Henri Obasi

When USGBC staff set out to upgrade the LEED rating system for 2012, it expected a healthy debate, but not a national controversy. Two discretionary credits in the Materials and Resources category designed to promote transparency and optimization for chemicals used in building materials prompted such a strong reaction among manufacturers that they formed an alliance, the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition (AHPBC), to pressure the USGBC to make changes.

Manufacturers’ chagrin with the USGBC spilled into the political arena, challenging the use of LEED in federal projects, and delaying the release of LEED 2012 to 2013, prompting the USGBC to rename the upgrade LEED v4.

What is motivating this opposition? The AHPBC hopes to address more than the LEED credits in question—they are seeking to change the LEED technical development process itself.

USGBC policy director Lane Burt expressed concern about people attempting to use political pressure on LEED, saying, “If technical development becomes politicized, it’s no longer technical.” Unlike model codes, which are designed to become law, LEED is a voluntary, point-based rating system where building projects earn points for satisfying specific green-building criteria. “Our program is a leadership approach, and we move forward on technical consensus. The process does not require the same political compromise required by codes because it’s not mandated,” Burt says.

In the AHPBC’s view, LEED has succeeded in becoming a de facto building standard that affects the marketplace, and it should move toward a development path that follows American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or ISO-type consensus processes despite being a voluntary program. “LEED is no longer a boutique program. Many cities now require it, and the GSA [U.S. General Services Administration] mandates it,” says Jared Blum, president of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association.

But according to Frances Yang, a sustainable materials specialist with Arup and chair of the Life Cycle Assessment working group of ASCE Structural Engineering Institute, the USGBC does not control entrenchment of LEED in state and federal building regulations. “Building agencies have used LEED out of [a] lack of a better system,” she says. With development of green codes, such as the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), CALGreen, and ASHRAE Standard 189.1, Yang says federal and state agencies will likely move to adopt systems designed for code implementation. In the meantime, “LEED needs to remain as it is: a voluntary system that seeks to continually raise the bar.”

Nadav Malin, the president of BuildingGreen, agrees that the ANSI process is well suited to creating common standards, but also agrees that it is poorly suited to developing leadership standards. “ANSI is just the wrong tool for that job because it’s designed to find consensus, which means that anyone can block progress. That drives the process towards lowest common denominators, not leadership,” he says.

Nevertheless, some still believe LEED needs to become more responsive. Tim Serie, counsel for the government affairs section of the American Coatings Association, characterizes the LEED development process as both opaque and unresponsive in contrast with other green programs including the IgCC and Standard 189.1. “We are not opposing the intent of the material credits,” he says, “but the complexity, cost, and difficulty of achieving the standards set by LEED threatens to disqualify many high-performing, environmentally friendly products that now play a leading role in green building and energy efficiency.”

Michael Deane, vice president and chief sustainability officer for Turner Construction Co. in New York, agrees that the LEED technical development process happens “behind closed doors and among the self-appointed few.” Seeing LEED v4 encounter resistance from friend and foe alike, he says, is perhaps an indication that the process is not as transparent or inclusive as it could be. “The fact that the goals of LEED v4 were very aggressive, the mechanisms sometimes needlessly complex, and the standards sometimes inappropriate for the intended application, and that v4 as a whole did not seem to take market realities into account was a cause for concern for many, including many longtime supporters and users of LEED,” he says.

AHPBC members would like to see LEED adopt procedures that allow commentary and a vote on individual credits, rather than just an up or down vote on an entire draft. Over the last five years, Malin says, the USGBC has been working to switch to a system that does just that, and he believes that after v4 is released, the organization will move in this direction before the next draft.

Arup’s Yang concedes that voting on individual credits would help to untangle a lot of issues, but adds that “credits are supposed to work together in a complementary way. Environmental and health declarations, responsible sourcing, life-cycle assessment, and construction waste management schemes all fill one another’s gaps.” Ad hoc adoption of individual credits without consideration of the whole would compromise the very nature of LEED, Yang says.

Early drafts of LEED 2012 referenced specific chemicals that should be avoided, but moved away from this to the more wide-ranging Material Disclosure and Optimization, and the Material Ingredient Reporting credits. “The intent is to encourage different approaches rather than discourage certain products,” Burt says. The credits don’t prohibit any products, and do not require perfection since only 20 products within a project must meet the transparency criteria to obtain the credit, and only 20 percent of material costs must show optimization. For example, any product produced for the European market would qualify because it would be cataloged under REACH, the European Community Regulation on chemicals and their safe use, meeting the transparency criteria. If the same product were validated through a third party using the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals tool, it would meet the optimization credit as well.

AHPBC members have welcomed the move away from chemicals of concern and the inclusion of a variety of paths toward compliance, but the use of REACH as a standard continues to cause apprehension. “Our members are small- to medium-size businesses. REACH is a very complex law that many manufacturers cannot comply with, creating a disadvantage especially for new and innovative U.S. products,” says Dan Newton of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates.

In the end, the USGBC and manufacturers seem to be asking each other for the same thing: transparency. Coalition members are reviewing LEED v4, but everyone who spoke to us indicated that the specifics of individual credits are less important to the group than the goal of moving LEED toward a development process that includes greater industry representation. As for the USGBC, Turner Construction’s Deane notes that while the storm of comments on early drafts of v4 may have caused the organization to circle its wagons, “to their credit, the USGBC has been in listening mode lately, and has ratcheted back some of the more aggressive changes and extended the period for implementation. I hope that at the end of the process, we will have arrived at a new standard that raises the bar and further transforms the market without losing the market.”

Fernando Pagés Ruiz is a contributing editor to ECO-STRUCTURE’s sister publication, ECOHOME.