As the niche grows for environmentally friendly buildings and homes, government officials in state capitals and Washington find themselves debating thorny issues like what, exactly, qualifies as a ``green building,'' and which buildings deserve benefits like tax credits and research dollars.
It's an extremely complex debate that's attracted interest from building-related industries, including plastics, and the American Institute of Architects. AIA held a summit with industry and government officials July 25 in Washington to try to take a position on green building rating systems and the growing legislative and regulatory debate.
Like mom and apple pie, everyone professes love for green buildings. But because there's big money at stake for whoever gets the stamp of approval, there's keen financial interest in the definition of green.
Consider the two systems AIA looked at, one from the U.S. Green Building Council and a second from the Green Building Initiative, each with sometimes very different takes on what is environmentally friendly.
USGBC's system, known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is much more established in the United States, and has at times taken positions at odds with industry.
It has debated rewarding projects that avoid vinyl, for example, but currently is neutral, officially. And LEED currently recognizes only one standard for sustainable forestry, rejecting two other standards favored by the American Forest and Paper Association.
State legislatures have debated bills on the matter. In Connecticut, Bill 923 has passed the Senate but wasn't taken up in the House, said Bob Maddox, president of the state's Green Building Council. The bill would require all publicly funded projects to attain an acceptable LEED rating. The state has heard opposition from the plastics and forest industries for the past three legislative sessions on mandatory adoption of LEED, he said.
``It's expected that there will be increased use of the LEED standard,'' he said in a July 29 telephone interview. ``LEED ... has been silent on plastics. It's not anti-plastic or anti-wood. It encourages the use of materials that are recycled. It's more pro-environmentally friendly materials.''
California also is debating the issue. In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order that all new state buildings and major renovations should meet a LEED standard. In Arizona, Missouri and Wisconsin, officials currently use LEED on public projects
The rival system from the Green Building Initiative, on the other hand, is newer in the United States. Its Green Globes rating system, a streamlined version of the system used in the United Kingdom, has been used more widely in Canada.
GBI is meeting with some skepticism because of its close links to industry: GBI received start-up money from the wood industry, and it recognizes all three forestry standards. Executive director Ward Hubbell said the group is pursuing money from other industries, including plastics.
``I have absolutely no problem with saying upfront that our money comes from industry,'' said Hubbell. He said Portland, Ore.-based GBI also gets funding from companies in financial services, appliances, retail, wholesale and other building products.
Maddox, from the rival USGBC camp, said GBI's funding raises questions.
``Green Globes, as it stands now, could be manipulated by someone with less-than-honorable intent, whereas you're not going to be able to do that with LEED,'' Maddox said.
Of course, all parties in the debate want their positions to be considered fairly, and said they want decisions based on good evidence.
Industry groups, for example, argue that existing rating systems are not well-developed enough and the science is too new for governments to adopt any particular one. And industry has been very critical of USGBC for not letting their trade associations join.
Environmentalists, for their part, worry that giving industry too much influence in developing systems will result in eco-labels so watered down they will be meaningless.
Plastics and wood industry groups have formed a loose network, the North American Coalition on Green Building, that opposes attempts by governments to mandate LEED as a rating system.
The American Plastics Council, which is a member of NACGB, does not oppose LEED as a rating system, but does not think that any one system should be singled out as best by government officials. Of the 30 or so standards around the world, all have strengths and weaknesses, said D'Lane Wisner, an APC consultant and lead staffer to its Building and Construction Committee.
``In order to set government policy, a legislator needs to understand that green building is not simple; it's not a checklist,'' he said. ``A government agency should adopt a wide look at green building.''
Between 80 and 90 percent of a building's environmental impact comes from the use phase, for example, so materials need to be evaluated over an entire life cycle, said APC spokesman Robert Krebs.
Enough to go around
The debate has been brewing for some time in Canada, although it's more subtle. Those on the side of Green Globes say there are enough green markets for everyone. According to one source, the whole vision of GBI in the United States and Canada is to make green building accessible for everyone.
``We believe competition is good,'' said Simone Pertuiset, a director of ECD Energy and Environment Canada Ltd., a Toronto firm that environmentally assesses buildings.
Green Globes - a streamlined version of the British Research Establishment's Environmental Assessment Method - was introduced in Canada in 2002. BREEAM had been brought to Canada in 1995 in cooperation with ECD, officials said.
``It keeps us on our toes,'' Pertuiset said in a July 26 telephone interview. ``Hopefully, this will keep LEED on its toes. LEED is really good. It targets the top 25 percent of high-end buildings. However, it's not necessarily all that great for smaller or lower-budget projects.
``Until now, it's been a monopoly, and some would argue that the service has suffered because of that. A little bit of competition could be very beneficial. Never will we say that LEED shouldn't be used. But give the marketplace a little bit of competition, a little choice.''
Canada's government recognizes Green Globes for projects of $1 million or more, and LEED for projects costing $10 million and more.
Thomas Mueller, newly named president for the Canada Green Building Council, criticizes Green Globes as being driven by self-interest.
``Green Globes would have to be more open and transparent. There have to be multistakeholders. It's a small group of industry interest supporting it,'' he said in a July 27 telephone interview.
``Yes, we are listening to what the Green Building Council is saying, and we're acting on it,'' Jiri Skopek, technical advisor with GBI, and a director of ECD, said in response to Mueller's statements.
GBI, for its part, said it's changing its process for developing ratings to get certified with the American National Standards Institute, which requires a consensus approach and balanced membership on standard setting committees.
``We are opening up the protocol,'' Skopek said, citing the plan to adopt the ANSI-certified decision-making processes, which will require it to have a balanced process regardless of how it's funded.
The Canadian Plastics Industry Association - whose officials say they are intent on making sure plastics are fairly evaluated by all tools and rating systems - addressed green building certification systems at its annual meeting in May,
During that presentation, CPIA officials said plastics are not seen as part of the green building movement or LEED, which favors natural vs. synthetic materials - for example, bamboo flooring vs. vinyl flooring - regardless of life cycle performance.
The still-evolving debate means that groups such as AIA could become influential, as people look to them for unbiased, third-party opinion. That is why one environmental group sees industry attempts to influence AIA process as improper.
The Arlington, Va.-based Vinyl Institute has been a chief sponsor of several AIA-affiliated conferences and events on the obscure topic of neuroscience and architecture.