For years the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design) certification has been the modern-day standard for environmentally conscious construction. Since 2000, thousands of buildings have received LEED silver, gold or platinum status, demonstrating design that satisfies high standards of “sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.” The General Services Administration (GSA) has required LEED certification for government buildings erected or renovated since 2006 and currently uses LEED 2009, the third version of the system.
This fall the GSA declined to approve the Green Building Council’s updated LEED system (LEED v.4.) for their use, which had not yet been officially launched. In addition to continuing to use the old LEED 2009 standards, the GSA approved another certification system, the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes, as an alternative for satisfying sustainability goals for government buildings. The decision capped a lengthy and heated dispute over how the government should encourage sustainable design, handing a victory to opponents of LEED v.4., who included chemical industry associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a bipartisan alliance led by Senators from Louisiana, home of the nation’s second-largest chemical industry.
The flashpoint for controversy was LEED v.4’s encouragement of projects that exclude certain chemical products with environmental and health concerns. Refraining from using products that include polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the most widely used plastic in building construction (3), and fluorocarbons earns credits towards LEED v.4 certification, but at the expense of forcing builders to find substitutes for common challenges such as plumbing, fire safety, and water damage prevention.
Last year 18 senators from both parties, led by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), wrote a letter to the GSA objecting that “the proposed LEED v.4 rating system is a significant departure from the previous version of the green building rating system, and could undermine the goal of improving energy efficiency by eliminating the use of dozens of approved materials.”
Landrieu’s letter and an amendment to the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill that she sponsored echoed the complaints of the American High Performance Buildings Coalition, which includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, and the Vinyl Institute. The American Chemistry Council objected that LEED v.4 had “strayed from its original mission of promoting energy efficiency and environmental performance … without regard to the availability, safety or effectiveness of alternatives,” said Scott Openshaw, a spokesman. “Ironically, many of the chemistry innovations that LEED v.4 seeks to eliminate actually enable the very efficiency enhancements, environmental performance and sustainability improvements that LEED purports to promote.”
The Vinyl Institute offered examples of efficiency enhancements using PVC in “products such as reflecting roofing membranes, energy-efficient windows, low-VOC wall covering and flooring, and others [that] can be used in building assemblies that qualify for LEED points.” The Vinyl Institute’s claim that the new credit will “penalize PVC or PVC additives without… life-cycle and risk-assessment science” raises the question: How can energy efficiency be achieved without the use of materials whose production (or destruction) releases carcinogens, large quantities of greenhouse gases, or other environmentally hazardous substances?
Yale Professor Paul Anastas, known as the Father of Green Chemistry, grappled with questions like that during fourteen years at the EPA, the last four of them as Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development. Anastas says that standards like LEED and Green Globes are just half the answer.
“Are efficiency standards going to get us where we need to be?” he says. “Or are we going to ask, ‘How do you get the kind of performance that’s exceeding our current products while avoiding the kind of tradeoffs that produce undesirable consequences, meeting environmental and economic goals simultaneously?’”
For him, green chemistry is the other half of the solution, finding materials that are sustainable at all phases of their life cycle. “Building is both a noun and a verb,” he says, “so the process of building is just as important as the building’s performance itself.”
For now, the U.S. government can meet its environmental building goals using two tracks, neither of which discourages the use of certain controversial chemicals. The GSA’s endorsement of Green Globes could also help the system become a national competitor to LEED. And even if the GSA adopts LEED v.4 in their next regular evaluation, Green Globes will likely remain an approved alternative that does not discriminate against these materials of concern.
1. About LEED. http://www.usgbc.org/articles/about-leed
2. LEED Building Information. http://www.gsa.gov/portal/category/25999
3. The PVC debate. FAQs. http://www.pvc.org/en/faqs/9/30