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Synthesis/Regeneration 53   (Fall 2010)

The Church of LEED, Passive House and the Dangers of Going Green

by Jeff Dardozzi

The Green Tragedy: LEED's Lost Decade, by Pat Murphy, Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions (publisher), 2009, $12.95. ISBN 978-0910420334

Pat Murphy's new book, The Green Tragedy: LEED's Lost Decade, is a dry but worthwhile effort to debunk the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) claims regarding its flagship LEED program. [1] Anyone interested in solid accounting of the shortcomings of the LEED rating system and the buildings it certifies will find his book compelling.

Neither USGBC and passive house offer real evidence that their approaches
will produce meaningful ecological outcomes.

Murphy's arguments center on the fact that LEED certified buildings have failed by virtue of their core metrics and therefore mislead the public in claims to sustainability. The LEED program, he suggests, does not sufficiently emphasize those areas of "building performance" most relevant to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, preferring to pursue broader and, in his opinion, more subjective qualities that have little bearing on climate change (CC). While his critique of LEED is valid, Murphy alternatively advocates for the hyper-rationality of the Passive House as a response to the ecological crisis, failing to understand that the crisis is social in origin.

Both USGBC and passive house offer no real evidence that their approaches will produce meaningful ecological outcomes as both programs rely on the scientifically untenable, and largely unquestioned, assumptions of bourgeois ideology. [2]


USGBC has dominated the discourse in the US on sustainable building practices for the last decade not because it has good ideas based on a sound understanding of the issues but because it is an industry trade organization with a well funded mandate. USGBC's current budget is $46,000,000. The truth and the absurdity of its premises, as Murphy points out, can be found in the pending certification of one single family home, 24 stories tall with a 168 car garage and three heli-pads, for an Indian billionaire.

The logic of LEED is that it can be applied to any building regardless of social context and the consequences of the activity taking place within the structure. A nuclear weapons factory, a biological warfare lab or a concentration camp could carry a platinum rating. Guantanamo could be redeemed by virtue of bike racks, orange jumpsuits made from recycled fiber, cattle prods energized by photovoltaics and water-boarding conducted with reclaimed gray water.

A nuclear weapons factory, a biological warfare lab or a concentration camp
could carry a platinum rating.

As Murphy accurately points out, LEED is a teleological construct, a straw man argument which industry has made in an effort to create a "new" market for its members' products and services. Its much vaunted third party verification is little more than a revenue generating scheme and a PR stunt. There is no body of evidence that validates USGBC claims that its LEED program will contribute to the development of a sustainable society as its core assumptions are little more than articles of faith.

The problem begins with the definition of sustainability most used by LEED professionals:

Sustainability is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. [3]

The definition, originating with the 1987 UN Bruntland Commission, is oft repeated but is far too vague to be operational as it can mean anything to anyone and is therefore essentially, and conveniently, meaningless. How we are to know what the "needs" of a specific future generation are is never stated. Human needs are so bound by context, contingent on circumstance and central to our ever changing sense of being, that to suggest knowledge of something so complex is like predicting a specific instance of weather in 2130.

Furthermore, perception of need is highly contingent on frames of reference largely established by, and controlled by, powerful social institutions. Middle class standards of living are defined not by innate thresholds of human tolerances or evolved systems of adaptation and survival, but by the profit demands of corporate power which must vigorously safeguard and manipulate those perceptions in order to maintain dominance in the social hierarchy. The homebuilding industry spends billions in advertising dollars annually to convince Americans that a "real" home requires superficially opulent luxuries, synthetic veneers, climate controlled interiors, granite counter tops and bathrooms that could house an entire family. All the green building movement seeks to do is legitimize that perception by claiming it can be made environmentally benign.

Passive house

While the USGBC program falls short of its claims, passive house (PH) is another story. [4] The term passive house refers to a rigorous, voluntary standard developed by the Passive House Institute in Germany for energy efficiency in buildings resulting in very low energy requirements for space heating or cooling. The underlying idea of PH is that we can design and build modern homes with radically reduced energy footprints, intimating that such reductions will reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions as well as conserve resources.

Middle class standards of living are defined not by innate thresholds of human tolerances
...but by the profit demands of corporate power

The ideas and methods for constructing buildings that leverage design and material advantages to produce comfortable and environmentally integrated buildings that consume very little energy have been the staple of vernacular buildings for eons. Historically, resource-inefficient buildings were (and continue to be) the domain of wealth and power. By virtue of metaphor and symbol, architecture became a formal means not by which to achieve social harmony and environmental integration but to express social power, that is, power over others and over nature. Recently, the environmental crisis has spawned a global realization that the economic system is the primary destructive agent in the ecological equation. In response, those whose interests are now threatened are staging a campaign to convince us that the dominant paradigm can be operated in an ecologically benign manner. Passive House is, in spirit and in substance, part of this campaign.

Energy and social power are obviously closely related:

Last year, the 296 million people in the USA used 97 quadrillion BTUs of energy. To put that huge number into perspective, each of us used about 328 million BTUs during the year, the equivalent of 96,000 Kilowatt hours of electricity. [5]

According to the Energy Information Administration, space heating for homes amounts to less than 5 quadrillion Btus, compared to the 97 quadrillion consumed annually by the nation. [6] However, it is misleading to suggest that Americans share equally in consuming energy. The biggest user of energy, of course, is the system itself, approximately 80% of all energy consumed. The system is being defined as those areas of social life directly and indirectly involved in constructing power: commercial enterprises including everything from chemical production to movie making, transportation and communication networks, institutional endeavors such as schools, universities, research facilities, non-governmental organizations, government and military. In short, the whole of our society.

The fact is that the bulk of our energy consumption has to do with its conversion to political, economic and military power and that the vast majority of Americans do not benefit equally from the nation's energy use. Reducing energy consumption of our homes would only marginally reduce the amount of energy consumed by individuals and not reduce the aggregate amount of energy consumed by our society due to the ecological paradox first articulated by Jevons. [7] The myth of resource efficiency improvements within the current economic system has been debunked, yet energy efficiency (EE) advocates like Murphy continue advocating actions for reasons that are demonstrably false.

....architecture became a formal means not by which to achieve social harmony
and environmental integration but to express social power.

It would appear to be misleading a discussion to suggest the importance of home heating when it comprises less than 5% of the total energy pie while simultaneously ignoring the fact that the largest consumer of energy and the largest source of GHG emissions is the system itself. Any savings in energy consumption of a passive house will merely become a subsidy to be consumed elsewhere to maintain the power system. In light of this, and the fact that ecological outcomes cannot be linked directly to EE strategies, the question must be raised: why is it so important to Murphy, PH and USGBC that society pursue them?

The truth is, most Americans are unwilling to acknowledge that we are, in fact, utterly powerless to change the course of something that has thousands of years of momentum moving through it. It is the only explanation for the long and continuing disaster that has been unfolding. For centuries we have believed ourselves omnipotent, the conquering of nature a foregone conclusion, as mankind sought its destiny. Each step of the way, we convinced ourselves that our rulers and their technicians knew what they were doing. The historical trail of our civilization suggests otherwise, as it is littered with one obscene catastrophe after another which manifests as disease, poverty, war, genocide and ecocide.

We are trained to ignore such facts as the price we pay for progress, yet we go on to repeat the errors with such frequency, believing them just some sort of minor technical glitch. Everywhere you look within industrial/technocratic societies, the human and ecological catastrophes are so immense that the only way we survive psychically is to engage in mass collective denial of reality, immersing ourselves in the synthetic worlds of our culture industries.

Any savings in energy consumption of a passive house will merely become a subsidy
to be consumed elsewhere to maintain the power system.

The nature of the problem lies in human cognition and our limited ability to understand the world as it really is. It is a terrifying prospect to admit that, at the core of our being, there lies something that presents an impenetrable mystery to the rational mind and confounds the instrumental use of reason. It is that terrifying prospect that rattles the cage, and where the profound importance of the ritualistic displays of rationality such as LEED or Passive House comes into play. They console that "self" of the modern world with soothing tales that "yes, we can," that we are indeed, the powerful souls we think we are and we can run the world according to our wishes.

"Assumptions are the mother of all fuck-ups" [8]

We are now learning things about selves that are in complete contrast to what we have been taught to be true for hundreds of years. The model of human agency and the assumptions that underlie it frame our entire political, legal and economic system, and that model is now being shown to be false:

These assumptions culminate in the widespread and persistent belief that regardless of physiological processes, developmental history, or current circumstances, the person is "free" to choose any course of action among the alternatives that present themselves. This view of human behavior is simply untenable from a scientific perspective. [9]

This belief is the basis of selfhood in the form of the rational agent. The narratives and legitimation rituals of our society are designed to enforce this conception of the human animal but they ultimately depend on the acceptance of these assumptions of the self as true:

Americans accept these assumptions as a true account of the human animal without reservation, unconsciously conforming themselves to the behavioral models prescribed by elites, all the while thinking that such models are the product of individual will. This singular conception of mankind has served as justification for capitalism's systematic destruction of human community and ecosystems for four hundred years. The ecological and social catastrophe devastating the planet clearly shows that capitalism's hero, "the selfish individual," has no idea what he is doing, and now we know why: the hero's life is based on a lie.

When it comes to buildings, it is an elemental truth that our dwellings are powerful metaphors, for they are the physical embodiment of lived social relations and the underlying narratives that construct social reality - a social reality that has created the crises that Murphy claims as the cause of his advocacy. Neither PH nor USGBC programs alter this situation in any way, as they affect neither the underlying social relations, their concomitant mode of production nor its epistemology. On the contrary, programs like passive house and LEED ultimately seek to codify the situation to the point of total encapsulation within the bourgeois world view where the relations between nature and humanity are mediated by elites and technology, under the false assumption that we can control outcomes.

Food, buildings and all other areas of material culture are precisely the place to begin redefining the terms of a different social life and the nature of our relationship with the earth. The material conditions of daily life are changing rapidly, and the old narratives are no longer believable. All those trapped in the fairy tales of a dying world and who share a desire for another must first abandon those conceptions of selfhood inculcated from the moment of birth. It is only there that begins the journey to a different world that has already begun to emerge.

Jeff Dardozzi is co-founder of the Earth Alchemists, a design/build collective based in Central Pennsylvania.


1. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. See

2. For further discussion on bourgeois ideology see Harvie Ferguson, The Science of Pleasure: Cosmos and Psyche in the Bourgeois World View, (London: Routledge, 1990).

3. Gro Harlem Brundtland (chair) and the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), ch.2 section IV.1.

4. Passive House Institute http://www.passivehouse.us/passiveHouse/PHIUSHome.html

5. Jennifer Barker, How Many "Energy Slaves" Do We Employ? Altenergy Magazine, http://www.altenergymag.com/emagazine.php?issue_number=06.08.01&article=slaves

6. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2008, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/pdf/pages/sec2_22.pdf

7. John M. Polimeni et. al, Jevons' Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd. , 2008).

8. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, DVD. Directed by Guy Ritchie 1999, London: Summit Entertainment.

9. J. Michaels and R.R.Vallacher, The Ghost in the System: Where Free Will Lurks in Human Minds. In-Mind Magazine, October 21, 2009, p. 9.

10. Jon D. Hanson and David G. Yosifon, The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-33 (2004).

[10 sep 10]

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