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Industry objects to green-gov standards

Jan. 7, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
The new $1 billion Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., has achieved LEED Gold certification.
The new $1 billion Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., has achieved LEED Gold certification. (Defense Department photo)

The Obama administration's effort to make government buildings more eco-friendly is drawing fire from Congress.

The recently passed 2012 Defense Authorization Act bars the Defense Department from certifying new buildings as meeting LEED Gold or Platinum status. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold and Platinum are the two highest ratings given by the U.S. Green Building Council to recognize environmentally sustainable construction. The Defense Department and other agencies typically strive to attain LEED status for all new facilities as part of the administration's green government initiative.

The 2012 Defense Authorization Act which President Obama signed into law Dec. 31 also requires DoD to submit a report to Congress analyzing the cost-effectiveness of LEED certifications.

At issue: wood. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., argues the Defense Department's allegiance to LEED standards discourages the use of domestic lumber.

"After completing this study, the Department of Defense should use credible standards that more accurately assess U.S. wood products," Wicker said in an email.

Critics of LEED say it favors the use of steel and concrete over sustainable wood in construction and renovation projects. LEED ratings award up to 100 points for locally sourced materials, energy use, indoor air quality and other categories. Use of sustainable wood earns only two points and only for furniture. Any wood used must also be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies wood from more than 50 countries.

In 2010, 79 lawmakers sent a letter to the Green Building Council objecting to what they said was the exclusion of domestic sources of wood from the LEED rating system.

There are other eco-friendly construction standards besides LEED. One is called Green Globes created by the Green Buildings Initiative (GBI) in 2005 that appears more favorable to the use of wood products.

But many agencies have already locked themselves into using the LEED rating system, said Erin Schaffer, vice president for federal outreach at GBI.

Bryan Howard, legislative director for the Green Building Council, said the LEED funding prohibition in the Defense Authorization Act is "irrational and misguided at best" because it puts up needless obstacles to pursuing energy-efficient buildings.

The federal government has 641 LEED-certified buildings and 3,954 in the certification process, according to the Green Building Council. Government buildings make up 27 percent of all LEED projects.

That's compared to about 200 federal buildings that have been rated using Green Globes.

Despite the funding prohibition, the Navy is moving ahead with its plan to certify all of its buildings as LEED Gold by the end of fiscal 2013. The Navy said it can do that because the law does not prevent it from certifying buildings as meeting basic LEED standards, and there would be no additional cost to certify them at the Gold or Platinum level. The Navy also argues it gets a positive return on its investment in energy-efifcient buildings. "These buildings are no more expensive to the government and are far more efficient," according to a Navy statement.

The Green Building Council's Howard said he expects there to be further challenges to the LEED rating system as outside groups try to influence the process.

Marco Giamberardino, senior director of the federal and heavy construction division of the Associated General Contractors of America, agreed. As the popularity of green construction continues to grow, outside groups will lobby Congress for more favorable treatment under various rating systems, he said.

"Part of this is preserving one's industry. And those folks are going to exercise their right to try to do what you can," Giamberardino said.

Nadine Block, senior director of government outreach at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a non-profit voluntary certification program primarily focused on domestic wood producers, which also has a voluntary sustainability rating system for wood, said agencies should rely on more than LEED.

"Having agencies take a critical look at their green building rating systems is a positive thing," Block said. She said SFI will continue to lobby Congress for a more inclusive approach to green ratings.

Corey Brinkema, president of the Forest Stewardship Council in the United States, a non-profit certification organization promoting sustainable wood across 50 countries, said the new law won't harm the LEED rating system because it has achieved wide adoption in the public and private sectors.

He said organizations will try to influence how products such as wood are certified as "sustainable."

"What we are finding is that some in the conventional wood industry feel threatened by that and are leaning on their political friends to try to fix the problem," Brinkema said.

This isn't the first time Congress has taken a swipe at environmental standards. House lawmakers voted in July to block the phase-out of the traditional incandescent light bulb under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which set new standards for energy-efficient light bulbs. The Senate, however, failed to follow suit.

Federal agencies are working to meet a 2009 executive order to make 15 percent of their buildings "green" by the end of fiscal 2015. To be considered green, a newly constructed building must use 30 percent less energy than a typical building of the same size. Renovated buildings must use 20 percent less energy.

Also, they must meet specific standards for water efficiency, recycling, indoor air quality and low-emission paints and sealants, among other things.

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