New York Lags Several Cities in Certified Green Buildings–Surprising, Right?

From a recent press conference with Bill Clinton announcing a $20 million green initiative at the Empire State Building to the Bloomberg administration’s constant promotion of its PlaNYC 2030 environmental plan, one might be left with the impression that New York is hands-down the national leader on sustainability in its buildings.  

Well, not, it seems, by one measure.

As the Center for Urban Future pointed out on Wednesday, a survey of the total number of LEED-certified buildings in cities around the country reveals that New York ranks sixth, with 41 LEED projects, behind Chicago (70), Portland (63), Seattle (55), Washington (47) and San Francisco (44). LEED, standing for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a designation conferred by the U.S. Green Building Council that assigns points for various sustainability measures included in buildings, and while it is not the be-all, end-all arbiter of whether a building is “green” or not, it is fairly well regarded in the design and construction industries.

The simple tally of LEED projects, of course, does not say all that much on its own. And indeed it is likely that New York would be far higher if ranked on LEED projects by square footage, as multiple major office buildings and residential towers have received the designation.

It also does not consider projects in the pipeline, and there are many (the World Trade Center; the Bank of America Tower, for instance) that are incomplete and are expected to receive high LEED ratings. Moreover, the Bloomberg administration’s big push on sustainability didn’t begin until mid-2007, and many projects undertaken since then have not yet been finished.

Still, the fact that the total number of LEED buildings in New York is lower than five other cities seems surprising. The ranking is not even proportional to the number of total buildings built. New York, after all, builds far more than any of the other cities on the survey.

For instance, looking at U.S. Census numbers for private residential construction permits, between 2004 and 2007 (most LEED buildings have been built within the past few years) New York saw 20,479 building permits for more than $9.9 billion in construction. In that same time period, Portland saw about one-fifth the number of building permits (5,098), and about one-tenth the number of apartment buildings with five or more units (single family homes tend not to apply for LEED designation). Chicago saw 8,768 building permits for $2.9 billion in construction.

Russell Unger, executive director of the New York Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, said that the larger point that’s missed by the numbers is that LEED has come to be an expectation on large projects, and that hasn’t necessarily shown up in the numbers yet, but likely will in coming years as current projects finish.

“What’s most important is, what are people doing now?” he said. “In New York, every major developer has been building LEED.  … The market has truly been transformed, and we haven’t seen that fully in numbers yet.”

Further, Mr. Unger pointed to legislation that the mayor and Council Speaker Christine Quinn endorsed last week that would require owners of existing buildings to make energy improvements. Existing buildings clearly account for a far greater portion of the building stock than those in production, and are responsible for producing substantially more greenhouse gas emissions. 

Lee Der in Green Building