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Proposed Change In LEED Standards Sparks Controversy

Opponents contend that revised building rating system would target chemicals in construction materials

by Glenn Hess
July 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 30

Credit: Shutterstock
The chemical industry is fighting an effort to encourage builders to avoid using materials such as PVC pipes and certain plastic insulation in construction.
This is a picture of a green office building.
Credit: Shutterstock
The chemical industry is fighting an effort to encourage builders to avoid using materials such as PVC pipes and certain plastic insulation in construction.

Chemical makers are conducting an aggressive lobbying campaign aimed at stopping the General Services Administration from adopting a proposed revised rating system for green building construction. GSA oversees the leasing and construction of more than 9,600 buildings in the federal government’s real estate portfolio.

The chemical industry is focusing on proposed modifications to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (GBC) Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program. These changes, it says, would discourage builders that want to earn green building certification from using materials that contain certain chemicals and resins, such as polyurethane foam insulation and polyvinyl chloride piping.

“Chemistry plays an essential role in advancing energy efficiency and sustainability in the building and construction sector,” says Calvin M. Dooley, president and chief executive officer of the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing major chemical and plastics manufacturers.

ACC’s member companies are concerned, Dooley says, that a proposed update to the rating system for green construction currently used by GSA will “arbitrarily limit important products such as high-tech plastic insulations, reflective roofing membranes, and solar panels.” As a result, he says, this would “hurt American manufacturing jobs and drive up taxpayers’ costs.”

But GBC says the proposed changes to its widely used rating system would not ban any products. Instead, they tend to encourage the use of building materials that are well documented as safe. The council is a building industry trade group with more than 16,000 member companies and organizations.

Since 2006, GSA has been using LEED as the federal government’s exclusive green building rating system; the agency requires that all newly built or renovated federal offices meet these sustainable design standards. Under a law Congress passed the following year—the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007—the agency is conducting a mandated review of various certification systems. The evaluation is required every five years.

“As part of this review, there will be extensive opportunity for public comment and consultation with other agencies,” says GSA spokesman Daniel C. Cruz. “GSA remains committed to making the federal government’s building portfolio more efficient” to save taxpayer dollars.

Because the next version of LEED is not yet final, the agency has not assessed any of the potential changes under consideration by GBC, Cruz says. Instead, GSA is evaluating the current version of LEED and two other options. One is the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes, which is touted as a “business-friendly and affordable alternative” to LEED. The other is the International Living Building Challenge’s certification for net-zero-energy buildings, which rely on technologies such as wind and solar power to meet all heating, cooling, and electricity needs.

GSA will make a final recommendation to the Department of Energy about green building certification systems for the federal government later this year, Cruz says. Under the 2007 law, the secretary of the Department of Energy, in consultation with the Department of Defense and GSA, will decide which system or systems will be used across the federal sector.

The government, including the military, has been one of the largest customers for LEED rating systems. According to GBC, 7% of LEED-certified projects and nearly 12% of those pending certification are federal government buildings. The public sector as a whole—federal, state, and local governments combined—accounts for 27% of LEED-certified projects.

LEED is based on a 100-point formula. The more credits a project earns in several categories, such as sustainable site development, water savings, and energy efficiency, the higher a rating it earns on the LEED scale—platinum is the highest rating, followed by gold, silver, and certified. Currently, GSA requires that all new construction and substantial renovation of federally owned buildings achieve at least LEED gold status.

GBC, which updates LEED standards periodically, last revised them in 2009. The latest proposed update includes a new credit that industry critics and their congressional supporters say could sway the market to use other materials.

The credit for “avoidance of chemicals of concern” would encourage LEED project teams to “specify materials that do not contain chemicals that are known to negatively impact human health,” specifically in regard to cancer and reproductive toxicity, according to a summary of the proposal. GBC’s list of chemicals and categories includes antimony, perfluorinated compounds, and carcinogens listed in California’s Proposition 65.

“LEED pushes the envelope to bring transformation to the market. That’s what we do,” says Scot Horst, GBC’s senior vice president for LEED. “We remain committed to that, and to making sure that what we deliver is complete and can be successfully implemented.”

Encouraging architects and builders to avoid “an arbitrary list of nearly a thousand chemicals” will have the “detrimental effect of reducing the use of the very materials needed to achieve real gains in energy efficiency,” Dooley argues. “As long as GBC pushes for provisions designed to restrict certain” chemicals, he remarks, “I and others will continue to call for the removal of these arbitrary and counterproductive measures.”

Chemical companies are getting support from their allies on Capitol Hill. In a May 18 letter to GSA Acting Administrator Daniel M. Tangherlini, 55 members of the House of Representatives—47 Republicans and eight Democrats—from 25 states asked the agency to stop using the LEED rating system unless GBC drops the chemical avoidance provision.

The restrictions would force government agencies to use more costly materials in construction projects, the lawmakers contend. “We are deeply concerned that the LEED rating system is becoming a tool to punish chemical companies and plastics makers and spread misinformation about materials that have been at the forefront of improving environmental performance—and even occupant safety—and in buildings,” the letter says.

A bipartisan group of 18 senators sent a similar message to GSA last month. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) says she gathered signatures for the letter because she believes the LEED program should remain focused on increasing building efficiency. “I do not believe the LEED standard is an appropriate way to regulate chemicals used in energy-efficient buildings,” she remarks.

GBC’s members were scheduled to vote last month on whether to adopt the proposed update. But in light of the criticism—and after the council received more than 22,000 responses during several public comment periods—balloting was put off until June 1, 2013.

“As we’ve gone through public comment and engaged in hundreds of discussions with our members, we have heard repeatedly that while our community continues to fully embrace our mission, they need more time to absorb the changes we’re proposing and to get their businesses ready to take the step with us,” says S. Richard Fedrizzi, president and CEO of GBC.

The council denies that the new standards would eliminate certain chemicals from LEED buildings and stresses that the contemplated materials credits are entirely voluntary. The revised system would use private market incentives to reward companies that produce more transparent, well-documented building materials, says Roger Platt, GBC’s senior vice president of global policy and law.

“There is no ‘red list’ of banned chemicals,” he remarks. “All LEED certification levels can be attained regardless of a project’s decision to pursue these optional credits.”

Platt also says there is no evidence that the proposed building standard will result in job losses or increased costs. Instead, he expects the updated system will spur job creation from new building construction and energy-efficient retrofits.

Platt adds that LEED-certified buildings routinely cost the same or less to construct than conventional buildings, “yet save taxpayers significant amounts of money because of their high level of energy efficiency.” The council, he says, will continue working with stakeholders from across the building industry “to ensure that LEED remains the most widely used high-performance building rating system in the world.”

At a hearing that GSA held on June 25, Keith Christman, ACC’s managing director of plastic markets, asserted that by endorsing LEED, the agency was unfairly providing a monopoly to one group’s standards. “No one green building system meets all the federal requirements,” he said. “There is no basis for the continued monopoly for LEED within the federal government.”


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