LEED for Homes Awards - or - How To Shoot Yourself in the Foot

LEED for Homes award-winning house is ugly rancher with fake shutters, bad windows, and completely suburban sprawl detailing

   Residential Architect just did an article on the LEED for Homes Awards, <note from August 2, 2011 - the article doesn't seem to exist any longer on the Residential Architect site, for some reason - if someone finds a link, let me know and I'll paste it in> and I’ve gotta confess that when I first saw some of these, I checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. The very first Original Green blog post detailed how we lost the first green revolution thirty years ago. If these awards are any indication, we’re in danger of losing this one, too. The Engineering vs. Design post further describes the danger. Simply put, people will only tolerate sustainability for so long if its artifacts aren’t lovable. How many people would look at the house above and say “I love this”?

   But it isn’t just the thoroughly regrettable design of this house that’s problematic. It also apparently is located somewhere in sprawl for two reasons: the lot appears large, and the front-loaded double garage make it obvious that it’s located in an auto-dominated place. If you have to drive everywhere, then the carbon footprint of the building is meaningless. This is a classic example of one of the problems of the Carbon Focus: looking at the carbon footprint of the building, rather than the carbon footprint of the inhabitation of the building. Most of these award-winners have these problems... and others, too. Let’s have a look:

LEED for Homes award-winner: Rosedale Hills

   I’ll begin and end with two that have the most promise, with the others in between. This project, Rosewood Hills, appears to be making some attempts to be walkable... at least there’s a sidewalk. And the houses make some attempt to be lovable. And it not only has retail shops and parks in the neighborhood, according to the website, but is an infill project located within walking distance of a number of nearby services and attractions.

   This should all be applauded... kudos to LEED for selecting this one. But it’s not without problems, judging from the photos. The porches are far too narrow to be useful, and the lower level porch is too low, especially without a frontage fence. This isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about what works. We now know how to design porches and fences so people will sit on the porches and visit with their neighbors walking by. The porches shown here, because they ignore these things, have become expensive decoration rather than very useful outdoor living rooms. And it’s not just the fact that sittable porches are an important part of the social glue that transforms co-inhabitants of a place into neighbors... there’s also a huge underlying benefit of outdoor rooms and gardens that most people don’t realize: when you spend enough time outdoors, you get more acclimated to the local environment and need less full-body conditioning when you return indoors... so the heat pump doesn’t have to run as much. (See Item 3 on Garden Rooms.)

   Also, what in the world is it doing with dark asphalt roofs? The project is located in Columbia, South Carolina, where it’s hot much of the year. Reflective metal roofs reflect a high percentage of the sun’s heat away from the house, so they’re a great passive cooling device. Also, they last far longer than asphalt shingles which, by the way, are made from fossil fuels and are not recycled.

LEED for Homes award-winning Snout House - can it possibly get any uglier?

   This one is simply trying to jam too much ugliness onto the face of the building. They bulldoze buildings in a couple decades for being less ugly than this. How unsustainable is it to continue building things that are so quickly discarded? This is called a “snout house” because the protruding garage pointing squarely at the street often resembles a pig’s snout. Snout houses are almost always built in unwalkable (and therefore unsustainable) places.

LEED for Homes award-winning snout house with a big budget and senseless garage doors

   This one appears to have the biggest budget of all the houses in the story... and technically, it’s not a snout house because the porch sticks out further than the double garage. But look at that street frontage: totally blank! Not one window. Eyes on the street, particularly at street level, are one of the most important factors in making a neighborhood safe. Unsafe places are unsustainable places, because people won’t stay.

   One other thing... see the metal fence? In real life, you have to get your car into the garage, so over half of the fence couldn’t be there if this wasn’t a model home used for sales. And over half of the landscaping wouldn’t be there, either... it would be replaced with a double-wide driveway. Sidewalks crossed frequently by double-wide driveways are unsafe and unpleasant places to walk, so it’s a fairly sure bet that houses like this are built in unwalkable (and therefore unsustainable) places.

LEED for Homes award-winning house with huge windows opening onto snowy winter scene

   Nice photo... the fading sunset behind huge expanses of windows glowing out onto the snowy evening. What’s wrong with this picture? The smartest windows I’m aware of are from a company called Serious Materials. They’re several times more efficient than most windows: their best window has an R-value of 11. But the thinnest batt of fiberglass wall insulation you can buy is R-11, so by the time you add the sheathing and wall finishes, that means that the cheapest wall it’s legal to build is a better insulator than the very best window. So large expanses of glass are almost always a bad idea, except in the most unique climates. So how did this house win an award? It likely had to do some other very clever things to make up for the heat loss. Clever is good. But why not get the common-sense stuff right to begin with, so you’re not forced to be so clever?

   Part of the cleverness in this case can be seen tacked on the roof: two huge L-shaped banks of photovoltaic solar collectors with what appears to be a smaller hot-water collector high in the middle. And I’ve gotta hand it to them for at least making the collectors parallel with the roof so they don’t stand out so much. But it’s not good enough because they’re still ugly blotches on the roof. Solar collectors were torn off by the millions in the decade after the end of the last Green Revolution when people said “I don’t care if that hideous thing is saving me money; get it off my roof!” Collectors should either be incorporated into the roof design, or the building should be designed in such a way that they disappear entirely.

LEED for Homes award-winning Modernist house turns its back on the street

   Modernism has a terrible track record for lovability. If you doubt this, drive around any American town and find out what fraction of 1% of the houses are Modernist. But this one is fairly benign... style is not the main problem here. Rather, it’s the fact that this house nearly turns its back on the street. Only one tiny window really faces the street... the one beside the garage door. The rest are nearly hidden behind a tall concrete wall protecting the entry court from the sidewalk... and from any chance of getting acquainted with the would-be neighbors. Clearly, this house contributes nothing to the walkability of the subdivision. If other houses follow suit, it’s highly unlikely to become a sustainable place.

LEED for Homes award-winner: a condo infill project in California

   Here’s the last one, which is promising on several counts. It’s a 42-unit apartment building with lots of PV solar panels on the roof. It’s located in California, so the architecture seems to fit the regional character fairly well, from what we can tell in this photo. And the creation of the courtyard in the middle is promising; it could end up being one of those outdoor rooms mentioned earlier that entices people outdoors so they become more acclimated to the local environment.

   High-density housing can contribute to making a sustainable place... when it’s connected. But as you can see here, this appears to be plopped in the middle of a parking lot. It’s obviously not attached to a Main Street. That means everyone has to drive to get anywhere... and surely we’ve learned by now that a place can’t be sustainable if it makes you drive everywhere... or have we?

   Here’s the bottom line: an award program should award projects that are exemplary on many counts, and that get the basics right. The LEED rating system is made up of prerequisite requirements and credits. If you don’t get the prerequisites right, then your project is out... you have no shot at getting any credits. The same standard should be applied to an awards program for green houses: get the basics right first. And the basics include building in a sustainable place, which is a place that is nourishable, accessible, serviceable, and securable. The basics also include building in a way that is lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal. And the frugality should begin with the natural things, then using mechanical things to bridge the gap. If the basics (prerequisites) aren’t right, then things like the number of PV solar panels on the roof don’t matter nearly so much.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, January 8, 2010 - 02:45 PM

Green Curmudgeon

Great analysis of the LEED Homes awards.  I learned about them at Greenbuild last year and apparently there are no public criteria for winners, nor is there a call for entries.  My understanding is that providers submit projects to USGBC and the staff picks the winners, probably based on their point score or rating level.  It would be appropriate to have a judging panel and a guide for how projects would be judged, as well as either an open call for entries or else automatic entry of any certified project.  We can hope that this might some day come to pass

Friday, January 8, 2010 - 03:46 PM


   This points to two distinct problems that need to be addressed.

   1. LEED is being used to legitimize sprawl.

   2. The juries are stacked in favor of modernist design.

   The system is being used by those wishing to maintain the status quo of unsustainable urban patterns. The availability of tax credits, rebates, and other financial incentives will lead to tax dollars artificially inflating the market. Since the infrastructure and urban pattern of these developments is subsidized by tax revenue there is a double dip leaving somebody holding the bag. Most likely it will be borne by these same homeowners at some inconvenient time in the future. While I understand that it's better to move people towards the green light gradually, there still should be some warning label on these houses from LEED describing how the underlying urban pattern may be hazardous to their health.

   As per the design winners, I can imagine that there are competing goals for the jury. Rewarding those in the production housing industry to keep them enthusiastic, while also showcasing innovative design solutions. Hence, normative conventional suburban development winners with a few refugees from Taliesin West sneaking in. It would be far better to take the case of Original Green and Solutions Rooted in Tradition to the public at large then to curry favor with those prejudiced with a negative bias towards traditional and classical architecture.

Monday, January 11, 2010 - 05:12 PM

Ted Bardacke

The Chula Vista Multifamily project is less than 1/2 mile from a stop on the San Yisidro-Downtown San Diego streetcar line and is less than 800 feet away from two grocery stores. Most families have one car or less (with parking ratios on the project designed to accommodate just that) and is the second project in a significant transit oriented densification of a suburban location. The characterization that it is car-dependent is simply incorrect.

Monday, January 11, 2010 - 11:10 PM

Steve Mouzon

Ted, thanks for the comment. As noted, I felt the Chula Vista project was one of the two most promising ones. But as for the walkability, Google Earth shows that 1501 Broadway, Chula Vista, CA 91911 is sitting in the middle of a long stretch of a five-lane arterial, with sidewalks, where they exist, running between the arterial and front-facing parking lots. Many stretches of sidewalk are so eaten up with curb cuts that it's almost hard to call it a sidewalk. Bottom line, the Google Earth photo shows a place that's far more hostile to walk than a power center parking lot, where at least your life isn't in danger every moment. Even then, everyone knows that people won't even walk across the power center parking lot... they drive from the front of the Old Navy to the front of the Barnes & Noble, even if it's only 400 feet. How much less are they like to walk in an environment this hostile? So even though Walkscore shows lots of services within a half-mile, the likelihood of people walking in an environment so bad just isn't there... at least not today. In the real world, we can hope for a better tomorrow, but an awards program should be held to a higher standard so the winners are compelling. In other words, we need to be showing the most ideal conditions we can find today in an awards program, don't we?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 - 09:38 PM

John Thomas


   This has driven me crazy for years. 90% of the LEED residences I see fawned over in blogs are nothing more than green-washed ads for car-dependent housing tracts. There's usually also some idiotic copy in there about affordable housing about two sentences above where they disclose the $35/sq ft price. 

   The other major issue that most of the 1500 - 2000 square foot houses usually use invasive landscape plants and suck incredible amounts of water.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 - 09:41 PM

John Thomas

P.S. You even pictured the house in Eugene that I had in mind! It's the poster child for everything that's wrong with the LEED nonsense.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - 09:43 PM

David Brussat

You are a stern taskmaster, Steve. When I scrolled down your post prior to reading it I was pleasantly surprised - not by the beauty of the houses but by their relative lack of unabashed, breast-beating ugliness. I had expected that LEED home awards would go to the houses that had the sharpest crags jutting out at the most ridiculous angles, the places that most appeared to be designed to fall down. These houses at least made a minimal attempt to look like houses, vaguely traditional if not in the vicinity of lovable. Perhaps I am not paying enough attention to the latest green developments, but if this set of houses is at the top of the green game, then the game isn't as big a loser as I had figured. Good. Now if only LEED would pay more attention to the original green! - the way houses were built before our plug-in, switch-on style of life made houses the energy hogs they are. Gizmo green is not the way to go. Original green is.

Sunday, March 7, 2010 - 09:45 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks for the comments, John & David! There has been discussion within the USGBC for quite some time about this issue. The response I often get is "but how do you measure lovability?" That's one I can't answer yet with anything more satisfying than the infamous Supreme Court comment about pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." But we've gotta get better than that. I'm working on the beginnings of a system that, once it's a bit further along, I'll post news of here. But I'm not at all satisfied with it yet... it's just a start.

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