Battle over vinyl spawns building coalition

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More than 27 building and construction associations have formed the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition to support the development of sustainable building standards that are based on consensus and scientific performance data.

The announcement of the new coalition is the latest salvo in the battle between chemical, plastic and vinyl manufacturers and the U.S. Green Building Council and its green building standard known as LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The majority of the groups in the new coalition — including the Vinyl Institute, the American Chemistry Council, the Vinyl Siding Institute, the Flexible Vinyl Alliance and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. — argue that USGBC developed its LEED standards with a disregard for science, without involving industry and without using a consensus-based approach as is done by organizations such as the American National Standards Institute.

Smack dab in the center of the disagreement is USGBC’s effort earlier this year to discourage the use of vinyl in construction.

USGBC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable building design and construction.

The announcement of the coalition July 18 comes as the General Services Administration is reviewing whether to continue using LEED as the green building standards for the federal government. GSA could decide to switch to Green Globes or the Living Building Challenge rating systems.

LEED is the most-used green building standard globally, as well as in the U.S., where more than 400 cities and communities, 39 states and 14 federal agencies currently require builders to meet LEED standards.

However, nearly 60 members of Congress have sent a letter to GSA asking it to reconsider its endorsement of LEED if certain “anti-chemical” provisions are not removed.

“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 — in buildings,” said the letter.

“This transformation into an anti-chemical system runs counter to the government’s objectives of increasing energy efficiency and utilizes a European standard called REACH. U.S. manufacturers have no ability to participate in the development.”

REACH — which stands for registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals — is a set of regulations on the safe use of chemicals adopted in 2006 by the European Union.

The latest uproar stems from USGBC’s attempt earlier this year to give builders a material-avoidance credit under LEED for not using vinyl. That flap caused USGBC to delay its planned revision and member vote last month on the latest version of LEED — called LEEDv4 — until June 2013, after it issues a revision and another draft for public comment Oct. 2.

“To the dismay of many industry trade groups and manufacturers, LEED 2012 proposes ‘chemical-avoidance credits’ that would serve to de-select many products containing PVC including roofing materials, floor products, wall coverings, piping, insulation, paints and adhesives,” said Kevin Ott, executive director of the Flexible Vinyl Alliance, in his July newsletter to members.

Craig Silvertooth, president of the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing, and a member of the new coalition, agreed.

“Today’s highest-performing building materials combine long-term durability with energy-efficient properties and numerous other environmental benefits. Green building certification systems and standards should promote the use of these important materials, rather than penalize their selection,” Silvertooth said.

“We are concerned with the continued scrutiny of PVC products and the lack of consensus decision-making by USGBC,” said Bill Hall, a partner with Washington law firm Venable LLP, in a July presentation at a vinyl compounders conference in Annapolis, organized by SPI’s Vinyl Products Division.

“We need to do something or we will only have delayed a potential defeat” in the 10-year-long battle with USGBC over LEED. “And we have to have the dialogue [with USGBC] before Oct. 2.”

Hall criticized the planned LEED revision’s tie to REACH.

“That has significant adverse implications for U.S. companies that do not market in Europe and [it] also would import a European standard into the U.S. — without any explanation from USGBC about how companies who haven’t have been subject to REACH would comply with that,” Hall said.

Brendan Owens, director of LEED technical development for the USGBC, said USGBC has modeled part of its new draft after REACH because the impact of materials on human health and the eco-system need to be considered.

“The current life-cycle assessments of materials don’t do two things well,” Owens said. “They don’t address the extraction impact of raw materials and [its impact] on the eco-system. And they fail to address the impact on human health. This is a first step.”

The spotlight on the vinyl issue has obscured USGBC’s other work, he said.

“It is a distraction from the real issue — which should be whether the trajectory of the rating system is going in the right direction. … Vinyl has become a lightning rod that shoves other things we’ve done into the background,” he said.

With the creation of the new coalition, Hall said the industry is “pulling out all the stops to do battle with the USGBC.”

The coalition said it will work to promote and support performance-based building codes, standards and rating systems developed using an American National Standards Institute-style approach, in which a balance of interests are represented in an open and transparent fashion to achieve consensus.

“We believe this is the best way to create high-performing buildings that are energy efficient and practical to implement,” said Stephen Eule, vice president of climate and technology at the Washington-based Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. “The U.S. Chamber is pleased to be part of this important coalition to advocate for sustainable building using science, performance and consensus-based standards.”

“As energy efficiency and building performance become increasingly important priorities for the public and private sectors, green building standards and rating systems should be based on the best available data, gathered from a range of stakeholder with relevant expertise,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the ACC.

“This coalition brings together industry leaders ... who will ... advocate for performance- and consensus-based standards for green building [as] the best way to achieve exceptional energy-efficiency,” Russell said.

According to the Department of Energy, households and commercial buildings consume more energy than the transportation or industry sectors and account for almost 40 percent of total U.S. energy use.

The other members of the coalition are: American Architectural Manufacturers Association, Adhesive and Sealant Council, American Coatings Association, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Supply Association, Chemical Fabrics and Film Association, EPDM Roofing Association, Expanded Polystyrene Industry Alliance, Extruded Polystyrene Foam Association, Industrial Minerals Association, National Association of Manufacturers, National Hispanic Landscape Alliance, National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association, Plastic Pipe & Fittings Association, Polyisocyanurate Manufacturers Association, Resilient Floor Covering Institute, Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, Southern Forest Products Association, Treated Wood Council and Windows & Door Manufacturers Association.