 for the industry-led nonprofit group to sign off on its first 100 LEED projects. Last year, the cumulative total topped 100,000, with certified projects on every continent except Antarctica.

Over the decades, the Green Building Council has regularly updated LEED — sometimes to address publicized shortcomings in the program. For example, media outlets repeatedly found that some certified green projects consumed more energy than comparable buildings. Following those reports, the Green Building Council in 2015 required new LEED buildings to provide the group with information on their first few years of energy consumption.

The Green Building Council hasn’t taken the same decisive steps to integrate climate adaptation into its sustainability rating system. That’s despite a growing realization in the architecture field that building practices need to change in response to the ever-warming world.

The first wakeup call for designers was in 2005 when a Category 3 hurricane — with sustained winds estimated at 120 mph and a storm surge of at least 25 feet high — slammed into southeast Louisiana.

In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina trapped tens of thousands of people in flooded and powerless homes for weeks while also knocking offline nearly all of the city’s health and safety facilities. Amid the sweltering August heat, more than 540 hurricane victims died from acute and chronic illnesses that likely “would have been prevented had emergency and hospital services been undisrupted following the storm,” according to a 2014 study by the state of Louisiana.

“Katrina caught everybody’s attention,” said Douglas Pierce, the resilient design director at Perkins&Will, the world’s second-largest architecture firm. The focus of the sustainable design field began “shifting beyond trying to stop climate change to actually having to say, ‘climate change is here and we need to deal with it.’”

At the Green Building Council’s annual conference that November, Wilson and some 160 other participants — including representatives from in and around New Orleans — put together a policy paper intended to help make the post-Katrina planning and rebuilding efforts more equitable and environmentally sustainable. The recommendations included “shifting development from regions of the city at the highest risk of future flooding” and designing or repairing buildings in other areas “to serve as livable refuges in the event of crisis or breakdown of energy, water, and sewer systems.”

“The motivation was one of life saving, not just doing the right thing,” said Wilson, who now leads the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute. “So I thought it might be a way — particularly in our politically divided country — to get more people focused on green design and to do so for resilience reasons.”

City leaders increased the required base height of new buildings and initially “advocated for turning hard-hit areas into parks and greenspace,” said John Lawson II, the press secretary of Mayor LaToya Cantrell. But that plan to bar redevelopment in certain areas prompted pushback from residents because those were mainly historically Black and low-income communities, he said.

“Ultimately, there were no areas of the City where redevelopment was prohibited post-Katrina,” Lawson wrote in an email.

The Green Building Council also didn’t follow its own advice. The group has struggled to prioritize resilience alongside the other environmental and health considerations woven into the LEED system.

Since 2009, most new building scorecards have only offered up to four points — out of a possible 110 — for considering flooding in site selection, planning for natural disasters or designing for resilience after a disruptive event. And three of those resilience-themed points have only been offered as pilot credits, meaning most LEED experts aren’t familiar with them.

The Green Building Council also had a resilience working group for a time. But it went dormant around 2016 when the council began supporting a resilience rating system known as RELi that was initially created by Pierce, the Perkins&Will architect. The system was complicated and few projects adopted it. The Green Building Council effectively gave up on RELi in 2021, shifting management of that resilience standard to a smaller nonprofit.

“What we spoke about — our working group many years ago — was integrating [resilience] throughout all the LEED systems, through all the different credit categories and making this something that was consistently addressed instead of this one-point, throw-away kind of thing,” said Mary Ann Lazarus, who along with Wilson co-chaired the committee.

Lazarus has drifted away from the Green Building Council but continues to value and support its work to advance sustainable design.

“I just don’t know why this particular issue, which is near and dear to my heart, has been so hard for them to bring into the standard in a really comprehensive way,” she added.

As it stands now, the LEED system effectively gives the same priority to setting aside at least a couple of parking spaces for charging electric vehicles as it does to not building on “sensitive” lands like in a floodplain or next to a water body: Each is worth a single point.

The Vu New River earned points for both, even though it is located — as its name suggests — only steps from a yacht-filled estuary that snakes through Fort Lauderdale. That’s because the LEED system still rewards projects in flood-prone areas if they are located on “land that has been previously developed,” the ratings guide says. The Green Building Council awarded the sleek apartment building with a silver certification in 2015.

The Broward Addiction Recovery Center — the other recently constructed LEED-certified building known to have flooded in the April storm — has a walled-in garden where patients can step out to get fresh air. During the downpour, that space filled up like a bathtub and then overflowed into the ground floor of the residential treatment facility. The county-run drug treatment facility earned a gold certification in 2018. (It scored zero points in a category that encourages steps to limit the quantity of stormwater.)

The Lincoln Property Co., which owns the Vu, didn’t respond to questions for this story. Broward County provided photos of the facility but declined a request to tour the building and then didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

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