While the U.S. Green Building Council continues to hammer out the specifics of the next iteration of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the go-to standard for green and sustainable buildings, it may face a formidable opponent. A new lobbying group called the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition is gearing up to challenge LEED version 4.
The coalition is made up of about 27 U.S. business and manufacturing interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the Vinyl Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the Adhesives and Sealants Council and the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing.
The coalition began its efforts by sending a letter to the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and a number of U.S. House representatives, putting forth objections that LEED version 4 is not “science-based” and does not use a “true consensus approach” to development. The group of congressional representatives who received the letter have, in turn, crafted their own letter to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) that cites “arbitrary chemical restrictions” that are “becoming a tool to punish chemical companies.”
The challenge is well timed. The GSA will shortly begin its review of LEED as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) revises the standard. The GSA currently requires a minimum LEED Gold certification for all new federal building construction and major renovation work. For leased properties, the GSA requires at least LEED Silver certification for new construction lease projects that exceed 10,000 square feet.
The attack on the GSA’s LEED mandate is for good reason. The federal government, including the military, is the single largest user of the LEED rating system. The GSA owns or leases a total of 361 million square feet of space across 9,600 facilities, and it wields considerable clout in the sustainable building marketplace. Seven percent of LEED-certified projects and 11.5 percent of buildings awaiting certification are federal government buildings. Federal, state and local government buildings comprise 27 percent of LEED-certified projects.
“GSA has, in effect, established a monopoly for the U.S. Green Building Council,” says Keith Christman, managing director for plastics at the American Chemistry Council (ACC). “Now, the Green Building Council has had a dramatic departure from encouraging people to make energy-efficient buildings to encouraging them to avoid materials that are used in energy-efficient buildings,” he says.
Legitimate Disadvantages of LEED
There are legitimate concerns about LEED. The moment a building project resolves to pursue LEED, the costs of both design and construction rise. Observers say this is due to the fact that design professionals have less familiarity with sustainable construction practices and therefore must spend more time on research. In addition, raw materials for LEED-certified buildings may be costlier and harder to obtain. In the long run, however, the higher design and construction costs involved in sustainable buildings are offset by significant cost savings during the building’s lifetime, thanks to energy savings.
Another concern is that current LEED standards are not climate specific, and therefore builders in rainy parts of the country are chasing the same LEED points as builders in the Southwest, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, according to critics. (Version 4 of LEED is expected to address this.)
Finally, many builders object to the costs associated with certification, noting that money would be better spent toward further greening a project. Some critics have complained that the costs of LEED compliance have spiked sharply recently, while administrative support from the USGBC has not kept pace with the hikes.
The cited disadvantages of LEED are not what the new coalition finds objectionable, however. At the heart of the coalition’s dissent is a new LEED credit proposed in version 4 called the Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern, which would reward builders that select chemicals proven to be less hazardous. According to the ACC, the credit is “not a science-based approach,” since the chemicals being avoided have not been conclusively proven to be unsafe.
“A truly science-based approach would consider all facts, not selectively chosen attributes of ingredients in products. The avoidance and listings credits take a hazard-only approach, excluding the questions of exposure or actual risk,” wrote the ACC.
A Massive Greenwashing Effort?
There are plenty of critics of the new coalition. TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter, who writes about green architecture and design, is accusing the coalition of having been established to defend the use of “poison plastics” in the building industry. “It is the greenwashing joke of the decade,” he concludes.
BuildingGreen.com, which calls the coalition’s charter “the chemical and plastic industries’ attack on LEED,” has separated out from the charter what it says are “lies.” (A list of the coalition’s claims and the USGBC’s rebuttal to those claims can be found here.)
The struggle over the proposed new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern credit and the differences between the USGBC and the new coalition would appear to be a “glass half-full/half-empty” argument. In essence, the USGBC is saying that since certain chemicals have been proven to be more safe, they should be favored. The coalition is saying that since certain chemicals haven’t been proven to be less safe, it’s unfair to avoid them.
The coalition’s approach is more in keeping with the way chemicals are regulated in the country. In Europe, chemical manufacturers have the responsibility to prove a substance is safe before it’s sold, while in the market-friendly United States, environmental protection groups have a responsibility to prove a substance isn’t safe.
The National Resource Defense Council’s Jennifer Sass wrote:
The American Chemistry Council, the trade organization that represents the corporations that make yesteryear’s old dinosaur war-era toxic chemicals, are so offended by the idea of including human health into a green building standard that they’ve decided to push the government to reject LEED for government buildings.”
Politics, As Usual
The coalition and its charter members have a lot of support in Congress (notably from the quarters that typically object to any type of environmental legislation). According to The Hill, in May, Representative Mike Pompeo (Republican-Kan.) collected signatures from 55 other House representatives from both parties and sent a letter to acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini demanding that the GSA ditch the LEED system if version 4′s proposed changes take effect. In the Senate, senators Mary Landrieu (Democrat-La.) and David Vitter (Republican-La.) mustered support from 16 other senators and sent a similar letter to Tangherlini in June.
The activities of both the coalition and its House supporters have put the USGBC on the defensive, forcing it to remind its foes that development of LEED standards is a rigorous, democratic process that opens itself up to feedback and comments at every step and not a draconian proclamation made by a few politically motivated green interests.
In addition, the USGBC is trying to change perceptions that new LEED point structures such as the Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern credit are requirements. They represent an opportunity to earn more LEED credits, but certification can still be attained without them.
For its part, the USGBC says it welcomes the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition to an engaged conversation about the importance of sustainable buildings but hopes that the conversation is based on facts. Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at the USGBC, notes, “We welcome the announcement of the formation of the American High-Performance Building Council, but as Ronald Reagan once said, we will ‘trust but verify.’”