Controversy doesn't stop green building standards

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WASHINGTON — After a year of simmering controversy, the U.S. Green Building Council has adopted a new version of LEED standards many inside the plastics industry say further alienates them from the green building movement.

While some of the argument over the nonprofit USGBC's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification program is the same as it ever was, the question remains: Can "green" construction and plastics come together?

The new standards, known as LEED v4, were fraught with controversy from the beginning. As originally drafted, the new version of LEED would have allowed buildings to score points toward certification by avoiding certain "chemicals of concern," such as PVC. The American Chemistry Council, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and others argued that such arbitrary chemical restrictions would make LEED less of a positive force in the construction industry and more of a way to punish companies producing certain chemicals and products.

The draft was changed, providing credit for using "good" materials, not avoiding "bad" ones, and voting was ultimately pushed back by a year, but the damage to cross-industry relationships was done.

Even in the face of protestations and problems, the new standards were adopted by USGBC membership in early July by sweeping margins. Of the 13,000 USGBC members that voted, 86 percent approved of the LEED v4 standards, according to the nonprofit. The new program will launch during the Greenbuild conference in November 2013, though to allay the fears of those concerned that it was too much change too fast, projects will be able to register under either LEED v4 or LEED 2009 until June 1, 2015, after which only LEED v4 will remain open.

USGBC members such as SPI, however, were not a part of that 86 percent majority.

"Our industry has major concerns over the U.S. government's adoption of the USGBC's LEED program standards, and we advocate for the use of a range of plastic materials to meet critical building performance goals," said Melissa Hockstad, vice president of SPI's Material Suppliers Council.

The plastics trade group has been actively involved in green building since 2007, she said, and in that time has grown increasingly concerned about the lack of scientific backing behind LEED standard development, which Hockstad said seems to be based more on the desire to avoid certain construction materials than anything else. During the development of LEED guidelines for health-care construction and building operations and maintenance, proposed materials avoidance credits were a serious concern for SPI, she said.

"What caught our attention was the position of earning points for not using halogenated materials and medical furnishing — no vinyl, no fluoropolymers … the Green Building Council was viewing materials collectively and they didn't really care about the benefits halogenated materials," she said.

Hockstad said what frustrated her and SPI the most was that USGBC didn't seem to have any interest in learning about the fire-retardant properties of fluoropolymers or the science behind the formulation of plastics uses in hospitals. The bad relationship continued into the development of LEED v4, she said.

While LEED standards developers were continuing the push to give credit for not using halogenated materials and SPI continued to voice its concerns, Hockstad said she "has not once had [SPI's] comments acknowledged" by the USGBC. "We're members so you'd think we would at least get the courtesy of a response," she said. "They're not interested in getting feedback."

Brendan Owens, USGBC's vice president of LEED technical development, defended the process by which the LEED Green Building Rating System has been developed and grown.

"We use a pretty open and very collaborative process, with most of the different stakeholders involved," Owens said. "I don't think it's fair to say that we haven't engaged the market or the members in this process."

Over the two years it took to develop LEED v4 — which is based on the previous regulations, industry and technology trends, lessons learned and technological trajectories and goals — Owens said USGBC held six public comment periods that generated more than 20,000 comments, all of which were read and responded to in some way.

"If the outcome isn't satisfactory for [SPI], that's not the same as not being heard," Owens said.

Owens describes the four levels of LEED building certification — certified, gold, silver and platinum, depending on the number of points earned after certain prerequisites are met — as more focused on the performance of a completed construction project, not on specific materials or products.

"We don't get into product validations. We have specific goals for LEED — reducing carbon footprints, enhancing human well-being — and we look at the impact on those areas, encourage people to invest in materials that will be part of a sustainable system," he said. "There are trade-offs across all those areas."

Some products may score well on carbon footprint but poorly when it comes to human health factors, he said, while bioplastics may be better for human health but carry their own environmental trade-offs from farming.

"A lot of the products that we are looking at have pluses and minuses. It's not green and brown, that's a false dichotomy," he said. "There are going to be trade-offs."

The LEED system rewards with preferential selection, he said, and preference is also given to companies willing to disclose the most information about their products and how they are made. Different levels of disclosure are taken into consideration and scored accordingly, he said, though "less than complete transparency is valued slightly less."

This poses a problem for molders and processors that closely guard their product formulations, Hockstad said. "There's a reason the recipe for making something plastic is taken seriously," she said. "USGBC doesn't want to hear about trade secrets or how plastic is made, they just want disclosure."

Plastics-specific groups aren't the only ones unhappy with the direction LEED is headed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the top business lobbies in the country, has also come out against the latest LEED standards, echoing the same sentiment as SPI and other trade organizations: that the new standards were drafted with little scientific expertise and no consideration for manufacturers and will exclude an abundance of advanced building materials from new "green" buildings if followed.

That position has already cost the chamber, however. Skanska USA, the New York-based U.S. arm of the Swedish construction giant, very publicly pulled out of Chamber of Commerce earlier this month in protest over the business lobby's anti-LEED stance, particularly the chamber's membership in the American High-Performance Building Coalition.

Started nearly a year ago, the AHPBC — which counts Washington-based SPI as well as the American Chemistry Council, the Vinyl Siding Institute, the Flexible Vinyl Alliance and the Vinyl Institute among its 27 charter members — says USGBC develops its LEED standards with a disregard for science, without involving industry and without using a consensus-based approach.

USGBC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable building design and construction, Hockstad said, not an arm of the federal government's American National Standards Institute. Though it has grown into an internationally recognized accreditation system since its original inception in 1998, LEED remains a voluntary program. And while several federal entities such as the General Services Administration, as well as state and local governments have adopted various types of LEED incentives, Congress has restricted LEED spending, barring some government and military construction projects from incorporating the certification because of the added expense, and including a line in the fiscal 2014 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill currently under consideration that would bar funds in the measure from being used to implement green building standards "unless such standards are voluntary consensus standards" — which the Chamber of Commerce, SPI, AHPBC and others contend LEED is not.

"We are for green buildings, plain and simple," SPI's Hockstad said. "But we also stress that we don't think the federal government should be approving programs with arbitrary avoidance lists. USGBC clearly doesn't want to listen to what we say. However, the federal government does have to listen to what its constituents have to say. Companies need to help their legislators understand the plastics industry and what all of this means for us."