LEED’s Lure: Builders Reach Higher For Marketing Benefits

Shiny new green labels are spurring developers to reach higher than they otherwise would when they design and build sustainable buildings, according to a new study.

The research, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology and explored in Chemical & Engineering News, was aimed at uncovering what role “green signaling mechanisms” – that is, things beyond benefits like lower operating costs – played in dictating the level of performance developers went after.

LEED marketing benefits

For the buildings in the study, the LEED rating gave certifications at the 26, 33, 39 and 52-point levels, and researchers found that’s where buildings clustered. (image via Environmental Science & Technology)

Their conclusion: “Marketing benefits due to LEED certification drives organizations to build ‘greener’ buildings by upgrading buildings at the thresholds to reach certification levels.”

The researchers from Georgia Tech and Indiana University Purdue University analyzed thousands of LEED buildings. A key to their argument that marketing advantages were motivating developers to higher performance ratings was the way buildings clustered just above the various certification levels – Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. If performance alone was the consideration, the distribution would be more evenly distributed.

“The green signaling mechanism that occurs at the certification thresholds shifts building patterns from just below to just above the threshold level, and motivates builders to cluster buildings just above each threshold,” the researchers reported.

In her piece about the research for C&EN, Jane Pelley talked to Harvey Mudd College professor Paul F. Steinberg for an outside opinion. He agreed with the conclusion that LEED’s success as a marketing tool – or at least, its perceived success – was having a big impact on the vast building industry. The study “shows that the LEED thresholds change behavior because people are stretching to gain points to make the threshold,” Steinberg said.

The study’s authors added that their finding were “consistent across subsamples, though nonprofit organizations appear to build greener buildings and engage in more green signaling than for-profit entities.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • craigatyler

    I have no idea where these “researchers” got their rating numbers but LEED Version 2009 and LEED V4 both use Cerified (40-49), Silver (50-59), Gold (60-79) and Platinum (80 and above) out of a 100 point system with 10 additonal points avaiable as “bonus points”. Did anybody fact check or peer review the study?

    • Pete D

      Up to 2009, it was a 69-point scale and those were the buildings that were in the study.

      • craigatyler

        I reviewed the study (available on the link you provided).
        So the value of the study from 2014 is drastically diminished by reviewing data from Versions 2.0 and 2.2. The conclusions are based on 5 year old or older data. I know you didn’t write the study, but the basis of the discussion seems downplayed by the age of the data. Also the assumption the researchers make is that owners are “reaching” for the next level which is why the clusters exit at the edges, when in reality, with all the LEED projects I have worked on as an Architect, have aimed higher than we wanted to be. This is due to the construction process and issues with either collected all the paperwork or getting the LEED reviewer to “give” all the points we intended to achieve. So we always fell below the number we were “trying” to achieve. This isn’t an aiming for the top scenario but an accepting a lower rating scenario. LEED is not and has nver been a Checklist where you achieve points because you say you are going to achieve them – it is a dynamic process.

        • Pete D

          Interesting. So when a project inevitably failed to get “all the points we intended to achieve,” did it therefore not receive the certification level that the client was hoping to receive?