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The gospel of green building certification according to the environmentalist fringe

On the strength of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, the U.S. Green Building Council has rapidly become one of the more influential groups in architecture, engineering and construction. What USGBC lacks in codified standards or contract guidelines akin to those of the American Concrete Institute, American Institute of Architects or American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, is balanced by LEED, a brand greatly solidified during the past decade.

The system’s newest version, LEED v4, was unveiled in late-2013 at the Council’s Greenbuild International Conference and Expo—a phenomenon on its own, considering how registration has soared past 20,000 in a business where only a handful of events reach attendance in the five-digit range. Prior LEED versions drew occasional criticisms regarding cost of certification or payback on investments that secured rating points. LEED v4 is drawing attention for technical details and its role in the public building arena, where government agencies are duty bound to avoid contracts stipulating proprietary services or products from single sources. Calls for rating system competition in public projects are on the rise.

One alternative to the LEED certification is Green Globes, developed by the Green Building Initiative in Portland, Ore. The system is less expensive to conduct and faster to complete than LEED certification, according to a GBI-cited study of costs attending a recently completed Drexel University building bearing three Green Globes and LEED Gold certification. “Green Globes gives the market a choice among certification systems and provides competition that helps improve results for users, resulting in more innovation and lower costs over time,” says GBI President Jerry Yudelson. In Drexel’s 130,000-sq.-ft. Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, West Philadelphia campus, he adds, certification “cost savings were on the order of $1.00 per square foot.”

Responding to a LEED alternative, environmental activists have chartered Greenwash Action and released “A Closer Look at Green Globes.” The seven-page piece portrays GBI as an organization behind a green curtain and dubs Green Globes “a ‘green’ building rating system backed by the chemical, plastics and timber industries.” With the green building sector its immediate focus, Greenwash Action “considers a standard worthy of the ‘leadership’ designation if it is a genuine change agent in its respective industries and continues to improve with time, driving market transformation to sustainability. Leadership standards create change by codifying and branding levels of environmental performance within a given industry that are sufficiently high to require meaningful progress over the status quo and yet are economically feasible so that uptake by leadership companies is possible and a market can be made.”

That sounds good until the source is considered. The Greenwash Action campaign is backed by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, neither top of mind when counting allies of a business that develops greenfield sites, consumes diesel, and employs many. The groups hope to counter the American High Performance Buildings Coalition. A key critic of processes behind LEED v4, AHPBC supports measures compelling certification-minded federal and state government agencies to keep contracts open to multiple rating systems. It is especially keen on the LEED v4 Materials and Resources section’s “Avoidance of chemicals of concern” pilot credit language.

As we noted in our May Government Affairs section, the Coalition saluted South Carolina lawmakers for their move to restrict the use of green building systems that contain provisions potentially discriminating against products, materials and technologies created in the Palmetto State. Proponents of South Carolina’s Energy Independence and Sustainable Construction Act should take extra satisfaction knowing they preempted a campaign from the environmental movement’s most seasoned propagandists.