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It’s not easy going green: GSA seeks better standard

May. 12, 2012 - 09:58AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments

The government is reviewing how it will measure the “greenness” of new buildings for the next five years. And that has set off a skirmish among construction industry groups jockeying to sway the outcome.

Today, the government’s primary measuring stick is the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, which scores how green a building is based on everything from its construction materials to its proximity to mass transit. Buildings can be LEED certified or achieve even higher degrees of greenness at the LEED Silver, Gold or Platinum levels.

The General Services Administration, which manages most of the government’s building projects, requires that all buildings it builds be LEED Gold certified. Other federal agencies occasionally use another standard: the Green Building Initiative’s “Green Globes” system.

But various industry groups — and the lawmakers supporting them — are pressing GSA and other policy makers to make changes in how things are done. And the outcome will help decide how billions of dollars of federal construction money is spent over the next five years.

For example, PVC pipe manufacturers and the wood industry are two groups that would like to unseat the LEED system.

The PVC pipe manufacturers are upset that a LEED proposal would encourage construction companies to avoid using PVC pipes.

Dick Church, executive director of the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association, said his group plans on weighing in on the debate to show PVC is as environmentally friendly as any other pipe.

“It’s far superior from an environmental standpoint from other products such as steel or copper,” Church said, because it does not need to be extracted from raw metals and lasts far longer without corrosion.

The LEED proposal can damage the PVC industry unfairly, Church said.

His group supports the Green Globes certification standards, he said.

The domestic lumber industry also wants to see LEED toppled.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., arguing on behalf of the domestic lumber industry, has pushed the government to use alternatives to LEED, arguing that 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. To get LEED credit, 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.

Tom Talbot, CEO of Glen Oak Lumber and Milling in Kentucky and board member of the Hardwood Federation, said at a hearing last week that agencies should focus on the environmental costs of extracting minerals and metals when comparing construction materials to wood.

While LEED accepts only wood products certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, Green Globes does not rely on any one certification for sustainable wood, Talbot said.

Nadine Block, senior director of government outreach at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a nonprofit voluntary certification program primarily focused on U.S. wood producers, which also has a voluntary sustainability rating system for wood, said the government should be open to using multiple rating systems.

She said LEED is the only system that recognizes only one sustainable wood certification standard and that the federal government should avoid picking winners and losers.

Ward Hubbell, president of the Green Building Initiative, said GSA and the Energy Department should allow all certification systems that meet federal guidelines to compete for agencies’ business.

GSA has become too closely tied to LEED certifications, Hubbell said, and may not be open to allowing competing certifications.

“It’s really going to depend on whether GSA can come around to the reality that LEED is not the indisputable truth of the universe,” Hubbell said.

Lane Burt, the director for technical policy at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), said that GSA’s review five years ago decided LEED was the best system to use.

Several studies have shown that LEED buildings are more efficient than traditional buildings, Burt said, and USGBC is happy to compete with other ratings standards during the review process.

USGBC is always accepting new ideas for its LEED certification standards and incorporates those into its rulemaking process, he said. It is reviewing life-cycle analysis to see if the total environmental impact of materials can be incorporated into its standards in response to feedback from its members.

Rep. Paul Broun, chairman of the House Science Committee subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said at a hearing last week that he had concerns about the LEED system and its exclusion of products such as PVC materials and domestic wood.

The government should not rely too heavily on one rating system and must make sure that its standards promote decreased energy costs and increased efficiency, he said.

The Energy Department has avoided picking one certification standard so far. In 2010, the agency proposed a rule that would allow agencies to use any third-party standard that met Energy Department criteria.

Kathleen Hogan, the deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the Energy Department, said at the hearing that the new standards will be available for public comment before they are finalized.

Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said that construction companies are “agnostic” about green ratings systems.

“While each of the systems has unique requirements, our members by and large are confident that they can build structure to meet any and all of the rating systems’ requirements,” Turmail said.

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