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On “Government” (Summer 2011)

Michael Liu’s article, “The Shadow Government,” was a welcome addition to the discussion of how best to transform the building industry toward sustainability. The ever-changing world of green building requires continued discussion, re-evaluation, and evolution, from the foundations of the LEED green building rating systems that help us engage an entire industry to the AP+ credentials of the implementers.

In fact, the stakeholders participating in the discussion are what have made LEED successful. The painstaking, volunteer-driven, consensus-based process for rating-system development depends on community involvement. The verification and certification infrastructure behind this rating system certainly has a cost to maintain; however, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) is committed to reducing the cost of certification and increasing the number of certifications through initiatives like the Volume Program and LEED Automation.

Like LEED, the Accredited Professional credential was developed as a tool for market transformation. After some experience implementing a rating system in the real world, the presence of professional silos preventing the uptake of green principles became apparent. Architects, engineers, developers, code officials, and contractors had all begun to speak the same language, but they certainly weren’t fluent. Someone who could fill in the gaps and communicate across industry silos was required, hence the development of the LEED AP. Since that time, the industry has demanded greater levels of expertise in addition to familiarity with principles, and the credentialing system has grown. Like the pursuit of LEED certification itself, the use of LEED APs by project teams is completely voluntary.

As the industry evolves, the basic principles of green building design will become basic principles of all building design, requiring an evolution of not only the rating system but also the education and credentialing system. The evolution will continue until the mission is completed and every building is truly sustainable. Silly titles aside, we welcome constructive contributions to this vital discussion.

Lane Burt
Director, Technical Policy, US Green Building Council

Washington, DC

Congratulations to Michael Liu for exposing the sham called LEED [“The Shadow Government”]. If I have my facts right, it was started by a marketing director, a lawyer, and a used-car salesman (that may be hyperbole), but there is no doubt that it has grown into a feel-good, huge, money-making organization devoid, as Liu points out, of any serious supervision about claims or structure. True, the USGBC has raised awareness, but at what cost to the actual understanding of sustainability? What was not said is that the AIA should have been out in front of this issue rather than allowing sustainability to become just another commercial enterprise. Real sustainability is affordable for everyone, but LEED isn’t.

Jeremiah Eck FAIA
Eck | MacNeely Architects


My congratulations to Michael Liu for suggesting the emperor has no clothes [“The Shadow Government”]. In my view, USGBC and LEED are a direct threat to our profession — and to our children’s survival.

Those of us at May’s AIA convention heard Thomas Friedman make that point starkly in his keynote address: Right now, we are all having a Green Party, when what is required is a Green Revolution. At parties, it’s about everyone having a good time; in revolutions, it’s about change or die. We can build all the LEED-certified buildings we want, but by itself that will do little to solve the problems — not only because 98 percent of the building stock is already here but also because it is the settlement pattern and corresponding lifestyles that require correction. This is only one of the reasons why LEED and the USGBC are actually an impediment to real solutions: Their focus is dangerously misplaced, while providing participants with a feel-good gold star for their foreheads. What worked in third grade seems a poor model for grownups to follow.

Real solutions to a “hot, flat, and crowded” world lie at a scale well beyond the parts of the building, or even the building itself. It is clear that solutions lie at the community, city, regional, and national scales: it’s about walkable cities, work/live in the same places, mass transit, higher densities. Finding those solutions likely points to firms that are integrated across disciplines, because solutions are going to be systems-level solutions.

If architects are to remain viable as independent professionals, that is the path that is required to stay ahead of the curve. Without this understanding, architects will simply become a small design cog in a large systems wheel. The bigger vision will be lost, and the course steered will fall to the likes of the USGBC and their unfortunate self-serving bureaucracy. I’d like to see architects at the helm on this one, as we have already given away too many parts of our profession.

In closing, I urge ArchitectureBoston to adopt a formal policy to stop printing the LEED letters after architects’ names. As licensed professionals, placing LEED after one’s name is a tacit admission that you once did not know how to score points, but now you do. Why is that a credential worthy of our profession?

Sergio Modigliani AIA
Sergio Modigliani Architects
Brookline, Massachusetts

Although ArchitectureBoston’s “Government Issue” was both timely and thoughtful, I read with consternation Chris Walsh’s characterization of Massachusetts’ affordable-housing zoning law, Chapter 40B. To begin, Walsh fails to mention that in the November 2010 election there was a referendum question on 40B, and Massachusetts voters decided to continue
the program.

Although it is true that 51 communities have exceeded their 10 percent threshold, which Walsh asserts as evidence of the program’s failure, it is also true that, at present, 117 municipalities only need to produce or preserve fewer than 100 units to reach the 10 percent threshold. Walsh alleges that the 40B program eats up open space. This does not reflect the reality of Massachusetts land use in which large-lot zoning is probably the most important determinant of housing development, and particularly so when coupled with Title V and the Wetland Protection Act, neither of which is suspended in determining site acceptability. In fact, increasing housing density under 40B is actually more land efficient. Further, the expiration date of low-income use requirements referred to applies to subsidy or financing programs and does not apply to Chapter 40B developments that are held in perpetuity through zoning.

Citing the Columbia Point development as a failed large urban housing project neglects its complicated history as Boston’s largest public housing development, the lurches and retreats of federal housing policy, the geographic isolation of the development, its history as a dump, and its miraculous conversion in 1984 into the mixed-income Harbor Point development.

Walsh’s critique may make for good sound bites on the campaign trail, but the inaccuracies of his examples and general lack of understanding of the history and context of affordable housing sadly misrepresent reality, to the detriment of your readers and those they may influence.

Diane Georgopulos FAIA
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Ms. Georgopulos has worked for 25 years as an architect for MassHousing, the state’s affordable housing finance agency.

I opened ArchitectureBoston’s “Government Issue” with great anticipation but found little within to be upbeat about. From the editor’s opening observation that 69 percent of respondents in a recent student survey believe that community service is honorable while almost no architects serve in elected office, it seems obvious that there is a world of difference between advocating for good design in the public realm and actually serving in public office, unfortunately exemplified by the recent conviction of yet
another Massachusetts State House leader.

At a time when popular opinion is running against “big government,” our failure to maintain bridges, build a successful public education system, invest in smart growth, or even provide adequate healthcare to all is a failure of political leadership, not government, be it big or small. In a society driven by sound bites and devoid of critical thinking, it is easy to conflate government with politics. But contrary to what we hear, government at all levels is filled with many smart, talented, and even idealistic people who want to be challenged to do the right thing, as James Kostaras notes in “What I Learned.”

If, as Vernon Woodworth tells us in “Notes From the Suggestion Box,” technology will soon allow us to model performance and regulatory metrics of all sorts, we need political leadership with a compelling vision for this future. And with political vision should come a commitment to honest and timely assessment of government programs.

Idealistic? Yes. Unrealistic? No. But as long as we keep seeing the “problem” as government and fail to demand political vision and leadership, and as long as the electorate is titillated by elk-shooting, combed-over candidates, and not challenging government to be all that it can be, there is no purpose for architects to seek public office.

George Metzger AIA
HMFH Architects
Cambridge, Massachusetts