Several of the most powerful business groups in Washington, D.C., announced yesterday that they are teaming up to advocate on green buildings, giving a shared voice to chemical companies and other manufacturers that are working to thwart an update to the popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system.
The new American High-Performance Buildings Coalition includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council and smaller trade groups for manufacturers of building products.
Not to be confused with the four-year-old High-Performance Building Congressional Caucus Coalition, which includes these companies as well as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and other green building advocates, the new group will push for "consensus-based" green building standards, said Steve Russell, vice president of the chemical industry group's plastics division.
The call for "consensus" is a jab at a proposed change to LEED that would discourage the use of certain chemicals in roofing materials, sealants and plastics, despite manufacturers' claims that the chemicals are safe and good replacements do not exist. These manufacturers also say the United States has wrongly given LEED, run by the nonprofit USGBC, a "monopoly" on federal buildings, rather than letting government agencies use the industry-funded Green Globes rating system as well.
Still, Russell told reporters, "our goal is not to trash any one system. Instead, it's to make sure that the systems that are developing standards have access to the best available information."
The new group is a sign of the rift that has formed as green buildings have become big business. Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at USGBC, greeted the new lobbying group yesterday by quoting President Reagan, saying he would "trust but verify" its motives.
The green buildings group has grown over the years and now adds 1.5 million square feet of certified commercial space per day, making LEED the largest rating system worldwide. That couldn't have happened without working closely with the private sector, including architects and builders as well as the manufacturers that formed the new advocacy group, Platt said.
"If this coalition is sincere in its interest to advance high-performance buildings over the status quo, we welcome them to the table and sincerely look forward to engaging together to make green buildings more valuable to Americans," he said in a statement.
'Why is it in there?'
The coalition will rely on the staff and resources of its member groups, coordinating them as they vigorously campaign against the plan to start offering a LEED credit to builders that disclose the chemicals in their buildings.
Another credit on the table would go to builders that avoid using "chemicals of concern" that already face tougher regulations in Europe because of links to health problems. Those chemicals are widely used in a variety of building products.
Craig Silvertooth, president of the industry-funded Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing, said yesterday that more than 90 percent of roofing membranes wouldn't make the cut. Asphalt, a key ingredient in shingles, is also on the list.
There are chemical-free options, but they are more expensive and inefficient, giving a designer the choice of switching to inferior products or avoiding the credit, Silvertooth said. That, he said, prompts the question: "Why is it in there?"
Supporters of the rating system say manufacturers are oversimplifying the choices for builders and overlooking the health risks posed by chemicals.
Robin Guenther, a principal and leader of the sustainable health care design group at the architecture firm Perkins+Will, said her firm decided several years ago to prepare its own list of substances to avoid in buildings, such as phthalate plastics, asthma-triggering substances and flame retardants.
It was a major undertaking, and the architecture firm needed help from outside consultants at Yale University's Center for Green Chemistry. If chemical credits are added to LEED, other firms will have an easier time of it, she said.
That list, which contains 25 types of chemicals, has led Perkins+Will to use plant-based linoleum instead of flooring that contains potentially harmful plastics. The firm sometimes uses rubber, which also contains chemicals, but those chemicals were deemed to be less worrisome. If a product won't function well, it won't be used, contrary to what the industry says, Guenther said.
"Clearly, the products also have to perform in buildings, and that's our first concern," she said. "We're always looking for safer products that perform well."
Guenther said the real value of the new LEED credit is that it shows there's demand for newer, healthier building products, some of which don't exist today.
Still, the proposal marked a major shift for the rating system, and experts say it wasn't fully embraced by fatigued architects and builders who had just started to feel comfortable with the last version of the rating system, from 2009.
Last month, USGBC decided to slow itself down. Saying it needed more time to get feedback, the group announced that it will wait until 2013 to finalize the new version of the rating system, which was originally dubbed "LEED 2012" and will now go by the name "LEED v4" (Greenwire, June 5).
Yet the criticism didn't abate on Capitol Hill. In fact, the pressure has only intensified since then.
Over the past few months, letters on green building have flitted around Capitol Hill, and congressional committees have held hearings to examine the basis for using various rating systems.
The week after USGBC decided to slow down its review, Louisiana Sens. Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) sent a letter to General Services Administration officials saying the proposed change "threatens jobs [and] will almost certainly cost taxpayers money" (E&E Daily, June 15).
Russell echoed that argument today at a House Oversight Committee hearing on "job creators still buried by red tape."
Supporters of LEED have chafed at those sorts of claims. They say USGBC's rating system imposes no red tape because it's voluntary. They also say there's no evidence that optional credits for disclosing chemical use and using safer alternatives -- worth a combined 3 points on LEED's 100-point scale -- would make buildings more expensive or cost Americans their jobs.
Greg Kats, president of the energy and green buildings consulting firm Capital E LLC, said that hasn't happened in Europe, which has had stricter disclosure rules for chemicals in buildings since 2007.
"Their chemical industry's twice as big as ours, so they've hardly suffered from the higher level of scrutiny and demand for healthy use of chemicals," he said. "But essentially, that's the claim being made here: that the federal government, the military and all these [nongovernment organizations] and corporations are not within their rights to have any say over chemical exposure in buildings."
There's plenty at stake in Washington because GSA is deciding which rating systems are suitable for complying with rules that require government agencies to house their operations in "high-performance" buildings.
Landrieu and Vitter say the government should stop using LEED unless the chemical credits are abandoned, despite the fact that the current review deals with the last version of LEED, from 2009, and that version does not include credits for avoiding chemicals.
The chemical industry has pushed hard for the rating system it has helped to fund, which is regarded by green building advocates as less strict on the use of chemicals and other products. That has frustrated some members of GSA's private-sector review panel.
Kats, who sits on the panel, noted that the Green Building Initiative has argued that its Green Globes rating system is just as good as or better than LEED. The industry-funded group has often cited a recent study by GSA that found that the design of Green Globes met more of the federal objectives for new buildings, but not existing ones (E&E Daily, May 7).
Despite that finding, the review panel found that LEED is the most proven and cost-effective tool for the federal government to use. It's possible to switch systems if there's a strong case to do so, but it would cause "great disruption," the panel recommended during a May 9 meeting with GSA officials.
Kats said that what was once a "fairly rational" process is starting to draw heavy lobbying from companies that see a potential effect on their bottom line.
"That's not how this is going to get decided, or should get decided," he said. "Maybe lobbyists will move us away from a rational process to one that's decided by who has the most money, but that would be unfortunate."
The next asbestos?
The recent criticism of the changes to LEED has surprised some users of the rating system, who aren't used to seeing industry groups attack it.
In the past, public health and environmental activists -- who tend to prefer hard-and-fast building codes and mandatory disclosure of chemicals -- have often labeled USGBC as too pliant to industry demands. Many of its key supporters were manufacturers and builders, who favored the voluntary rating system as an alternative to strict government rules.
Guenther, the architect, said she thought the chemical industry would accept the proposal at a time when activists are pressing Congress to update U.S. chemicals laws to ban certain products, limit certain uses and require more disclosures. She said that a voluntary rating system will steer the industry toward safer products and help businesses in the long run.
"As an industry, we need to be frank, and we need signals about the health and safety of building products," she said. "Look at asbestos. People put asbestos in their buildings because they thought it was a cheap form of fireproofing, but in the end, they paid on the way out with massive costs for removal. Products that contain chemicals of concern may be tomorrow's asbestos."
Still, the chemical industry remains sensitive to the concept of an outside group trying to decide which chemicals are dangerous. The proposed LEED credits rely on a database run by the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, Finland, that specifies the safety of chemicals in consumer products.
Keith Christman, the managing director of plastics markets at ACC, said during a recent interview that USGBC should stick to energy efficiency and water use because "they have no expertise when it comes to these types of materials."
The chemical industry group will stand firm as long as the credits remain in their current form, but it won't stop trying to work with USGBC on a replacement method, Christman said.
"If you look back at the comments, we commented on the third draft, and those comments were ignored," he said. "What's left for folks to do, besides make sure that others are aware of the impacts that this kind of approach would have?"