GREEN BUILDING:

Major overhaul of LEED rating system won't happen in 2012

The U.S. Green Building Council yesterday said it will wait on a sweeping update to its LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, labeling system, the most widely used method of rating buildings' impacts on the environment, to deal with push-back against some of the changes on the table.

Just a few weeks ago, the green building group came out with the fourth draft of the LEED 2012 rating system, a proposal that was scheduled to head to a vote this August after more than two years in development.

USGBC abruptly changed course yesterday evening, announcing that it will wait until next June to vote. The new version has now been renamed LEED v4, denoting that it will be the fourth iteration of the labeling system since its inception two decades ago.

Rick Fedrizzi, the president and CEO of USGBC, announced the decision in a letter to the architects who vote on changes to the standards. He said that some users of the rating system "need more time to absorb the changes we're proposing and to get their businesses ready to take the step with us."

USGBC also plans to offer a two-year transition period for LEED v4, during which builders will be allowed to certify their buildings using either the new system or the previous LEED 2009 rating system. That is longer than the usual eight to 10 months.

"To be clear," Fedrizzi wrote, "this change is 100 percent in response to helping our stakeholders fully understand and embrace this next big step. We intend to do everything we can to ensure that the market is ready for LEED v4 because it represents progress on both carbon reduction and human health improvements."

The group had already pushed back the vote once, from May to August. Yet the latest delay surprised architects and builders, even though some of them had complained about being required to learn a whole new standard so soon after the 2009 version.

They had a variety of concerns, said Robert Watson, a leading green building consultant. The founder and CEO of New York-based EcoTech International Inc., Watson was nicknamed the "father of LEED" for heading the rating system's volunteer steering committee for its first 12 years, from 1994 until 2005.

Under the new rules for heating and air conditioning, buildings would need to do 5 percent better than the latest standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, a technical society for building engineers. That is a stiff requirement, because the last update to the society's standards, set in 2010, already requires 25 percent less energy use than the standards the existing LEED rules follow, Watson said.

The update also inched toward a new approach to chemicals, wood and other key materials that go into buildings. While builders in some European countries must disclose and limit their use of "chemicals of concern," the United States has no such requirements, and LEED's rules for building materials haven't been changed in almost 15 years.

"Everyone agreed that the materials section was antiquated, outmoded and simplistic," Watson said.

Under one proposed change, builders would be able to get credits for disclosing which chemicals their buildings contain and avoiding the most harmful uses. But that has proved difficult. Some building materials can be easily swapped out, but others are more difficult to replace with a greener alternative -- at least without the price of construction skyrocketing.

Watson said the decision to delay the changes makes sense. LEED could be more effective, but architects need time to learn the new rating system, he added.

"Given how hard it is to make changes in practices in the construction industry and the complexity of what's being asked, I think the three-year phase-in is appropriate," he said. "The alternative would be to cut back the changes and do it sooner, but on balance, having the changes where they are and this amount of time to adapt to the changes is a better way to go."

Building politics on the Hill

USGBC was also facing political pressure from Congress, though Jason Hartke, vice president of national policy at USGBC, said in an interview that it wasn't a factor in the decision.

This year, the General Services Administration is deciding which rating systems the government will be allowed to use to meet green building requirements written into federal law. That put LEED at risk of being dragged into a broader election-year brawl over the federal government's role in protecting the environment.

The proposed changes to the rating system have been criticized by powerful lobbying groups for the chemical and timber industries, which say they would discourage the use of vinyl siding, foam insulation and wood from certain forests.

That's in part because the new rules for building materials might make certain LEED credits dependent on life-cycle analysis, which weighs the energy consumption, pollution, and land and water use that result from the use of building materials, not just how the finished building performs in the field.

Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at USGBC, defended the group's consideration of that method during a congressional hearing last month.

"That is controversial in some circles," Platt told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. "Some types of industries don't like looking at their products except when they're in the building."

A mostly Republican group of House lawmakers has picked up the cause, firing off letters to USGBC on the review.

Their argument has been keyed by the American Chemistry Council, which circulated another letter last week saying that the changes would make it more expensive to trim the energy use of federal buildings.

With the General Services Administration using the rating system along with 13 other federal agencies, 34 state governments and 442 localities, it is effectively the "green building policy coast to coast," wrote Cal Dooley, ACC's president, in the letter to Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Republican from the chemical industry hub of Louisiana.

Spurred in part by increasing government use, LEED is no longer just a small voluntary program. As of last week, there were 12,675 commercial buildings and 19,913 homes that were certified to bear the LEED label.

"Government adoption of LEED requires the organization to act in a fair, transparent and unbiased manner with regard to all the stakeholders in the green building process or it should no longer be used by the federal government," Dooley wrote.

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