LEED, UL join forces to focus on transparency for green builders

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The developers of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) are teaming up with Underwriter Laboratories (UL) on a series of initiatives that focus on building product transparency and occupant health.

The partnership between UL and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which oversees the 20-year-old LEED green building certification program, was among the announcements of the council’s Greenbuild International Conference in Philadelphia.

USGBC introduced LEEDv4, the updated version of its program, which had 122 beta testers, at the Nov. 20-22 expo that featured former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as the keynote speaker.

LEEDv4 puts a stronger emphasis on life cycle assessments (LCAs), product disclosures, increasing energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. The overall goals are to reverse global climate change, promote sustainable material cycles, and improve health.

To that end, USGBC and UL officials unveiled their first initiative: joint Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). An EPD is a comprehensive report that quantifies the environmental impact of a product throughout its life cycle. The UL process to develop EPDs also includes information about performance and sustainability.

The USGBC-UL partnership will address product achievement in addition to transparency, according to Paul Firth, a UL product manager.

“What we’re doing with the USGBC is the ultimate in logo and labeling,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re going to joint label the EPD. I think we’ll see some concerns about LCAs and EPDs put to rest. Right now you could use a certified EPD to say I’m a green product without having the achievement to hold up with it and say it is a good performing product. You want both.

“Theoretically someone can say I have an EPD I’m great. It could be straight up plutonium. You want to look at EPD as one tool – a great tool, its transparent – but in the context of green washing it can be misused. You always want to look for performance-based achievement metrics as well.”

EPDs are among three new credits LEEDv4 offers to reward the use of products that increase disclosure for green builders trying to limit environmental impact.

The other two new credits will be issued for disclosures about the sourcing of raw materials (land-use practices, extraction locations and labor practices) and product ingredients, which can be reported through health product declarations (HPDs).

The credits have some in the plastics industry concerned their products won’t be selected in the lucrative green building market if they don’t divulge proprietary information.

The Vinyl Institute, American Chemistry Council, American High Performance Buildings Coalition, and Resilient Floor Covering Institute have appeals pending before the USGBC about what they see as a lack of opportunity for input into the credits, which all fall into the LEED ratings for building product disclosure and optimization.

LEEDv4 advocates contend the green certification system is continuing its evolution toward how building materials relate to performance and peoples’ health.

“LEEDv4 is the LEED of the future, where we challenge the marketplace to go further, to make the next great leap toward better, cleaner, healthier buildings where people live and work,” according to Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED.

The USGBC is overlapping LEEDv4 with its predecessor, LEED 2009, to give manufacturers and design teams time to adapt. LEEDv4 will be the sole green certification system starting June 1, 2015.

For some manufacturers and material suppliers, the latest version of LEED will mean more information has to be provided to building project managers trying to qualify for credits. They have gone through LEED learning curves in the past in determining how to measure things like recycled content and harmful chemical emissions. Now companies have to collect information about how raw materials were extracted, produced, packaged, transported, distributed and how will the product be disposed or reused for LCAs.

CertainTeed Corp. officials said they are up for the challenge. The Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of interior and exterior building products published a guide to sustainable products and systems to coincide with the Greenbuild expo.

“On a practical level, the new (guide) will save green building professionals valuable time when selecting and documenting the use of CertainTeed products,” Aman Desouza, director of innovation and product sustainability, said in a statement. “From a broader perspective, it shows how our products seamlessly work together to have a real and lasting impact on quality of life and a material difference in the sustainability of our built environment.”

In the 42-page guide, the subsidiary of Saint-Goban North America aligns its siding, roof, fence, deck, rail, insulation and ceiling products with points that can be earned for commercial and residential LEED projects.

For example, the guide says the company’s vinyl siding, Cedar Impressions polymer shakes and shingles, and its CedarBoards insulated siding have recycled contents up to 73 percent, require no painting or caulking, need only occasional washing with soap and water, don’t emit harmful chemicals, reduce carbon footprints and have published LCAs – all of which contribute toward LEEDv4 credits.

The LCAs list the raw materials but give ranges for the amounts of PVC resin, calcium carbonate, acrylic-based additives, titanium dioxide, lubricant and other additives in the vinyl siding with a caveat noting some production information is excluded “to protect company-confidential data.” The same goes for Cedar Impressions polypropylene siding.

CertainTeed hasn’t incorporated its LCAs for vinyl siding into any EPDs but it did for a PVC pipe product that was part of a division sold.

Firth said proprietary information can be guarded in EPDs submitted for LEED certification as long as the intent of divulging health hazards and environmental impacts is met.

“You can say there’s a component in my formulation that is part of my competitive advantage and I’ll tell you it isn’t carcinogenic and it has been evaluated and run through the ringer but I’m not going to tell you what it is,” Firth said. “That give them an out so to speak because at some level this stuff is proprietary and people don’t want to disclose it and I don’t blame them. You don’t give anyone your secret sauce but at the same time you want to make sure you meet the intent of what we’re doing.”

Like many facets of LEED, the disclosure documents will likely become valuable tools for manufacturers pitching their products to green builders.

“A lot of companies will say ‘this product helps you earn these points,’ in their marketing literature” Lane Burt, USGBC policy director, said in a telephone interview. “We see it all time, particularly in energy efficiency.”

While Leedv4 was approved in July by 86 percent of the 1,200 USGBC members that voted, appeals are pending by the four trade associations. The Vinyl Institute says on its Website that USGBC officials may need until Feb. 1, 2014, to officially respond to industry concerns.

Firth said LEEDv4 is a controversial step for many.

“But I think it’s a bold step in the right direction,” he said. “Whether or not the rollout was exactly how it should have been done, who was involved, or whether this part is right or that part is right, in the end everyone won’t agree but you have to take that first step and that’s what they did.”