Strange Brew

The U.S. Green Building Council’s newest version of LEED is meeting resistance from U.S. chemical makers


By David Goll

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n effort by the U.S. Green Building Council to update and expand the voluntary Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines has created the first political controversy in the 12-year history of the LEED building-standards program.

The American Chemistry Council, an advocacy group for the $700 billion-a-year U.S. chemicals industry and a U.S. Green Building Council member, is criticizing proposed changes to LEED that would give certification credits to builders who use products without “chemicals of concern” or who disclose when they do. The chemistry council says the proposals lack scientific merit and could cause the loss of thousands of jobs, though they don’t estimate how many.

The Chemistry Council also is protesting the U.S. General Services Administration’s sole use of LEED guidelines in federal government construction and renovation projects. The GSA manages operational functions of the federal government, including leasing, buying and building office space used by federal employees.

[pullquote_right]”We all spend so much time inside buildings that [indoor environmental quality] has become a big issue today in our industry. Some of the challenges are chemical-related.” Steve Murphy, Blach Construction Co.[/pullquote_right]American Chemistry Council officials say various green-building standards already compete in the private sector and should be allowed in the public sector, too. They recommend that the GSA adopt the green construction guidelines of the private, nonprofit American National Standards Institute, which they say are developed through “robust and transparent consensus procedures, which help drive the creation of data-driven and science-supported standards.”

The controversy has spread to Capitol Hill, where USGBC staff has had to spend time recently in the unaccustomed position of testifying about and defending the LEED program. In a mid-summer letter to the acting administrator of the GSA, 18 U.S. senators said that if the USGBC doesn’t “reconsider its anti-chemical proposals” the GSA should stop using the LEED rating system. “As the largest federal government agency that has adopted LEED, GSA’s adherence to LEED 2012 would amount to a federal endorsement of efficiency standards which preclude the use of some of the most effective techniques and materials,” the letter said.

The hubbub has helped delay for nearly a year a vote by 14,000 USGBC members to adopt the new LEED standards, which were last revised in 2009.

The brouhaha casts a shadow over what has become a bright spot in the still-lagging U.S. construction industry: The value of green-building projects, $42 billion in 2008, is projected to more than triple to $135 billion by 2015. Twelve thousand buildings worldwide have gained LEED certification. The benefits of building green include a nearly 14 percent decrease in the operating costs of new structures and 8.5 percent drop for retrofits, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, a division of The McGraw-Hill Cos. Building values increased nearly 11 percent for new structures and nearly 7 percent for retrofits. The overall value of U.S. construction projects this year is predicted to be $412 billion.

The Bay Area will be the center of the green building universe this fall when the USGBC’s annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo is staged at Moscone Center in San Francisco. At least 30,000 people are expected to attend the event Nov. 14 to Nov. 16.

“The American Chemistry Council has commented on the [LEED 2012] drafts, and some changes have been made as a result,” said Lane Burt, technical policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based USGBC. But, he said, “The ink isn’t dry, and we are still open to changes.”

The federal General Services Administration reviews its green-building standards every five years under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. At present, the GSA uses LEED 2009 as its certification system for new construction and major renovations within the GSA portfolio. The agency strives to reach a LEED Gold standard. The GSA has paid for LEED certification at 35 government-owned facilities and has spent $253,000 on LEED certification in the last 12 years, according to the GSA.

The U.S. Green Building Council has a fiscal 2013 budget of about $100 million.

The American Chemistry Council is an industry advocate based in Washington, D.C. with about 170 members, including corporate giants such as The Dow Chemical Co., Bayer Corp., ExxonMobil Chemical Co. and FMC Corp., who are regular members, and AECOM, KPMG and PwC, who are associate members.

More than 900 chemicals that won’t make the USGBC’s recommended list are “essential to insulation, roofing, windows and sealants that enable very high energy-efficiency,” according to the chemistry council. Products that would land on the do-not-use list include energy-efficient foam insulation and cool-vinyl roofing, as well as LED lighting, skylights, piping, shatter-resistant polycarbonate glass, flooring and caulking, they say.

Many safer alternative products are available at ever-decreasing costs, Burt said.

The USGBC does not assess the safety of products or chemicals itself, Burt said. It relies on research conducted as part of the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals program of Clean Production Action, a U.S. nonprofit promoting more environmentally safe chemicals, and a public database about chemicals created by a June 2007 European Community regulation that also created a new chemicals agency. In the current revision, projects would earn credits toward LEED certification if they rejected building products that incorporate the X-listed chemicals.

“We all spend so much time inside buildings that [indoor environmental quality] has become a big issue today in our industry. Some of the challenges are chemical-related, like VOCs [volatile organic compounds] that are in building materials, carpeting and finishes. Concern over this issue comes up in new and modernization projects all the time,” said Steve Murphy, co-chairman of the environmental sustainability team for Santa Clara-based Blach Construction Co. Blach is privately owned with 270 employees and projected fiscal 2012 revenue of $130 million. Updating LEED requirements is necessary as the industry progresses, Murphy said.

Exposure to VOCs can lead to irritation of the eye, nose and throat; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

George Salah, director of real estate and workplace services for Mountain View-based Google Inc., arrived to speak at a commercial real estate industry event last year in Silicon Valley with a $6,000 hand-held metering device that detects VOCs in the air. Google has created its own “healthy materials standards” that rely on research from the EPA about “chemicals of concern” and the International Living Future Institute, which owns the Living Building Challenge and its “Red List.”

Google buys only building materials that meet its criteria, the company said. It has already eliminated lead and mercury from its surroundings. “We request that our vendors share comprehensive product information through open-source platforms and hope this transparency helps others make informed product choices as well,” Salah said in a prepared statement to The Registry. If a company is unwilling or unable to disclose exactly what chemicals are in their products, Google won’t use them, he told his Silicon Valley audience in 2011.

Google is a Gold-level sponsor of the Northern California chapter of the USGBC.

The USGBC’s Burt said his organization is now leaning toward eliminating the “to avoid” list and compiling instead a list of building materials it recommends using.

The General Services Administration is expected to share its preliminary ideas about the federal government’s use of green building certification systems via publication in the Federal Register “in the near future,” according to the GSA. But it is sidestepping the chemicals issue, at least for now. It is evaluating LEED 2009—the existing version—, Green Globes and the Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge and may recommend all three. The GSA is not reviewing LEED 2012 because it is not an approved system, the agency said.

Meanwhile, with more than 22,000 comments from the public about LEED’s next iteration, the U.S. Green Building Council has decided to solicit yet another round of public input, Burt said. Many of his organization’s members have said they still need time to study the issue. The final vote of the 14,000 members is set for June.

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