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Is the USGBC Sustainable?

FRIDAY, MAY 6, 2016

By Robert J. Kobet, AIA

It’s time to question the U.S. Green Building Council’s approach to transforming the building industry, according to LEED Fellow Jerry Yudelson.

Kobet Blog
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Is the leading green building organization failing?

He contends at its most fundamental levels it seems to be failing—and failing miserably, particularly in the U.S. He questions whether the dramatic changes that most of us agree are required for meaningful results in the green building industry will take place if the USGBC continues to be the leading national (and international) source of leadership and advocacy?

He cites the following two examples.

Using Social Media to Cover Up Lack of Progress

Yudelson is an avid Twitter user, with nearly 5,000 tweets since he started using the social media platform in 2009. He notes the USGBC’s marketing department has ramped up its social media strategy in 2016, tweeting dozens of times each week.

However, rather than providing the type of leadership and insights one might expect, more often than not, the organization republishes older material or issues “puff” releases; nothing involving thought leadership or what he believes constitutes honest reporting. The in-house “Green Building Studio” public relations team on the USGBC website shows 21 people on the roster, which could be more than the number devoted to improving LEED customer experience, he suggests.

Yudelson questions if this social media push is the result of a conscious decision to ramp up PR to cover up the lack of progress in convincing people to use the LEED system. He notes market penetration at the end of 2015 was fewer than 1 percent of U.S. nonresidential buildings (less than 4 percent if you count U.S. building area). USGBC posts and PR suggests there is a lot of momentum for green building certification, but the truth is LEED has “flat-lined” since 2012 and is not growing in the US, its most important market, Yudelson says.

Running a Money-Losing Organization

The USGBC’s 2014 Annual Report (available online) and, more importantly, the federal tax returns (called a Form 990) for 2013 and 2014, which can also be accessed online, indicate the USGBC ran a massive deficit in those past two years, the most recent for which there are public reports. 

Yet, the USGBC is now heavily promoting its CEO's new book, “Greenthink,” with the message that “profitability” is essential for “sustainability” (and vice versa). On page 13 of the 2014 Annual Report the USGBC discloses a consolidated loss of $14 million for 2013 and 2014 on continuing operations, including results from the profitable GBCI certification organization.



In the Form 990, required by the IRS to be filed by Nov. 15 each year for the preceding year, USGBC discloses a loss of $9.1 million for calendar year 2014 and, if you subtract the $34.4 million gain in 2013 from the sale of its crown jewel, the Greenbuild tradeshow, to Hanley Wood (now Informa), an $8.9 million loss in 2013. Two years, $18 million… gone. 

Moreover, the same IRS Form 990s show a decline in membership dues from about $15 million in 2012 to $10 million in 2014. The fact that USGBC member dues decreased one-third over those three years indicates further erosion of business support for the organization, one that is likely continuing as more companies find USGBC's activities irrelevant to their ongoing work in greening of design, construction and building operations, Yudelson notes.

Looking at these numbers, anyone concerned about the future of the green building movement should also be concerned about the long-term sustainability of the USGBC.

Those wishing to learn more about Yudelson’s observations may be interested in his upcoming book, “Reinventing Green Building,” to be published in June by New Society Publishers. In it, he presents five future scenarios for green building, especially certification, including an approach the USGBC could take to cut current LEED certification costs by 90 percent or more and, by so doing, dramatically expand the green building market in the next five years.


Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet has enjoyed a dual career as an architect and educator. For more than 35 years Kobet practiced internationally in the fields of sustainable design and development, high-performance green buildings, LEED consulting and environmental education. He is currently enjoying a working retirement that includes a position as adjunct faculty in the Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design where he teaches a variety of courses based on sustainability and regenerative environmental stewardship. For more about Kobet, please visit



Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Building design; Construction; Good Technical Practice; Green building; LEED; Schools; The Kobet Collaborative; Architecture; Color + Design; Design; Green design

Comment from Jesse Melton, (5/9/2016, 1:25 PM)

If tweeting "dozens of times each week" is a ramped up marketing tactic then someone should be sacked. One-off specialty retailers in dense shopping spaces tweet dozens of times a day. Organizations with no discernible need for Twitter (car insurance companies, nuclear power stations, utility easement monitors) tweet dozens of times a week. If you're marketing with the intention of burying unpleasant information you don't call attention to yourself with snippets of information designed to encourage people to check out what you're doing. Even NPO's with naive leadership looking out rose tinted office windows know that. Whatever else they may be, the USGBC is not naive. Look at the free press they're getting over this. As for cost cutting anything by 90%, that's naive. Any business professional will tell you 20% cost reductions, in anything, is borderline delusional. You start talking 25-30% and credibility crumbles. Cutting 30-50% of costs is the realm of leveraged buyouts and end results that have absolutely nothing in common with where things were. Beyond that is sophomoric drivel that would be cute if you came home and your kid had worked it out on the refrigerator using crayons. The USGBC may be sustainable, maybe not, time will tell. But ridiculous assertions with fantasy spreadsheets are not sustainable. That's the first lesson newly minted MBA's learn when they go to work.

Comment from Mikhail Davis, (5/9/2016, 2:30 PM)

Would be interesting to know the facts here. Not sure Jerry Y. is the most credible one to provide them given that he was until recently the head of the USGBC's industry-funded competition, Green Globes, which was created as a way to dilute the influence of LEED. Now there's an unsuccessful organization. Anyone ever used Green Globes?

Comment from Brian Hierlihy, (5/24/2016, 12:08 PM)

Green Globes and LEED are variants of BREEAM. BREEAM is about 25 years old. The LEED variant is about 17 years old. ANSI/GBI 01-2010 (Green Building Assessment Protocol for Commercial Buildings) is based on Green Globes. One industry comparison can be found here

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