What’s in a green name?

As more companies shoot for LEED certification, more are asking what it really means

Monuments to progress: CityCenter’s Aria and Vdara join the city’s LEED-certified buildings.
Photo: Richard Brian

An environmentally friendly casino has to be a contradiction in terms. Giant buildings that welcome and encourage the extravagant, wasteful behavior of thousands of guests at the same time hardly seem like a recipe for saving Mother Earth. But on the Strip, even sustainability can be made into a virtue, provided the example is sufficiently large.

And so it goes at the mammoth CityCenter project, where two of its signature buildings, Aria and Vdara, both set to open in December, have recently been certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council, the first hotels in Vegas to be so designated. Since its inception in 1998, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has become the standard for measuring the eco-friendliness of buildings—and the chief marker for developers and builders to brag about the expensive ends to which they go to green the planet.

The buildings’ bona fides include: an 8.5-megawatt natural-gas co-generation plant onsite to produce electricity; water conservation programs that will save around a third of the water used inside the buildings and some 60 percent outdoors; a limo fleet running on cleaner-burning compressed natural gas; slot machines with built-in air-conditioning units at their bases. In addition, some 260,000 tons of construction waste were recycled or reused during construction. According to MGM, the energy savings at the two projects will equal the power used to run 8,800 households per year.

According to the Nevada chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, there are already 26 LEED-certified projects in Nevada, including buildings at the Springs Preserve (and, in the interest of full disclosure, the Greenspun Media Group, which houses the offices of Las Vegas Weekly). “I think LEED and the whole certification process has been good to raise public awareness of sustainability,” says Curt Carlson, vice president of design for SH Architecture. “In general, it’s definitely brought it to the forefront. Even if [people] don’t know exactly what it means, it has something to do with sustainability, and it makes them think in that direction.”

“It’s the best rating out there in the current building industry for recognizing green buildings,” adds Deepika Padam, president of the Nevada chapter of the Green Building Council.

But LEED has come under criticism over the years for the arbitrariness of its standards. A new version, LEED 3.0, was launched this spring. One of its goals is to put more focus on regional differences to note, for instance, that buildings in Las Vegas, as Carlson explains, are designed differently and use energy differently than buildings in Maine. Another, says Padam, is to put more emphasis on energy efficiency and carbon dioxide reduction.

Lastly, the new LEED standards will require buildings to submit ongoing performance data in order to maintain certification. Last year, 121 LEED-certified buildings participated in a study by the New Buildings Institute, which found that these buildings used 24 percent less energy than the national average for commercial building stock. Still, it bears noting that the study was funded by the USGBC.

And in what is expected to be a $60-billion market for green building technology by 2010, there’s the concern of green-washing—developers tacking on solar panels that don’t really improve building performance, or, perhaps worse, constructing sustainable buildings such as parking garages that seem to go against the very goals of sustainability. At a presentation last week sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, urbanist and architect Douglas Farr pointed out that “LEED doesn’t have a credit for bad ideas.”

He showed slides of a “green” school in a small west Texas town that is located farther away from the town than the school it replaced. Sure, it features a bioswale to capture storm-water runoff from the parking lot—but the old school didn’t have a parking lot.

Farr helped developed standards for LEED neighborhood development. LEED, he said, is a “powerful force in the marketplace,” but he noted that sustainability must go beyond a green building here or there, even when those buildings are as impressive as the ones at CityCenter. “The idea you can fix the world a building at a time, even a platinum building, is hilarious.”


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